Just a few hours after a major abdominal surgery, I was now recovering in the ICU. Rarely was I alone during this week in the hospital, but in this moment, I was. It was black behind my window’s blinds and the evening had set in, with only one dim light on in my sterile room. There was a stillness and strange moment in the air, the unwanted and dark feeling of anticipation, something unknown around the corner.
Seconds later, my body began convulsing. Not any kind of seizing I had ever felt before. The kind where my entire body involuntarily buckled and forcefully squeezed into itself pulling my half numb and helpless parts almost into a fetal position. A few seconds pass, again and again, like contractions every minute or so, more seizing. Suddenly, every part of me, down to the bone, turned into an inferno. Again, nothing like heat exhaustion from the outside in or even a 104F fever from the inside out. Consumed with an unusual, wildfire inside, I was now internally blazing hot, convulsing, in the dark. In response, my heart rate monitor begin to beep and blare, faster and faster. Then my respiratory monitor followed.
I was in too much pain to reach for the call bell for a nurse. I tried a few times anyway with tears welling up in my eyes. I needed help, badly. Though it was inches away, there might as well have been a chasm between us. Finally, nurses rushed in answering my monitor’s call.
And before I go on, let me paint a more vivid picture for you. I’m 31 years old at the time. About 1-2 years prior, I went through a divorce, so not only was I alone in the room, but I was still adjusting to doing life on my own. I just had my abdomen cut wide open, 10” across, in the shape of a mountain guided by the silhouette of my rib cage. This surgery was necessary for my healing and recovery.
Unable to move on my own, I’m lying in the hospital bed, with 27 staples holding my bruised belly shut, pulse ox on my left index finger, an IV in my left wrist and one in my neck’s left jugular vein, a JP drain (tube inserted into my lower left abdomen), a urinary catheter, compression devices squeezing both legs to help prevent blood clots, and an epidural, unleashing much needed doses of Fentanyl.
For a gal who hardly takes Advil, Fentanyl, an opioid about 100x stronger than Morphine was now coursing through my veins. And to my surprise, and not my delight, I wasn’t buzzed out of my mind like I’d hoped for this week. Instead, I was fully present and so alert during this time, I joked while in the hospital, I could have written an essay.
So six+ years later, I am writing about it, recalling with the same clarity as the day I experienced it. I’m writing because this moment is still one of my greatest teachers. And I hope sharing it, lets this hard won lesson live on to serve others in some small way.
With my heart and respiratory monitors screaming, I’m now surrounded by as many people as will fit around my bed. My gown is quickly ripped wide open. With a blinding bright light overhead, I’m laid bare, more naked and vulnerable than I ever thought one could be. The hospital staff worked like they were trying to set a record, placing sticky pads on my chest and abdomen, measuring, monitoring, which only intensified the already terrifying moment. I tilted my head left with the only energy I could muster to watch my monitor soar even more.
It was then that I closed my eyes, on purpose, shutting out the physical world around me. I made everyone and everything disappear for the moment and started to do only one thing, breathe. I knew my body was fragile right now. But my mind and spirit, they were not. They were strong and fierce and present. I trusted they could rise to the occasion. Or rather, I trusted really out of an act of sheer desperation.
I took a deep breath, saying inside my head, “peace and calm… peace and calm”. Inhale. Exhale. Within seconds to maybe a minute, I was interrupted by the lack of beeping in my monitor. My heart rate had come down. I remember feeling relieved, in shock, in awe, and impressed by this sort of super power I had in a seemingly weak and helpless moment. I had always known breath is powerful having gone to a natural health university and dabbled in meditation in the past, but now… I was real-time observing the power of breath under fire.
Opening my exhausted eye lids, I looked at the room around me again and was immediately overwhelmed by the chaos. I felt panic flood my system and heard my monitor speed back up in the danger zones in a matter of seconds, beeping frantically, again amplifying the terror I already felt enough of. Quickly closing my eyes again, I blotted out what was happening in my room and to my body. Inhale, deep breathe, slow…. peace and calm….. exhale…. steady and slow… peace and calm. Over and over. My heart monitor, once again, serving as a barometer of the breath, responded with beeps farther and farther apart until levels normalized, about a minute or two later. Time is estimated here. It’s so hard to recall exactly when floating in and out of this space.
I did this 2-3 times… and what I remember next I can liken to a tornado that passed through the room. It departed as quickly as it came. It swept through mightily closely that night, but didn’t touch down and stay (thank God).
The wires and pads were removed. My gown and blanket, restored. The monitors now sleeping peacefully. The nurse’s call bell was placed directly under my left palm. The lights were dim again. I remember one of my dearest friends sitting quietly in the corner of the room in the chair on my right and rotating between that and the chair on my bedside, like a watchman on my wall (thank God for friends like this). That was the first night.
Little did I know, two days later, my pain pump would mechanically fail and I would need to breathe my way through most of the day that Sunday. When they say, ‘breathe through the pain’… that’s what I did, counting seconds and minutes for hours in utter silence until the machine was fixed. It was understood that no one in my room was allowed to speak. All the energy I had was spent on focused breathing. Again, an act of desperation that carried me through until my pain pump was working again. My hand hugged that little button closely, my thumb pressing down precisely every 15-minutes, dispersing bursts of cool liquid relief down my spine.
It was in those moments in the hospital in April of 2013, for the first time, I experienced the most beautiful and indomitable spirit within and the power of my breath to access it. A few tears stream just writing this. Sometimes, I still can’t believe I witnessed this was such clarity. I am forever in awe of the body, the mind, the spirit, the breath. I bow down. Literally. Its power is beyond my knowing, yet something in me knows it well.
I didn’t study breath work. I wasn’t a regular meditator, yogi, or any of those things. I still don’t know the best words to describe this and I’m sure there are words out there more eloquent than mine. I just know that tapping into a deeper source within, I realized there is something wiser and stronger in me (in all of us) that is present, in a primal way. It’s always been there, hardwired in, whatever your belief system may be. It will always be there, as the most powerful and effective tool we have within us, even in this modern day. And it’s so forgiving and kind; again, you don’t have to have years of practice or study. Though I can only imagine the world that would open to us if we did do it consistently, with more intention, and really leaned into its full potential. It can be in moments of joy, tackling physical feats, or moments of pain or panic — it’s right there for us, always.
Never will I underestimate this mighty current that connects body to mind to spirit, earth to heaven and heaven to earth.
Photo by Anika Horn, sunsetting over Elba Island in Italy, 2019