Wellness Wednesday: How Am I a One-in-a -Million Outcome?

In her opinion column in the Sunday New York Times, Dr. Daniela J. Lamas writes about unexpected ICU turn-arounds, when the grim repetition of bad news is trumped by unanticipated good news:

… the one in a million outcomes, the patients who surprise and humble us.

Daniela J. Lamas, pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston

I am one of those patients. I dodged death on May 5, 2019, when I suffered a ruptured arterial aneurysm while on vacation in Amsterdam, barely making it into the ER as my heart stopped. I dodged it again after sailing through surgery a day later, and repeatedly over the next several weeks, as my organs took turns failing. Somehow, I survived.

As tempting as it is to focus only on life or death in the ICU, there is a vast world between survival and true recovery.

Daniela J. Lamas, pulmonary and critical care physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston

And here I sit in the patio of our home in South Florida two years and two months later, on this Independence Day, celebrating that rarest of miracles, full recovery. What made the difference? Being lucky enough to be taken to OLVG Hospital, for starters, where the staff were skilled, compassionate, and supportive. Being strong to start with. Trained by my early years to make the best out of any situation. And laughter.

Skill and compassion

The talented team of English-speaking doctors and nurses at OLVG hospital acted fast to stop the hemorrhage and never gave up as my body crashed, and they were also compassionate human beings that supported me and my exhausted family through those awful ICU weeks.

Support

My dear friend Anne, one of the nurses who most encouraged me in the weeks after my surgery, was so matter of fact about the inevitability of my complete recovery, so relaxed about my progress, that I never once doubted that I’d make it. My physiotherapist, Gemma, was sure I’d walk out of there. And I did.

Anne and her colleagues on 7A, OLVG Hospital, sent me this greeting a few weeks back. They are still in my corner.

Strength

It helped tremendously that I was physically fit. I danced in my 20s, developed a lifetime jogging habit, and taught exercise for the five years preceding that fateful trip. Six weeks of being motionless in the ICU sapped me of a quarter of my weight and the ability to move, but I had a surplus muscle and a love of moving to draw on. Eventually, it felt familiar. Then, good. Then, great.

Determination

I’ve never been particularly ambitious, but I’m very good at making the most of whatever circumstances I find myself in. I give credit to my upbringing in the Foreign Service. Learning how to chew and swallow again took days. Learning how to walk again took months. Full recovery took two years, and I continue to book an hour of my morning, every morning, to getting stronger every day.

Laughter

My love of a good community laugh has carried me over many a hurdle. I think I have to thank my Dad for that gene in my DNA, along with my passion for writing and my love of singing.

Words matter — a lot. Choose them carefully. Humor and wit matter — a lot. And puns are always good. And, music matters — sing it, play it, listen to it.

My sister, Susan Robb Amerson Hartnett, eulogizing our father, Robert C. Amerson in 2006

Lying inert in my ICU bed, unable to move and fighting for my life, I broke out into song — “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys. Although I don’t remember much of those weeks, I clearly recall hearing an ICU alarm marking that iconic beat — “Bah, bah, bah” (rest) “Bah, bah, bah” (rest) — and it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to pick up the tune, just as I did many times while teaching exercise with this fun music.

Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest). Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest).Bah, bah, bah, (rest) bah, Barbara Ann (rest)

Barbara Ann, by Fred Fassert, recorded by The Beach Boys in 1965

My sister and my daughter (who had flown in from the States) smiled at my husband. “That’s her,” my sister said, and joined in with the harmony. Within moments, my family and nearby nurses and doctors added their voices, all of them laughing.

Starting my next book

All of which has got me ready to begin the book about all this. Working title: “Singing in the ICU: How A Community of Strangers Saved My Life.” Or something along those lines, witty and musical and wordy as Dad would have wanted.

Stay tuned!

My father, Robert Amerson, and me singing in Caracas circa 1956
My father, Robert Amerson, and me singing in Caracas circa 1956

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