How you can help when your loved one is in a coma in the ICU

May 17, 2023
Michael Delaney and his wife, Bonnie, hang out with their dog, Louie, in the living room of their Colorado Springs home. In the picture frame is Luca, their grandson. Photo by Chuck Bigger, for UCHealth.
Michael Delaney and his wife, Bonnie, hang out with their dog, Louie, in the living room of their Colorado Springs home. In the picture frame is Luca, their grandson. Photo by Chuck Bigger, for UCHealth.

In a digital picture frame, the photos of Michael Delaney’s life scrolled by, one by one, constructing a story of love.

The photos captured the rewards of a 63-year-old life that had, to this point, been well lived. There was Bonnie, his wife of 37 years and a librarian at a local elementary school. His children, Michael and Jada; daughter-in-law, Dakota; and their new grandchild, Luca, who is 8 months old.

The photos showed Michael and Bonnie hiking near Cottonwood Pass and fishing in Lost Lake and one of Louie, a Jack Russell terrier mix, who had been saved from a rescue in Louisiana. In the photo, Louie’s looking out the window of their Colorado Springs home, waiting for the mailman to come by with a treat.

Making a connection, one photo at a time

The digital picture frame arrived at Michael’s bedside on St. Patrick’s Day, a day when Michael normally would be enjoying a black and tan. After two days at Grandview Hospital, Michael had to be taken to Memorial Hospital Central’s ICU.

Out of the blue, Michael and Bonnie’s world had been turned upside down. Michael, a hearty and healthy project manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, had started to cough up blood and experience severe body aches.

At Memorial, they met Dr. Christopher Merrick, a pulmonologist who had cared for countless patients with COVID-19 at UCHealth. After his initial assessment, Merrick looked at Michael and said: “You’re very sick. We will need to intubate you.’’

Michael said, “Do what you need to do.’’

Merrick suspected Michael might have ANCA vasculitis, an autoimmune disease in which antibodies attack the lungs and kidneys, but he didn’t have confirmation. Lab work had to be sent out of state, and it would be three days before Merrick would know for certain.

When Michael Delaney, her husband of 37 years, fell gravely ill and needed care in the ICU at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central, Bonnie Delaney did everything she could to ensure her husband would heal from a dangerous disease. Photo by Chuck Bigger, for UCHealth.

But if Merrick didn’t begin aggressive treatment, Michael could have died.

“It was one of these hard scenarios, and this is when you really appreciate the courage of people,’’ Merrick said. “We put Michael on the ventilator because he was coughing up too much blood, and his lungs were filling up with blood. He was literally drowning in his own blood, so the only way to save him while the medications were having their effects was to put him on the ventilator.’’

In addition, Merrick asked for help from Dr. Mario Fadila, a pulmonologist, and they started Michael on plasma exchange, a treatment that involved pulling blood from Michael’s body, filtering out antibodies that were causing destruction and returning cleansed blood to his body. Merrick also gave Michael steroids and a chemotherapy-type drug called Rituxan.

Reaching out to family for help

Recognizing that she could not go through the emotional turmoil of Michael’s health crisis alone, Bonnie called one of Michael’s sisters, who came to Colorado Springs from Denver. Their son and daughter flew into Colorado Springs, along with family from throughout the country.

On March 16, the first day in the ICU, Bonnie turned to one of the nurses in the ICU and asked: “What do I do? How can I help?’’

The nurse told Bonnie that even though Michael was sedated, she should talk to him and have normal, everyday conversation. She should play music, and if she had any photographs that she could bring in, that could help too.

That St. Patrick’s Day, Bonnie placed the frame at the side of Michael’s bed, and it became a catalyst for conversation and kindness. The nurses who cared for Michael wanted to know all about him.

“He could not speak for himself or advocate for himself, so any new nurse that came in, I would introduce us as a family, and I would tell them about Michael and how wonderful he is,’’ Bonnie said. “And I would say: ‘This is a great guy, and we need to take great care of him. He’s a carpenter and fly fisherman; he has a great circle of friends.’

“I wanted them to know him as a person and not just someone who was lying there. He could not speak for himself.’’

Michael hadn’t done anything careless or reckless to get himself in this situation. He didn’t smoke or drink to excess, and he didn’t have a case of bad genes. The culprit was nothing other than plain bad luck.

To her credit, Bonnie followed the advice of the nurse. Every day, she talked to Michael as if he were sitting next to her on their living room couch.

“I took Louie out for a walk today,’’ she told him. “He did his regular poop in front of so-and-so’s house, and he chased squirrels and rabbits.’’

Wearin’ of the green

On St. Patrick’s Day, Michael’s sister reminded Bonnie that Michael would need to have something green on, as has always been the tradition.

The two women saw green paper shamrocks hanging from above the counter in a hospital coffee shop. Bonnie told the woman behind the counter that her husband was Irish, a patient in the ICU, and they were looking for something green. The clerk encouraged the women to take the shamrocks, and they did. They went back to the ICU and lay the paper shamrocks, the symbol of Ireland, across his bed.

Michael’s family rallied, as did Michael himself. Results of the lab tests that had been sent out of state came back; Michael indeed had ANCA vasculitis, just as Merrick had suspected. Even though Michael was heavily sedated, Bonnie and the nurses believed that Michael still had a level of consciousness.

On Day 3 in the ICU, the lights in Michael’s room were especially bright. Bonnie asked the nurse, Jay, if they might be too bright, and Michael gestured with his hands and shook his head.

Bonnie also asked Michael, “Would you like to listen to music?’’ And he’d nod his head, yes or no. When Michael approved, Bonnie would play Warren Zevon; Crosby, Stills and Nash; and the late, great John Prine.

After eight days under heavy sedation, Michael awakened on March 23, 2023.

Michael and Bonnie Delaney go for a walk in their Colorado Springs neighborhood.
While Michael was in the ICU at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central, Bonnie brought in a digital picture frame to ‘humanize’ her husband to nurses who were caring for him. Photo by Chuck Bigger, for UCHealth.

“I’m trying to wake up and figure out ‘What the heck is going on?’ I’ve got the tube in my throat, and I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on, and I look up at the nurse’s board, and I see the 23rd, and I’m like, ‘What the heck happened to the last week?’ They’re trying to explain it to me, and I’m not entirely understanding. It took me a few days to finally wake up to process what was going on.’’

The next day, two physical therapists came to Michael’s ICU room, and one said, “Let’s see if we can get you to stand up.”

Michael had always been strong. He’s a cabinet maker, a do-it-yourselfer who remodeled his own kitchen and did his own landscaping, shoveling tons of rock, breaking a sweat.

“They balanced me, and I was able to stand up on my own two legs, not for very long — only for a very short time. Then they came in the next day with a walker, and I walked around my bed. And then, the next day, I walked to the edge of my room. And then the next day, I was out in the ward with a walker.’’

Just getting out of bed for the first time left Michael “100% wrung out,’’ but he was determined to grow stronger for himself and as a way to say thank you to his caregivers.’’

“I felt so grateful to be able to walk around that ward and give these people a win because I bet they don’t get a lot of those wins, like really good stories. And they were as excited for me as I was for myself,’’ Michael said.

After emerging from the medically induced coma, Michael listened as Bonnie told him about the nurses who had taken care of him.

“I had nurses that would talk to me every night when they were rolling me over to try to keep me from getting bed sores and such,’’ Michael said. “Although I didn’t really get a chance to talk to them, they were so instrumental. Megan was one of the nighttime nurses, and Kelsey was a respiratory therapist, and my wife said that every time she would come in in the evening and if my tube wasn’t perfectly straight or the tape was bound up, she’d get upset and redo everything and make sure everything was just right, the way it was supposed to be.

“And she would talk to my wife, and she would talk to my family, and she would explain what she was doing and that made it made it so much easier on my family. I had Jessica and Karla for my day nurses after I came out of sedation, and they did so much for my family and me, and a nurse named Maddie, who was 23 years old and from Pueblo.

“And she was one of my ICU nurses, and she was there for four days straight, and she wanted to continue to be my nurse because of my family. And she was so compassionate. I didn’t get the chance to meet her until days after, when I was getting ready to go into the other ward, and she made a point of coming into my room and introducing herself.  She told me she would come into my room, and she would just watch me, and she would watch my family on the picture frame. And she said she grew this great connection between my family and me, and who and what we are.’’

A few weeks after Michael went home from the hospital, he had a follow-up appointment with Merrick. Michael walked into the doctor’s office with no cane, no walker, no oxygen tank.

“He looked like a million bucks,’’ Merrick said.

For a doctor and nurses in the ICU who had seen so many people die during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing Michael doing so well was overwhelmingly gratifying.

During his appointment, Michael went out of his way to thank his nurses for what they had done for him.

The digital picture frame with the photos is now back on the counter in the kitchen of the couple’s home. The couple will be adding more pictures of their hikes and fishing trips.

Michael and Bonnie are home watching Louie look out the window for the mailman. They are taking him for his daily walk, watching him chase the squirrels.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.