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Catherine’s Story

Admission to ITU: November 2009, unconscious for fourteen days

Cause: H1N1 Influenza (Swine Flu), Bilateral Pneumonia, Respiratory failure

Underlying Health Condition: Interstitial Lung Disease


I can remember having lots of dreams during my coma which, due to their violent and sexual content, caused me a great deal of anxiety. In these dreams I believed I had travelled to China and India.  As I lost all sense of time, I began to picture my children (aged seven, five and three at the time) as adults and felt overwhelming sadness that I had missed their childhood. The dreams became ever darker and eventually I believed that all my family were dead. The noises of the machines particularly affected me – they came to represent gunshots or things/people falling and crashing around me (even now, certain noises can make me feel anxious). As I regained consciousness, I became very agitated and it was necessary to restrain me to prevent me from dislodging the tubes and wires and harming myself. I wore mitts on my hands and my arms were tied to the bed. I also struggled to move my legs because my feet were weighed down by the heavy boots I was wearing to prevent my arches from falling. This phase was particularly terrifying because, in the context of the dreams I’d had, I became convinced that I was being held against my will. As I became more lucid, it became easier to understand my surroundings, but I continued to experience phases of utter confusion and fear over the course of several days. During this time, I relied on the reassurance of my husband who was almost constantly at my bedside.


When I was transferred from ITU to HDU I really struggled because visiting times were shorter. I felt disorientated and lonely. I found it difficult to differentiate between day and night and couldn’t tell the time (I believed the hands of the clock turned anti-clockwise), which increased my confusion. I couldn’t remember my address, phone number, date of birth or any other details and I can remember trying very hard to recall this information. Having been intubated, I only had a tiny voice and struggled to communicate, which increased my sense of isolation. Due to muscle wastage, I couldn’t feed myself properly and often spilt the food down my hospital gown.  I would say that the healthcare assistants didn’t seem to understand my needs or know how to help me. I often felt scared and helpless.  I subsequently moved to a general ward, however, since it was not a respiratory ward, staff struggled to operate my respiratory aids, e.g. assembling a nebuliser.  This made me feel quite vulnerable. Although much less confused by this time, I continued to feel extremely shocked by what had happened. I tried very hard with my physiotherapy exercises because I was desperate to go home. I felt very driven to recover my independence.


When I returned home, I was very weak and throughout each day I became so exhausted that I lost strength in my limbs and would have to crawl up the stairs to bed at night. Ultimately, I regained my strength through swimming regularly. Psychologically I struggled for some time. I used my ICU diary to piece together what had happened to me and to reach some form of acceptance. Nevertheless, I would say that I struggled to trust my judgement of situations for a very long time.  My dreams had been so vivid and intense, and had seemed so real, that sometimes I found myself questioning my perception of situations.  I sometimes had nightmares and even to this day periods of stress can cause me to have nightmares about that time.  About three months after I was ill, I began to lose my hair, I was told by my GP that this was caused by shock


I discovered ICUsteps Chester a number of years after my experience of Intensive Care. For me, chatting to others who had shared my experience was like finding the missing piece of the jigsaw. It enabled me to finally come to terms with what had happened.

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