H was a rancher from a small town in the middle of nowhere. A town surrounded by fields and farms and populated by hard working folk and cows. Lots of cows. He had really unfortunate genetics and suffered a massive heart attack in his mid-forties. Despite his unfortunate genetics, he was fortunate to have people around him who knew CPR and called 911. He was airlifted from the small town to a hospital in a really big town. He had heart surgery, recovered well for about 12 hours, then had complications. He had another heart surgery, recovered again then had more complications. He had a third heart surgery. Recovery was a bit slower after the third time.
H woke up in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) thirteen days after the third surgery. I was a fairly new ICU nurse at the time I met him. I helped him sit up at the edge of the bed. It hurt. I learned new words the day H sat up in bed. I helped him move to a chair. H had a lot of fancy words to say about that process as well. I helped him walk along with another nurse and two physical therapists. There were more choice words and colorful descriptions, enough for each of us to learn something new.
H hated the ICU. He hated the wires and cords and IV lines that tethered him to everything. He hated the electronics and the beeps and the lights. He hated the white and the shiny metal and the sterile everything. He hated the window that looked outside. But he liked being alive. That was the only thing he was agreeable about. He liked life.
And then on his 28th day in the ICU he cried. It was unexpected. A big sobbing ugly cry that started when I walked into his room for my shift. I froze. “Close the curtains,” he grumped at me. I did. I sat with him, having no earthly idea what else to do.
He cried. I was scared. Was this pain? Anger? Depression? I handed him tissues and waited, having no idea what to say to this rancher who had survived three heart surgeries and who was now slowly dying in the ICU day by day. Having no idea what to do has served me well sometimes. Silence creates space.
H finally paused. Blew his nose. Wiped his eyes and started talking. It was dirt. He missed dirt.
He missed the smell of dirt. He missed being outside. Fresh air. Raw earth. This ICU did not have dirt. This ICU did not even allow flowers. Nothing living except people. No dirt. He was grieving for dirt. And his old life, but mostly for being outside and for dirt.
So I found a wheelchair and blankets and portable monitors and a rescue pack and a whole bunch of other equipment. And I found my charge nurse because I needed help. Lots of help. I had a vague idea that if we could get H to dirt he would get better again, but I had no idea how to actually make it happen. And the charge nurse was one of those ass-kicking, totally-awesome, knew-what-to-do in any situation kind of people. He was on it. “He needs dirt? Dirt?! That will get him moving and get him out of here?”
We had all been watching H slowly die for twenty-eight days after his third surgery. “Done,” said my charge nurse.
And on his 28th day in the ICU H went outside. To a small patio with a few sad looking plants. And the plants were in dirt. H sat. Smelled. Smiled. We wheeled him back inside ten minutes later. And that was all it took. He walked out of the hospital seven days later. Walked. Not in a wheelchair. Not on a stretcher. He walked. And he went back to his ranch and his dirt.