A Tour of the Intensive Care Unit (ICU)

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear …
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

—Alan Seeger, I Have a Rendezvous with Death

The Intensive Care Unit is an uncomfortable place. It is where the sickest patients in
the hospital reside. Because many of the patients require emergency medical interventions or close monitoring, the layout resembles that of the emergency department (ED). Patient rooms encircle a nurse’s station where computers sit on a long table. As in the ED, each room is filled with machines
projecting vital signs, EKG tracings, IV fluid rates, and other information towards the physicians and nurses. And the nurses in “the unit” (as it’s
commonly referred to) are always active, checking in on patients throughout the day and night.

There are many different types of intensive care units: some for patients with heart issues (cardiac ICU), others for patients with neurological issues
(neuro ICU), pulmonary or general medical issues (medical ICU), surgical issues (surgical ICU) and cancers (oncology ICU). What we see in each unit,
however, is equally disturbing. And what follows are the some of the things one might see (and which I have seen) in different ICUs over the course of a

Image via Shutterstock

In the neuro critical care unit, one patient lies unconscious with a massive and deadly brain bleed. In another bed across the room, a patient with a rapidly expanding
brain tumor cries out in searing pain from a headache. In the cardiac intensive care unit, a patient, hours after receiving a ventricular assist device (VAD), a device which helps the heart’s ventricles pump out
blood after being weakened by disease, receives chest compressions from a nurse as he goes into cardiac arrest. Another unconscious patient in the far
corner of the room is on ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, after
having massive heart and lung failure. ECMO takes blood out of the venous system, oxygenates it in a machine and then pumps it back into the arterial
system, thus bypassing the heart and the lungs. In the normal circulatory system, blood goes from the veins into the right side of the heart and
subsequently to the lungs where it is oxygenated, flows to the left side of the heart and is pumped into circulation to nourish the body’s tissues. ECMO
temporarily maintains circulation until the patient’s heart and lungs can function on their own.

In the oncology unit, a middle-aged cachetic patient lies face-up in the bed, staring at the ceiling while fungal and bacterial infections cause his blood
pressure to drop and heart rate to increase. Despite the medications used to prevent these infections in cancer patients with very low white blood cell
counts, sometimes the microbes sneak by. And because chemotherapy used to treat cancer destroys white blood cells, the cancer patient has nothing left with
which to fight off the infection. Even the most minor bacterial invasion can be fatal for these patients, as it eventually was for him. Meanwhile, in the next room, another
patient had just passed away and her family crowded around her bed sobbing and mourning their loss while holding the expired patient’s
hand, hoping for the return of warmth.

Unusual sounds percolate from room to room in these dank areas of the hospital. Most noticeably, IV poles beep
constantly as they run out of their fluids or medications. Cardiac monitors sound alarms as patient heart rates dip too low, rise above a normal level, or register abnormal
rhythms. Some patients moan and scream, losing all sense of time and of themselves. Or, perhaps they curse and threaten nurses while withdrawing from
alcohol. Others vomit and pass gas. Some patients demand the impossible: “get me out of here!” or “leave me alone!” Sometimes patients need to be strapped
down to the bed because they pull out their IVs as they wail and moan and thrash about. During the day, minimal light shines into the unit and it is
tainted by the sickness and suffering which pollute the air and tint the windows. Foul smells, which I wrote about here, are most potent in the ICU. Many ICU patients,
though washed by nurses, have not bathed in weeks. The stench of sweat, stool, and blood permeates the unit when nurses change patients’ diapers,
suck accumulating mucous out of patients’ mouths, and clean up blood-stained sheets.

And if you think it’s bad for providers, imagine what patients experience. The ICU must feel like a kind of hell on earth. Sleep is rare when your
neighbors expectorate, choke, vomit, and shout, and nurses and physicians constantly wake you up, draw blood from your veins, and examine you to ensure your
mind still functions correctly. Some patients can’t eat or drink because they need surgery (it is safer to put patients under anesthesia for surgery when
they have not eaten because food will not come up from the stomach and choke the patient or travel into the lungs while they are unconscious) and so they go to bed hungry and
thirsty. A patient may even go to sleep not knowing whether he or she will wake in the morning. You may be one of those who
has a rendezvous with death tomorrow; you may be one of those who survives; you may hang on by a thread for weeks. Who would ever want to end up in an

And yet, it is in the ICU that patients receive the most fastidious care. Nurses watch over only one or two patients and thus can keep a close eye on them.
Physicians trained in the art of emergency procedures, like intubation, are always around
and watchful. Nobody will be more attentive to your medical needs than an ICU team, which monitors every sign of life you emit: breaths, heartbeats,
skin color, blood pressure, electrolyte levels, blood counts, infectious disease cultures from your urine to your spinal fluid. The advantage of being in
the ICU is that you receive the care that you need even if it is in a frightening environment. I hope I never have to be there, but if I am severely ill at
some point in my life, the ICU is the place I would choose to be.

Olfactory Adjustments

There’s no question that one of the most difficult things to get used to about the hospital is the smell — or, rather, the smells. This is especially true on a surgery service where many patients undergo multiple operations. Some need a leg or foot amputated. Others need open abdominal surgery and can’t control their bowel movements afterwards. Some patients’ intestines cannot absorb fat, leading to oily stools which give off their own distinct and foul odor. And still others have abscesses, or deep bacterial infections, which need to be cut and drained. It’s impossible to know how to react to the offending smell. Mostly, in the presence of these stenches, I control my desire to run from the room and, stoically, attempt to breathe through my mouth. But the smells are potent and dehumanizing. Empathy for these patients is difficult to find when one’s visceral desire is to sever the olfactory nerve which transmits smells to the brain. One encounter in particular is burned into my memory.

The Emergency Department had called the surgical team to see a patient who had a deep abscess. An abscess initially develops with some kind of break in the skin: an insect bite or a cut. And these infections are usually caused by specific bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus, though other bacteria can be involved. Our body’s immune cells wall off the infection, thus creating a pocket of pus and inflammation. Because it is walled off, antibiotics can’t reach the site of infection, so the only treatment in most cases is an incision of the abscess, draining of the pus, and allowing the incision to heal. If the abscess goes untreated, the infection, despite being walled off, can still spread. Some of these bacteria infect and consume flesh and produce gas as they disseminate.

The patient in the Emergency Room had a severe abscess that was far advanced. He had noticed a fever and some tenderness and redness in his lower abdominal area a week earlier but had not thought much of it. As the week went on, however, this area of redness grew and he decided to come to the ER. I felt awful for this young man who had assumed whatever this was would go away.

On entering his room, the smell hit me. There is nothing comparable to it. It took every effort to restrain myself from coughing — my sympathetic flight response had been turned on: my heart began to beat faster, I began to sweat, and I wanted to run. Never in my life would I have guessed that such an uncontrollable visceral reaction could occur because of a smell.

Alas, this seems to be a common theme throughout the history of medicine. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, volunteered as a nurse during the American Civil War and wrote Hospital Sketches, a compilation of reflections on her time in the hospitals. She explains exactly how it feels to deal with the potent smells: “The first thing I met was a regiment of the vilest odors that ever assaulted the human nose, and took it by storm. Cologne, with its seven and seventy evil savors, was a posy-bed to it; and the worst of this affliction was, every one had assured me that it was a chronic weakness of all hospitals, and I must bear it.”

Our patient’s skin in the affected area was lucid. I could peer through into his body and I watched as air bubbles and pus percolated in the tissue. Because of the diffuse infection, he had to be taken to the operating room immediately in order for the dead tissue to be cut out. This was the only possible treatment — even with the medical miracles we possess, the scalpel is often still the best treatment.

In the operating room (OR), we put our masks and gowns on and the nurses coated the front of our masks with Starburst-scented cream to overpower the stench. We were like Alcott: “…armed with lavender water, with which I so besprinkled myself and premises.” Four of us — two medical students and two upper-level surgical residents — huddled over the patient’s body, cutting away skin and fat and flesh as warm pus poured out of the infected area, which overpowered the smell of Starburst, rendering our substitute for lavender water completely useless. But, there was no “out” here, no excuse to leave the OR. It had to be done, as the situation, in Alcott’s words, “admonished me that I was there to work, not to wonder or weep; so I corked up my feelings, and returned to the path of duty, which was rather ‘a hard road to travel’ just then.”

Thankfully, the patient ended up being ok — no vital organs were touched by us or by the bacteria. We had come very, very close to the inside of the pelvis with its reproductive organs, but all was safe and well. However, the smell lingers in my memory. Now, whenever I encounter an unpleasant smell in the hospital I compare it to the abscess. No smell is quite as awful and dehumanizing as the shock of the first one. Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of it that caught me. And, of course, I remember Alcott and what she must have faced in an understaffed, overburdened Union Army hospital in 1862. Her words admonish me that I am here to learn and help where I can and not to wonder or weep.