Even after Kyle Mullicane came home from the ICU, he would have nightmares about being back in the hospital, struggling to breathe. He had been on a ventilator, but his body fought so hard against the breathing tube in his throat that his arms and legs had to be restrained. Immobilized, he tried to chew through the plastic. In his post-ICU dreams, he would succeed at doing so, only to suffocate as the broken pieces fell into his lungs.
It has been eight months since Mullicane, 35, survived multiple organ failure from a bad reaction to heart medications. Physically, he feels well enough to have hiked a national park in January. But mentally, he’s still recovering. “My memory is shot,” he says. Loud noises startle him. And while the nightmares have gotten better, he remembers vivid hallucinations from the ICU, when doctors and nurses appeared to him as witches with shimmering faces. Even at home, normal life doesn’t quite feel normal. “I don’t feel safe anymore,” he says, “like there’s a low hum of menace.”
In hospitals across America, thousands of the sickest COVID-19 patients are now needing intensive care. The marvels of 21st-century medicine will help keep them alive in the best-case scenarios. But surviving can be just the start of a long recovery, and even after this pandemic fades, some survivors might have to face lingering aftereffects. For reasons still not entirely understood, some patients may develop what’s known as “post-intensive-care syndrome,” which can include a constellation of physical, cognitive, and psychological symptoms. About 1 in 10 of all patients who have been in the ICU have PTSD. About 30 percent experience depression. Thirty percent have symptoms of anxiety. And another 40 percent report cognitive impairment on par with moderate brain injury.