How ICU Survivors Are Haunted by their Dreams

The dark nightmares that take over the minds of terribly sick patients can become the happy dreams of recovery.

i had icu psychosis

As I was battling death in the intensive care unit of OLVG hospital in Amsterdam, I believed my dreams or, rather, my nightmares. I believed an evil nurse was torturing me in secret. I believed that the patient lying in the other bed in my room had thrown lye on the face of his daughter, scarring her for life. I saw the staff yell at him for being so evil and yell at his family for being enablers, throwing them out when they gathered to picnic on his bed. I whispered these revelations to my daughter, to my husband, to my sister. They had befriended these people and needed to know the truth of what was going on.

Of course, the truth was not at all what I thought. The ICU nurses were the picture of competence. The Turkish man in the next bed was desperately ill from a botched stomach-stapling procedure. His daughter Yasemin’s dark eyes and full lips sat I disturbed on her beautiful face. Her mother, brother, and the rest of the family had befriended my inconsolable husband when I lay in the ER bleeding to death. The friendship had become closer than family during the intervening awful days.

The delirium brought on by trauma and drugs put me into nightmares that bled through to my few minutes of semi-lucidity. I had ICU psychosis.

Covid patients suffer from icu psychosis

In The Plague Year, an extensive New Yorker piece on America’s experience with the coronavirus pandemic, Lawrence Wright touches on ICU psychosis in his description of COVID patient Chris Rogan. After being placed in a medically-induced coma and intubated for nine days, the 29-year-old told his wife that he’d been stabbed as a child. Just before he was intubated again, he felt certain he would die in the hospital. He didn’t wake up for 61 days, during which he believed he spoke with God. He survived, but when he finally left the hospital, he’d lost a leg to blood clots and the ability to move.

As he struggles to live with his impaired body, Chris Rogan clings to the belief that God spoke to him, psychosis or not.

Positive experience has overcome the psychosis

I didn’t experience death, a beckoning light, or God, just elaborate nightmares that seared indelible images into my brain. However, they no longer feel true. A critical part of my rehabilitation has been the accumulation of positive experiences that outweigh the bad dreams. The helplessness of the ICU has morphed into solid self-confidence as I engage in daily exercise. The black tunnel of despair has morphed into the blue skies of hope as the South Florida sun shines on my face. And the Turkish family we knew in the ER and ICU has become part of those new experiences, thanks to electronic media.

Yasemin gave us the good news through Facebook that her father has healed. She and her husband had a beautiful baby girl on America’s Independence Day. I spoke with them during the launch of my story Surviving Amsterdam in Kaleidoscope Wojo’s book, In Her Shoes. My husband sent a thank you card to the family matriarch whose warm empathy carried him through the dark days in the ICU. We heard that the card brought her to tears.

I am hopeful for the future

Although the rollout of the vaccine has had a bumpy start in Amsterdam and in Palm Beach County, we are confident that we — and our friends in Holland — will receive the life-restoring shot before long. When the pandemic is over, we hope to travel to Amsterdam to be with them all in person, or to welcome them to our sunny home for a tropical vacation.

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