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Reconciling with my brother in the hospital, over a beer

Bro, this Bud's for you

peter mitchell The Globe and Mail

I'm not at all sure I could survive being a patient in an intensive care unit for nine months, with no end in sight. That's how long my brother Levi has been hospitalized, and he has been desperately near death for much of that time. As I write this, he remains in an isolation room in an Intermediate ICU.

Levi and I, now both firmly entrenched in middle age, are only a year and a half apart, right in the middle of a family of nine children. But we're very different from each other. He's always been kind of rough and tumble; I'm more bookish and reticent. I'm an avowed pacifist; Levi collects guns. He left school in Grade 8; I didn't stop until I owned a terminal degree.

We weren't exactly bosom buddies growing up, and drifted further apart as adults. So, while we live not 10 minutes from each other, we don't see each other often - not nearly as much as brothers should. It's not Levi's fault - it's been primarily mine.

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When he was still a young man in his early 20s, he found himself a quadriplegic after a horrific road accident, and so his mobility is obviously limited, although he is fiercely independent insofar as he can be. Nonetheless, the blame for the paucity of contact has to be shouldered primarily by me.

To understate more than a little, life for someone who is quadriplegic is complicated by many things, and in my brother's case, he has struggled with respiratory problems and the constant fear of pressure sores. Last February, Levi was admitted to hospital to have a deep infection on his elbow looked after.

This all seemed relatively innocent, as these things go, but one thing led to another, and he was admitted to the ICU at a Winnipeg hospital to treat a respiratory emergency, hard on the heels of which came emergency bowel surgery, raging infections - the list goes on. He was attached to a ventilator, first simply jammed down his throat through his mouth, and then via his trachea.

There were many dark days over the next few months, when we didn't know whether he would survive the latest crisis. Days became weeks that passed into months. A few of us family members were at the hospital every single day for several months, sometimes, depending on the situation, for very long stretches of time.

And so it was that I began to spend time with my brother on a daily basis, not knowing how many more days any of us would have with him. We all had to pay very particular attention to his speech, as he tried first to talk around the tubes in his mouth, and then mouth his words because of the tubes in his trachea.

Indeed, there were times when those of us who were able to understand his words a bit better played the role of translator between him and medical personnel. This combination of daily visits, paying attention to his words in order to carry on even a rudimentary conversation, and performing mundane but intimate tasks such as shaving him seemed to be forging a relationship between my brother and me, which I consider a positive epiphenomenon of an otherwise extremely difficult situation.

Then slowly, episodically, incrementally, Levi began to make some progress, and was eventually transferred to an Intermediate ICU, where the plan was that he would be weaned off the ventilator, a process that is still ongoing, although not without its frustrations and setbacks.

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And so, while he still faces many physical challenges, since last fall he has been able to be free of the ventilator for considerable stretches of time, which means he can now eat and drink again after being sustained via tube feeding. I asked him whether he had been looking forward to some specific food or dessert after six months or so of being fed by tube. He's not a fussy eater, and had no immediate response.

However, after considerable thought, he allowed that a beer would taste good.

Since he was still an ICU patient, a request such as this would have to be cleared with his doctor. A day or two later, my phone rang at home. It took me a while to recognize my brother's voice, since I had heard so little of it for all these months. But here he was announcing the happy news that the doctor had approved a request allowing for one beer a day.

That was how, on a lovely fall day, I found myself walking into the Intermediate ICU with a case of beer under my arm, and in an utterly joyful moment, cracking open two cans of Bud Light, which we then drank in fraternal communion, with gratitude, and in perpetual hope, while we chatted about things like brothers do.

Paul Doerksen lives in Winnipeg.

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