how to not die: the i.c.u.

Ten years ago today (January 25, 2003), I fell 80 feet (24 meters) while rock climbing at T-Wall, a popular climbing site in Tennessee. The doctors said I might not live; when I did, they said I’d never be the same again. Today, not only am I “normal,” most people don’t even know this incident ever happened. This is part three of my story. (To read parts one and two, click here and here.)


4 a.m.

A scream. More of a growl, actually. Arrrr! Arrrr! Arrrrrrrr! The pirate a few rooms down was hallucinating again.

Footsteps echoed off the laminate floor.

Then, silence.

I could hear machines humming. My machines. Whirrrr. Whirrrr. Their green lights glowed in the dark. I pretended they were aliens.

I had to go to the bathroom. A call button hung to the right of my bed. This was for my nurse. With my good arm, I reached over. I missed. I tried again. This time, I pressed the button.

“Yes? How can I help you?” a voice said over the intercom.

*Seriously? Did she not remember I couldn’t talk?

I waited. An hour passed. Finally, at 4:06, the nurse came.

“What ya need, honey?” she asked.

“Bathroom,” I mouthed.

“What was that?”

“Bathroom,” I mouthed again.

“Ohhh, okay. Hold on.”

She slipped out between the blinds and came back with a bedpan. I arched my legs and she placed the plastic container beneath me. “Just holler when you’re done,” she said.

Oh, sure.

The bedpan was hard. I hated going to the bathroom. When I was done, I pressed the button. An eternity passed. Finally, as I was about to turn 100, she returned to wipe me clean and remove the bedpan. “Now get some sleep,” she said.

I looked at the clock. It was 4:13.

5:15 a.m.

“Good morning!” Bright light flooded the room. “How are you today?”

I squinted at the phlebotomist in the light.

He cleaned the injection site. “1, 2, 3, ouch!” A needle pierced my vein and red liquid flowed into the attached tube.

My left arm was black and blue thanks to him.

6 a.m.

“Hi, Jessica! Did you sleep okay?”


“Time for your chest X-ray.”

Oh, goodie.

The X-ray team wheeled a large machine into my room. Two technicians slid a board beneath my back and put a heavy radiation shield over my stomach. In the dark, I stared at the light. “Staaayyyy stilll,” a technician said. I stayed still. She and the other technician moved a safe distance away. Flash!

They looked at the computer. “Again.”

They repositioned the board. We repeated the scenario.

“That’s better.”

They pulled the board out from under my back. “Okay, hon, we’re done torturing you now.”

“. . .”

I breathed a sigh of relief as they left.

6:45 a.m.

The tiny window above my head was getting lighter. My chest was rattling. I fumbled for the call button.

“Yes, dear?” The nurse looked tired. Her shift would be over at 7.

I didn’t feel like talking. I motioned to my trache.

“Okay, sweetie,” she said.

A different nurse appeared. This nurse was young. She was wearing bright purple scrubs with flowers on them. “Well hello again,” she said. “Right on time.”

I looked at her.

She unhooked me from the ventilator and attached a suction tube to the cannula in my neck.

The cannula was a curved plastic tube that entered another tube just above my lungs; on the outside, it blocked the incision and connected me to oxygen. This was how I breathed. Periodically my lungs filled with mucus and had to be suctioned out. This is what she was doing now.


Parts used in a tracheostomy (image:

“Okay, cough.”

I coughed.


I coughed again.

“Keep going.”

I coughed and coughed and coughed. As I did, slimy yellow stuff began to ooze into the tube.

“Eww, it looks like snot,” the young nurse said.

Gee, thanks.

When I’d coughed up as much of the yellow stuff as I could, she put the suction tube away. She then removed the cannula and put it in a disinfecting solution. While it was soaking, she used q-tips to clean around the incision. The used q-tips were yellow, too. I closed my eyes.

“All done,” she said at last as she replaced the cannula and changed the collar around my neck.

I wondered, briefly, what I looked like.

“Thank you,” I mouthed as she reattached the ventilator.

“No problem, kid.”

She whistled as she walked away.

7:30 a.m.

Carlotta. My big black nurses‘ aide.

“Gooo’ mornin’, missy! Ain’t it a glorious day? The sun’s a shinin’ an’ I’m a singin’ . . . an’ look at you!”

She meant I was alive.

As she talked, Carlotta prepared a basin of warm soapy water at a sink in the corner of the room. It was time for my bath.

“I been to church on Sunday. The preacher—ohhh, he be soooo good! We was a singin’ and a prayin’ an’ the Lor’ came upon us . . .” Suddenly her voice became quiet. She looked at me mischievously. “. . . an’ we did the holy dance!” At that, Carlotta threw her hands in the air, splattering water everywhere, and began to wiggle. Her whole body jiggled as she turned in a circle. “Puh-raaaise the Lor’!” she said.

I wanted to laugh, but though her antics continued as she began removing my hospital gown—one arm first, then the other—I was distracted. Red and black patches attached to EKG wires were stuck all over my abdomen and chest. My stomach tube startled me. It felt strange to lie there, so exposed, in front of a total stranger.

Carlotta didn’t notice.

“I been a prayin’ for you, chil’,” she said. “Tha’ night, when I saw your daddy sittin’ sobbin’ on the floor righ’ there—” she pointed to a spot beside my bed, “I said to myself, ‘That chil’ is my chil’; I’m gon’ take gooo’ care o’ her. And, Lor’,’ I said, ‘this chil’ gon’ make it. You ain’t a takin’ her—noooo way.'”

Carlotta paused to wag a finger at the sky.

Now I really wanted to laugh.

Gently, Carlotta began to wash my body with a sponge. To wash my hair she poured water from a cup. When she was done, she patted me dry and helped me into a clean hospital gown. Last, she changed my bedding by rolling me from side to side.

“There now, don’t that feel bettuh?”

I nodded, then shivered.

Hol‘ on.” She slipped out the door and returned a moment later with a load of towels. They were fresh from the dryer.

With these heaped on top of me, I finally felt like I could fall asleep.

9:30 a.m.

I looked and looked. Where was she? The only thing that kept me going in the hospital was my mother. My father had been there earlier, but after my shoulder surgery, he’d had to go home to California.

Finally, around ten, she arrived.

“Hello, beautiful,” she said. She was wearing jeans and a thick black jacket. It was cold outside. “Did Carlotta take good care of you?”

“Yes,” I mouthed.

My mom patted my head. It was still wet. “Want me to dry your hair?”

She already knew the answer. She pulled a blow dryer out of her purse and plugged it in. Warm air flowed over my head and neck. She was careful not to brush my stitches.

2 p.m.

My friends were coming. I wanted to sit up.

My mom pulled my back brace out from a corner of the room. She undid its Velcro straps. The two ivory pieces—hard like bone—fell apart.

I rolled onto my left side. I would never be able to rest comfortably on my right side again. My mom placed the back of the brace behind me and helped me onto it. She then placed the front on top of me and cinched tight the straps. I felt like an oyster.

Now, to sit up.

We raised the back of the hospital bed. I was amazed by everything I could see from this angle.

Oh… Hurry up, guys! Hurry up!

11 p.m.

My friends were gone. I hadn’t been a very good host. Despite my excitement, the morning’s activities had worn me out. I was tired.

My mom had stayed as long as she could. She’d read to me and played music. Once I dropped off to sleep, she left. But now I was awake.

I was thirsty.

I pressed my call button. A few centuries later, my nurse appeared.

“Yes, dear?”

“Water,” I mouthed.

“I’m sorry, dear, no water tonight.”

“Ice?” I asked hopefully.

“No, not ice, either,” said the nurse.

I was devastated. “Why?”

“Try to get some sleep, honey,” said the nurse. And then she left.

I stared at the ceiling in the dark. I’d nearly memorized it by now. Suddenly, I had an idea. I glanced towards the sink. There were disposable cups there. If I could just . . .

Back brace or no, I had to try.

Mustering all the strength I had, I sat up. My spine felt weak. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed. The floor was about two miles down. I couldn’t turn back now. Carefully, I dropped off the bed. My legs were wobbly, but I was standing! I could do this. One foot first, then the other. Then the other. Then the other.

And then, suddenly, my world collapsed. My legs crumpled beneath me. I crashed to the ground.

Lying on my back in the dark, I started to cry. My aliens were laughing at me. They were making funny sounds.

My nurse had heard something. She hadn’t expected to find me on the ground. What was I thinking? Didn’t I know I could have killed myself?

She and another nurse put me back in bed.

And then they tied me down.

End of Part Three

*I was unable to talk due to my tracheostomy.



My early days in the ICU were difficult because no one knew if I would live. I had to be chemically paralyzed and placed on a tilt table because I needed every last ounce of energy just to survive.

My later days in the ICU were hard because I started to be more aware. As a head trauma patient, I was impatient and impulsive. I also had trouble focusing: nothing interested me. This meant that my days confined to my room with a window too high to see out of were absolute torture.

I did have friends and family from all over the country visit me. People prayed with my parents and came to my room when I was well enough. To all of you, thank you. It is because of you that I survived.


My parents and I on my 19th birthday—the day before I was released from the hospital. Unfortunately (or fortunately, however you want to look at it), I don’t have any pictures from my time in the ICU.


My college buddies being goofy on my birthday. It’s because of these guys (and many others) that I am alive today.


71 thoughts

  1. Hello Jessica. I tried to write an appropriate comment. Tried thrice and deleted thrice. I guess sometimes no words are enough.

    A big salute to your grit and courage. And yes, “ Puh-raaaise the Lor’! ”
    god bless!

  2. I found this last part perhaps the most fascinating. I am always curious about how people manage to not go crazy when immobilized and in the same position for weeks at a time. It made me feel claustrophobic to hear about your experience in your hospital bed. I loved how your Mom was there for you with the hair dryer, the games, the music, the know how. I am curious to know what you think was changed the most in you from this experience. Perhaps too hard to answer.

    • Ahh, that part will come, my friend. That part will come. It’s funny, though. Except for my physical health, and coming to the realization that I am not, in fact, invincible, the experience didn’t change me so much as many people seem to expect. I came out on the other side very much the same girl who went in.

  3. Resilience. Strength. Hope. Love. Somehow, Jessica, you managed to combine these important character strengths to to bring you through this grueling trial. You are a winner and a survivor, worthy of the highest respect and admiration of all those that know and love you. Not to mention the deep gratitude your community feels for your determination to survive. Now you are enriching us with your talent for writing that keeps us looking, eagerly for your next post. I love you Jessica.

    • Karen,

      Thank you. I feel so unworthy of your comment. To this day, I feel on ordinary girl who went through an extraordinary ordeal. I’m glad I lived because I LOVE to write, and writing is a good way to share this experience. The experience has also given me greater insight and empathy for people going through similar situations. Being in the ICU is not something I would wish on anyone.

      Thank for you reading. I love you, too.


  4. Hey Jess,
    While reading this I had to keep in mind you turned out the way you did (10x stronger, grateful and absolutely stunning, that is), that made it okay to read. Such an immense struggle you wouldn’t not even wish upon your biggest enemy. I admire you for taking this step, sharing your story and exposing yourself to the world.
    Did publishing in book ever cross your mind? There’s many people out there that could find support in your story.

    Keep it up.

    • You are too sweet. Yes, people have told me I should write a book. Maybe someday I will. The difficult part is that much of this story I don’t remember, and the day-to-day life of a patient in the ICU or recovering from an accident like this is actually very monotonous. I left a few things out of this post because I myself was getting bored with my story. :P But I’m still keeping it in mind.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • Now there’s a true statement! Yes, it is something to look back on, and I am grateful for it, honestly: it has enabled me to empathize with others going through similar situations. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I can’t wait to check out your site, as well!

  5. Wow, there’s so much in here about the ICU that I can identify with. Reading your account vividly reminds me of that terrible feeling of being strapped to a bed, not really knowing what is ACTUALLY going on and seeing people come in and out of the room. Great description of a clearly devastating experience -AB

    • Thank you, Arash! Yes, being in the ICU is mostly horrible. It seems we are both very active people and the thought of being stuck in one room for more than a month is in itself stifling! It’s good to talk to someone who can relate. Relating to others is one of the good things I took away from my accident.

    • Thank you! Yeah, it’s not fun. I hope I never have to go back. It’s definitely different when you’re in the patient’s shoes… Thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad you’re okay! I’ll be back by your site soon! Best regards.

    • And I am thankful to you for reading! Yes, Carlotta was a doll. I should go back to Chattanooga to see if I can find her. I will never forget her…

      I loved telling my story. I’m glad others could relate to/liked it, too. :)

  6. Again, a remarkable story, Jess. This reminds me of an Arabic proverb that says: La tafrahu bil ghanny war raja’ wa la taghattamu bil faqri wal bala, fainna dzahabu yujarribu binnar wal mu’minu yujarribu bil bala’, which basically means ‘Don’t be happy with wealth and comfort, and don’t be unhappy with poverty and sufferring because gold is tested with fire and the optimistic is tested with sufferrings or trials.’

    The fact that you survived the accident and manage to live a great life shows the great character and determination you have. Amazing! :-)

    There’s got to be a divine reason for your survival. Have you figured out that yet?

    • Thank you. I like that proverb. I’m not sure what it means that I survived. Mostly, I feel like a wandering soul like everybody else. But, yes, I suppose it has something to do with my strength and character that I am still alive. I’m also hoping it has something to do with my passion for writing. Thank you, again!


  7. Glad you lived to tell the tale! You are so blessed to have loved ones all around to help you heal, and Carlotta’s a real angel. Your experience fills me with hope. Have an awesome life Jess! ♥

  8. hi, i just came across your blog and am have glad to read your posts. your story is incredibly inspiring. it’s amazing that not only you survived, but also that you lived to write about it. i’m really blessed to have read it because its good for me to hear the patient perspective. the hospital , esp. the ICU, can be a cold, scary, sterile place..but it sounds like during your time there that there were a few staff who gave you good care, and that’s reassuring.

    • Yes, the people who choose to work in medicine are truly amazing. I would never want to be a nurse, but I’m glad there are people who do because they are so important in hospital care and in a patient’s experience there. Being in the hospital is never fun, but the smile of a nurse or doctor can go a long way in making a patient feel better.

      So glad you find my blog, too. I’m eager to check out yours, as well! I really, really like your title: Searching for Substance. That, to me, is what life is all about. Thank you for commenting!

  9. Inspiring story. Something I get from it is that this is not like those stories of survival where it is a matter of willpower, at least not on the part of the survivor. Your own willingness to pull through seems as natural as breathing; there was never any doubt in those moments of cognizance. It was other people fighting on your behalf, when you were not aware, it was their will, engaging in terms of faith and love to make it heaven’s will that this would not be the end but a new beginning–To Carlotta, you were not just your father’s child, your mother’s child, and your brother’s sister: you were Carlotta’s chil’. I like the way you show so much gratitude to those who made it their job to pull through on your behalf. “Puh-raaaise the Lor’!” Great job.

    • Thank you so much! Of all the sections of this story, I think this one is my favorite. Thank you for reading. And you are dead on in your interpretation. It was others, not me. And I am grateful.

  10. I couldn’t have said it better than 1gdboy. I love your description of Carlotta, and being born and raised in Tennessee, being accustomed to people with her charm and powerful being it made my heart smile. Your description of her reminds me of home and how I miss it. You are one strong woman, and I continue to go through your writings with anticipation!

    • Thank you so much. Your interest in past posts means a lot. I put a lot of effort into everything I write!… It’s nice to meet someone from Tennessee! That whole area is close to my heart. Carlotta was an angel, and, yes, there are a lot of good people in the South. I miss it. Thanks again.

  11. I thought it was only fair to respond to your blog after you have read and commented on mine. wow, what a read! What a story you have! So glad I could read it from you – and not from those you left behind. God certainly knows how to “restore what the locusts have eaten.” (Joel 2:25) It looks like He has restored you on many levels after such an experience. Keep writing! :)

    • Thanks, Rod. Yes. As I said, most people don’t notice at first glance, and sometimes even long after that, that this ever happened to me. I am not the same as I was before the accident. In many ways, by God’s grace, I am better. Thanks so much for stopping by and reading. I was truly touched my what I found on your blog. I’m happy to connect. :)

      • Very sweet of you to say. Thank you. Most accidents are never accidents in God’s economy. And most of us are never the same afterward…. that too seems to be God’s plan. Like Jacob’s hip, we often are left with a limp – for the glory of God. Hope you are well!

      • A limp for the glory of God. I like that. God really does know what He is doing. The trick is to learn to trust Him who we cannot see… My atheist friends cannot do this. Hmm… Hope you’re well, too. It’s almost Christmas. Merry Christmas!

  12. I’ve never met her but I think Carlotta is wonderful and all nurses should have a beautiful bubbling personality like hers.
    As with all the rest I am still completely stuck on finding the right words for what to say..

    • Yes, Carlotta was wonderful. And no worries about trying to find words! Being a trauma patient in the ICU is no fun. I just told it like it was… I think it’s good for people to hear what it’s like to be on the other side of the hospital bed. Gives all of us better perspective. :)

  13. I’ve known nurses like Carlotta. One of them saved my mother’s life. There many nurses who just do their job, and I can’t fault them for being average. But when my mother was in ICU for the third time in three years, and was utterly depressed, a magic nurse whispered to her, “You can do two things from here on out. You can work your way slowly down into the ground, or you can decide to take off and fly.” It literally gave her the will to live, and fight to heal, and these days… she soars.

    Thanks for sharing this story. Your prose is so authentic – as stark but also quietly, vaguely hopeful as the ICU is. The part about your mother drying your hair brought tears to my eyes. She must have been so desperately worried.

    • Oh, thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. Yes, Carlotta was truly an angel. My parents knew that when she was taking care of me, I was in good hands. I’m so glad your mother had a nurse like that, too… And thank you for the kind comment about my prose and the comparison to the starkness of the ICU. I hadn’t really thought about that, but there is truth to that parallel… I worked hard on this part of the story. It is one of my favorites… And that the part about my mom and the blow dryer brought tears to your eyes! Wow! All I can say is thank you!! My mom *was* worried, but at least by this point in the story she knew I was going to survive. :)

  14. Reblogged this on shift and commented:

    For those of you who’ve been following along . . . “The I.C.U.” is part three of my near-death rock-climbing story. This is my favorite of all of the sections and shows most clearly what it is like to be a very very sick patient in the ICU.

  15. So glad you had good caretakers. So glad you had Carlotta to direct your Guardian Angels. Seems like she was a saving grace in terms of your morale. Aside from your family and friends. Can’t wait for part four.

    • Thank you, Marie! I sure hope so. I hope He’s using me right now. I’ve been on a journey of self and other discovery for a long time now. My blog and friends like you have shown me that it hasn’t all been going to waste. At least I hope not!

      Bless you, too!

  16. I’m always interested to hear your tales of the accident and recovery. Yours was a lot more harrowing as far as the physical injuries are concerned but I guess at a basic level, paralysis, brain trauma, and coming back from near death is all the same.

    The hospital stays are the same. The boredom, the tests, being woken up at all hours of the night to be jabbed and medicated.

    Even more I find it interesting to see how people react to my story. I can tell they feel some empathy but they have nothing to compare it to because they see a normal person in good shape standing in front of them. So they can’t understand that I was 30 pounds lighter and had to have people assist me because I could not do basic things that we take for granted.

    Sadly for me, my time came at an odd place in my life. It really sorted out some friendships for me. A few of my friends drove me places and took me out of my house. Others just visited me a few times in the hospital. One friend told me that seeing me in the hospital was to much and he hated going so I gave him a pass.

    Well, it is good book material. I just need a few chapters to conclude so I can pen the happy ending.

  17. You have (and had) such great people around you…it is neat to see the appreciation for them in your writing. The photo of you with your parents is priceless. You look really cute with your parents, and they seem so happy that you ‘made it’. Can’t even imagine the pain and helplessness they faced.

    • Yes, I know my accident was very hard on my parents. They were glad to have made it, and my accident did unite my family in a strong way for a period of time. I remember sitting in that chair in that brace so well. Hard to believe it was as long ago as it was.

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