Inside the ICU

April 5, 2007 | By Ian Waldie | Creative

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The ICU, or Intensive Care Unit, is a part of all hospitals that thankfully few of us will see. Most of us have heard news reports of people who have been in tragic stories who have been “rushed to Intensive Care”. But what is this place? How does it work? Does it look like it does in House or Grey’s Anatomy?

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I was fortunate enough to be invited into the real world of the ICU to document the incredible work done there by the dedicated ICU staff nurses and doctors. The Intensive Care Foundation has an annual appeal from 10-23 April, to raise money and community awareness about what the ICU achieves, and the foundation asked me to come along to photograph a documentary piece so that seldom seen media images could be viewed by the widest possible audience. The foundation, and my contact within it, Monique Pockett, had arranged for me to visit 4 separate ICU’s over Sydney over a week.

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First stop was the Royal North Shore hospital (RNS). Within the RNS ICU I first met patient Gemma McHardy, a teenager who has been in the ICU for 3 months. Around her bed the walls and windows were covered with photos of her and her friends in happier times, get well messages, magazine clippings with photos of her idols. Directly above her bed pasted on the ceiling were photos of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Leonardo DiCaprio, and a handwritten poster saying “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better and better”. Gemma was due to go home “soon”, and it was clearly this fact that kept her bouyant as her mother Anne talked to her about school and fed her home made pumpkin soup.

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Throughout my visits to the RNS, Westmead and The Prince of Wales ICU’s, similar heroic stories emerged from patients and staff alike. Each ICU was very different physically, with the Westmead offering each patient a separate room, where their status was monitored from outside by dedicated nurses perched before monitors showing their vital signs, reams of paperwork on medication, history etc and the best diagnosis tool of all, a large window to observe through. ICU director at the Westmead Dr Yugan Mudaliar is the most ebullient man I have ever met, and I got the feeling that showing me through his ICU was a source of considerable and justifiable pride.

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At the Prince Of Wales, patient Joel Cabides had a disco mirror-ball hanging from the ceiling and a large whiteboard behind his bed on which was written “1 Blink = Yes; 2 Blinks = No”. Enough said. Even through all of this trauma, Joel smiled broadly at the arrival of a press photographer, an interesting diversion maybe, and his father Joel Sr. joked with him as he massaged his son’s hands as I took photos.

Nothing was going to prepare me for the scenes inside the Westmead Children’s ICU though. As the father of a seven month-old boy, I felt as though this one would be tough, but it was much harder than that. Three month-old baby girl Eva Cole, her bed space festooned with monitors, equipment, wires, slept peacefully as her mum Sophie kept vigil, stroking her face and feet as the ICU staff bustled by, checking on her and her mum as they went. In the next bed, four year-old Byron Campbell was quietly sitting up, blowing soap bubbles from a wand held by a physiotherapist. It turned out this was no mere boredom-relief activity but a wonderfully engaging part of his recovery process, helping his lungs recover as well as his mind as the bubbles floated across the ward. Ashley Walton, 14, was wheeled off to get a scan by porter Joe Borgia, who was wise-cracking all of the way, keeping patient, mother, and staff smiling all the way. Seeing these kids, watching them dealing with their situation, and their stoic parents masking their concern, my mind is constantly on my own family, and I understand what these parents must be thinking – that they would do anything to swap places with their child in pain.

Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Ian Waldie/Getty Images

With my week inside the ICU over, I relive the moments I encountered with the incredible patients and staff as I edit the pictures. As I edit them, I am amazed at some of the facts that the ICU foundation can boast. Out of the 148,000 patients admitted to ICU’s across Australia and New Zealand each year, 86% of adults and a staggering 97% of children survive, pure testament to the care they receive and their will to live.

Ian Waldie/Getty Images

And no, they don’t look like they do in House or Greys…they look real.

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  • Peter McCartney

    Great Blog from an old male nurse. Pictures tell a thousand words. Having worked in these area sometime ago it reminds me of some sad moments in life. But it also reminds me of the happy times when patients recover and move on to better times!