I Needed an ICU Doula
That “circle of life” is far less romantic than in animated movies with lions in them. There is more sadness and helplessness than drama as you watch a loved one suffer.
I spent several weeks last Winter in the ICU (intensive care unit) at my local hospital watching a family member go through a pretty awful health issue.
There were several instances of misunderstandings, miscommunication, and skewed expectations despite the wonderful and well meaning staff.
It was all new stuff for my family and me. I had never even stepped foot in an ICU before or seen first hand the way that Western medicine handles acute health problems.
I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t understand how hard it would all be. I was shocked by some of the emotions that were elicited and I didn’t really know who to talk to about it. I felt like I didn’t know much of anything. Internet searches proved horrifying and my other loved ones were just as sad and frightened as I was.
I’ve spent the last 10 years or so immersed in birth work. I have taught countless birth classes. I took a doula training. I have written thousands- maybe millions of words on the subjects of birth, babies, and family.
I have to admit, it feels a little silly every now and again when I’m introduced as someone who “teaches birth classes.” It didn’t always feel that special.
This whole ICU experience, however, has shown me that the things that birth workers do, really matter.
In fact, they matter a lot.
A childbirth educator has a simple job- she teaches. She takes pertinent information, gathers it, and shares what matters most with her couples. She teaches them about the professional vocabulary of birth. She helps them learn about the process of labor. She dispels fears as she teaches so that her couples can appreciate the inherent beauty of new life rather than muddle through unknown waters.
A doula has a simple job- she holds space.
She watches the process of birth. She sees your power and your weakness and she stands as a witness of it. She is familiar with the hospital and the inherent rituals therein. She can help you adjust to what is common for their staff but very new for you. She is there to listen as you navigate and take in this huge and life-changing event.
Through this experience I have felt a new empathy for those who have gone through something similar. Now when someone says, “My dad is in the hospital,” I won’t just offer a quick, “Oh, I’m sorry.” I’ll actually FEEL something and my, “Sorry,” is different. It’s more heartfelt. It’s more than words- it’s a memory.
I think I always respected health care professionals, but my respect has certainly grown. The care that was received was a wonderful thing- almost awe inspiring.
So many people, so much education, so many hours spent meeting, learning, and deciding what could be done, for one person. There was attention to detail. There was thought for the family and concern for our worries. There was constant request for consent and explanations of what was happening.
They were good people.
But in the ICU, as with birth, there is more needed than just facts or education about procedures.
We need people to talk to. We need someone to hold space. We need someone to listen. We need someone who is familiar with the great unknown that we are facing, who can help us through it- even if that just means giving us a safe place to cry.
Life is hard. Birth is hard. Death is hard. It’s all kind of hard, isn’t it!? We all need some help.
I’m so grateful to do this work that sometimes seems so small or is considered, “women’s work.”
I knew that doulas mattered before this experience in my own life. I believed in what I preached. But having walked the path of helplessness in the ICU, even when accompanied by loving family members and incredible health care professionals, I feel like now I really, “get it.”
It was helpful to have family there. It was helpful to have a great staff, just like it is for your birth! There is, however, a difference, when you have someone there who can translate the rituals, the language, and the procedures. Someone who has done this over and over is invaluable.
“Holding space,” is more than a new-age phrase to sell a profession with a weird name.
A doula’s role is truly revolutionary and deeply helpful. It can profoundly alter an experience from frightening to beautiful.
There aren’t ICU doulas. But there are birth doulas. And what a blessing they must be in the lives of those they serve.
Sarah Clark is a Birth Boot Camp instructor, doula, and instructor trainer. She makes her home in Northern California with her husband and four children.