No atheists in Intensive Care Units

One week had passed since I flew out to be with my mom. Our spirits were high thanks to recent progress – my mom had woken up, seemed to have all of her mental faculties and remember who we were, and was just getting enough strength to communicate by pointing at letters on a board. The fact that those things sounds so insignificant should tell you just how bad things had been.

My dad and I were going through our new routine – sitting next to my mom in the ICU while she slept. We kept pretty quiet to try to not to disturb her, since good sleep in the ICU was rare. This unit was grandfathered in, which meant there were no walls between patients despite that being the new regulation. And I can see why that regulation passed. Machines beeped and droned constantly. Visitors yacked loudly on cellphones making personal calls (against a rule that apparently no one would enforce). But the worst was when something was going wrong. One patient tried to tear out all of his tubes while swearing up a storm and thrashing around the unit. Even more disturbing was when nurses would swarm a patient when something was going terribly wrong.

It wasn’t a good place for the kind of peaceful rest you need after you almost died.

But since my dad and I were trying not to make my mom’s space any noisier than it already was, we mostly sat and listened. And I’ll always remember one of the conversations we silently listened to, only communicating with each other through mutual eye rolls.

A man had been admitted in the bed next to my mom for triple bypass surgery (yes, you hear that much detail and more – if I had been taking notes I could have told you his whole medical history and current medications…so much for medical privacy). It seemed to have been pretty routine and uncomplicated – he had been wheeled out and back and was pretty much instantly looking back to normal. He was immediately eating solid food while resting in his lazy boy. To put things into perspective, my mom had just been given her first nutrient IV bag after almost a week of no food at all, and still couldn’t stand.

The man called a nurse and she promptly came to help him with what he needed. He said to her, “My brother says if you thank nurses, you get better service. So I guess I should say thank you.”

The nurse looked at him incredulously for one moment before squeezing a “you’re welcome” through gritted teeth.

I was kind of stunned. Who thinks that way? You think the only reason you should be polite and thank someone is because you selfishly want better service? You know, not because that nurse was part of a team that saved your life? More so, who says that out loud without realizing how incredibly rude it is?

It irritated me, but I tried to ignore it. Maybe he was hopped up on drugs or something. Maybe he was just a jerk. Whatever. I didn’t need to worry about him because I was just happy my mom was alive. (And to illustrate one of the reasons I love my mom: After she was able to communicate clearly through writing, she overheard the nurses placing an order for their dinners over the phone, and she tried to insist that we pay for her nurse’s meal since she had been taking such good care of her all week. The nurse politely declined, but that’s the kind of lady my mom is – even in sickness she’s thinking about others.)

Pretty soon his family filed in to visit. My irritation returned because the conversation for the next couple hours can be summarized as “Praise Jesus and the power of prayer for this successful surgery.”

Excuse me? Praise Jesus? Praise prayer? This coming from the same guy who only thanked his nurse because he wanted better service? Yes, let’s snub the human being who was instrumental in your medical care and instead pat ourselves on the back for clasping our hands together and wishing things go well. Let’s thank Jesus but not the doctors and nurses who have devoted their lives toward training to do this. And definitely not the scientists and engineers who developed the methods for your survival. Thank Jesus.

The arrogance of it drove me mad. They probably found their religious beliefs comforting, and never considered what this may sound like to people around them, since in Indiana it’s pretty much assumed you’re a Christian. It’s not just the snubbing of science that irritated me. It made me think, “Why do you think your God saved your husband, but put my mom through so much pain? Why is he worth saving but she’s made to suffer through all of this? What kind, just God would do that?”

That’s when I was glad I was an atheist in that ICU. While my Greek Orthodox grandparents were weeping and distraught, asking me desperately why God would punish my mother like this, I understood that nothing divine decided this.  It did not reflect a flaw in my mother’s character or some sin that god was punishing. It did not reflect the frequency of prayers from all the church lists she had been added to, nor was it punishment for having rabid atheists for a husband and daughter. It was bad luck, a random mutation in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

I was distraught enough over my mother’s well-being – I’m glad I didn’t have to be distraught over god’s will as well.


  1. Cuttlefish says

    Your story rings all too familiar. I am glad you wrote yesterday’s post, cos knowing the outcome makes it much easier to read this… but yeah, I know what you mean.

    Today, 3 years ago, my brother died. Something I wrote back then, (saved, not by me, here: ):

    How do atheists face death?

    All too recently, I was at the bedside of a dying atheist. He was not conscious, so I can’t speak to how he himself faced death, but I can tell you how his atheist daughters and atheist brothers did.

    To the extent that anything offered comfort, it was the knowledge that the doctors were doing what could be done, and the knowledge that he was not suffering. The hospital chaplains were of no use at all, not even to those gathered who *are* believers. There is no way to put a positive spin on losing someone so early; no way to tell a 16-year old girl that this is part of God’s plan and have her just accept it.

    Of course, the families of other patients offered to pray for us, and assured us that God is great, and that if it is his will, our brother, our father, will recover. I assure you, even when you take it as a sincere expression of their best wishes, assurances of God’s mercy start to ring hollow very quickly.

    How does an atheist child face her father’s death? As bravely as I have seen anyone face anything. There was genuine beauty in the things his daughters said, and none of it relied on an afterlife, or a heaven, or a god. None of it denied the hurt, the heartbreak, the incredible pain of losing a father at such a young age. Death’s impact should not be denied; claiming he is in a better place is a slap in the face of the daughter who knows his best place is back home, helping with homework, mowing the lawn, reaching the things on the high shelf.

    How does an atheist face death? By facing it, not by denying or diminishing it. Not by turning it into a transition to some other reality. Not by making up a story to make themselves feel better. It hurts because it’s real, it’s permanent, it’s the end. It should hurt.

    And now he lives on only in our memory, and in our changed lives. That is his legacy; that is the good he continues to do. He’s not looking down and guiding; he doesn’t wait for us to join him. If we love him, we can do our best to fight for his causes, to continue his work.

    In the real world. The only one we have.

  2. Randomfactor says

    Best hopes for a good outcome. Spent more than my share of time in ICU room chairs (nothing to what my beloved spent in ICU beds, though). May all turn out for the best.

  3. Pieter B, FCD says

    Thank you. I’m at the age where serious disease and death is a common occurrence among my contemporaries, and the constant Facebook calls for prayers and references to afterlife reunions have been driving me bugfuck. Toss in the ones who declare their intention to treat cancer with diet and homeopathy and I want to break things.

    And thank you, too, o eloquent cephalopod. I’m glad Kausik Datta saved that.

  4. Parse says

    As a random person on the internet who has missed your writing (and also follows your twitter account), I’m not bummed by the depressing topics; I’m glad to see that you’re still functioning, and things are starting to get a bit better for you and your mom.
    Two things that bother me about the whole ‘Thank Jesus!’ thing:
    1) If things went poorly, it wouldn’t be Jesus’s fault. I wouldn’t tolerate a coworker who hogged all the credit and shifted all the blame; why do they accept that from their god?
    2) “Thank you Jesus, for curing my $MEDICAL_CONDITION that you saw fit for me to get in the first place!” How is this different from a firefighter who starts fires, so they can play the hero and save everybody?

  5. says

    Oh, but someone told him that if he thanks Jesus, he gets better service.

    /snark, but seriously, that’s what is taught; praising Jesus gets you in his good books.

  6. PDX_Greg says

    I hope your mother continues to gain strength. I’m happy you are able to be there with her and your father.

  7. domnom says

    I’m a christian, and I am truly happy for your mother’s improvements. My mother recently went through a severely life-threatening diagnosis recently as well, and we were incredibly fortunate enough to see her recover.

    I do think that your generalizations about my religion are a bit too presumptive. But I certainly encourage you to keep questioning life’s biggest questions, and make sure that you’re equally critical of your own presumptions, too. That’s where you’ll learn the most.

  8. cry4turtles says

    Much hope that your dear mom recovers. My parents are getting up there in age. I sometimes wonder what will I say to them in their last days. After much reflection, I’ve decided I will encourage them to relive their youth. As I hold the hands that have toiled so much to shape me into who I am, I want my mom and dad to emjoy the end of their lives by sharing their heritage, even if I’ve heard it all before.

  9. says

    Thank you for posting your hospital experiences. I am currently in nursing school, and want to hear more stories from the patient’s side. It is fantastic to get the viewpoints of the patient and family. Especially in ICU, as much of the time you don’t have the time to focus on the family since e patients generally require so much care just to keep them alive. I hope the best for you and your family and that your future experiences don’t add to the stress…

  10. CaitieCat says

    Beautifully written, Jen. When my own father was killed in an accident that my sister and I survived, the Lutheran dude my nana hired for the memorial service (he was cremated, after donation of all usable organs, per his atheist wish) gave my sister and I each a copy of the Christian book, despite my clear statement that I was an atheist and not interested.

    He wittered at us some about how our father was in a better place – which I challenged, at a surly 15 years old, with much the same words you use here, about how his best place was with us – and that it was all his god’s plan, blah blah blah. I was sneering at him openly, because 15* and ragey, and eventually he just shut up and said he understood why I would be angry at his god just now. I said I wasn’t angry at his god just now, I was angry at him, and left to play some video games. My sister stopped going to the Pentecostal church she’d been going to before that day (we were given our freedom to choose whether we had any faith, and if so which one). He was like the Christian priest in Eric the Viking, completely oblivious to the actual people in front of him.

    * And because I knew I was a girl, and everyone else insisted on treating me like a boy, which made for some rage-a-hol; in 1981, it took a braver girl than I was to say that in public.

  11. says

    Yes. I seriously think the whole cosmic justice thing is a terrible idea for exactly that reason – what about the people who aren’t “spared”? They get to think they deserve it. Fabulous.

  12. TGAP Dad says

    Welcome back, Jen! I wish your mother a full, swift recovery, and you great success in your science, but I wont be praying for either of you. You understand, right?
    Keep on blogging, and I’ll keep reading!

  13. says

    I’ve read your blog for a long time but never commented before. I’m so sorry for what you and your family have been going through.
    I am an RN who has worked in ICU’s for many many years – I’m also sad to hear about that experience as described by you – they aren’t all like that.

    I have heard the credit go to Jesus instead of the medical team many times; I live in the Bible Belt. Not too long ago I took care of a young man who had been shot in the heart, luckily in a public place, not too far from the hospital. He went into cardiac arrest as he entered the trauma bay in the ER. The trauma surgeon split his chest open, took hold of his heart and they wheeled him to the operating room.

    I was taking care of him a couple of days later in the Trauma ICU. His mom and I were talking and I commented how lucky he was to have not been five minutes farther away. His mother’s response: “Yes, God was really looking out for him!”. I seriously almost bit my tongue off.

  14. MadHatter says

    Glad your mom is doing better Jen. I’m sorry she and you all had to go through that. I hope she has a swift and easy recovery.

    A few years ago I was in a bad accident and hospitalized. I was lucky to have survived, and even luckier that the EMT’s reached me so quickly. The day I woke up a chaplain came to talk to me, he was very friendly and merely asked who he could contact for me. I really appreciated that. Later that day a woman, a volunteer as she wasn’t a nurse, came in to pray with me. I told her I was an atheist and she went on and prayed anyhow. I had total strangers (like the UPS man) tell me that God was looking out for me and it frustrated the hell out of me.

    Instead, I made sure that I thanked all of my doctors, nurses and physical therapists personally.

  15. Rob says

    Jen, I’m so glad that your mother is improving. It all sounds like a traumatic ordeal for both her and the the rest of the family. There is a virtual hug sitting right here (^) if you would like to pick it up.

    Also, I’m really pleased to see posts from one of my favourite bloggers again. During the dark times it might help to remember that there are many people out there you don’t know who still have you in their thoughts from time to time.

  16. jackal says

    Hang in there, Jen. I’m glad you’re blogging again. I hope your mother gets better soon.

  17. ButchKitties says

    I understand when people say “I’ll pray for you” in conversation or Facebook comments after someone has announced bad news, because really they’re saying “I hear you and acknowledge your pain.” As social animals, there’s some intrinsic value in just having our troubles acknowledged, even if the prayers themselves are worthless. But when extensive medical intervention and hours of painstaking work, built on the backs of decades of scientific inquiry and medical research as well as the years of training and experience of the doctors and nurses involved, has kept a person alive… but people give all the credit to God? That’s short-sighted and infuriating.

    An all powerful God doesn’t need to work through doctors to patch a person back together after a medical disaster. Al all powerful God could have prevented medical disaster from happening in the first place, and he’s nothing less than a sadist if he doesn’t use his powers to prevent such tragedies.

    I’m glad your mother is doing better. If there’s anything that your readers can DO to help you out during this time, I hope you’ll let us know. In the meantime I will donate what I can to a cancer research fund. (Suggestions would be welcome.)

  18. notyet says

    It is so good to have you back. Ten years ago my father was quite literally on his death bed, his doctors had given him about ten days to live (he actually made it nine) and he was surrounded by his ,except for me, Mormon family. He and my older brother were both holders of the higher priesthood, my father was a member of the “Seventies” (an even higher ranking group) and on the previous day (Sunday) they had prepared and served the sacrament to those present in my father’s room. On that day, however, one of the ensconced members of the ward Bishopric was there and when informed of what they had done, he told them that their actions may have been a serious breach of God’s rules (I later checked the rule book myself and they were not) That he would talk to the Bishop and see if any action would be taken against them. The fact that he actually left the room standing was due only to my not wanting to upset my father. I am happy for you for two reasons; you still have your mother and you don’t seem to be burdened with gauging everything you say in her presence to avoid the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth that are a part of being one of two atheists in an extended family of about forty hard core Mormons. My best wishes for the continued presence of your mother in your life. Please continue telling us what is happening and how you are dealing with it. most importantly, don’t stay away from your support group here at FTB. We all care about you and will be glad to do anything that we can to help keep you from being swallowed by the dark cloud (my personal metaphor for my struggles with depression). Stay strong or we may all show up at your house with cupcakes and hugs.

  19. Jackie, Ms. Paper if ya nasty says

    I’m glad to read that your mother is recovering. I hope you and your family are able to find time for comfort and rest during your mom’s recovery.

  20. gussnarp says

    That’s the fire breathing Jen I’ve been missing hearing from. I hope writing about all this is helping you, too.

  21. PhilB says

    I am suddenly reminded of how both sad and angry it made me when my mom (a chemist) was going through treatment for Stage IV ovarian cancer (which she succumbed to a few years ago now), and her family members were telling me that “We must pray to Jesus”.

    Yeah…I’ll get right on that…Not sure how they’ll feel the next time they see me and I have a whole sleeve tattoo of science-related things (complete with DNA strand, neurons, etc)…

  22. says

    So, two weeks ago, I died. You’ll be happy to hear that I did not see my dead relatives or a light at the end of a tunnel or myself from above. It all just went black. I was only dead for about twenty seconds, and woke up thorougly confused, wondering where I was and who all these people were and why my wife was yelling.

    (I later had an argument with my wife, who I thought was taking this situation altogether too seriously. “What are you so upset about? I’m the one who died, not you!” “Yeah, but I had to watch it happen. You weren’t even there.” She has a point.)

    The ER nurses were really nice. They even printed out a hardcopy of my flatline ECG for me to keep as a souvenir. I made sure to let them know how much I appreciated their efforts, and I did the same with the nurses at the cardiology ICU in which I spent the next three days.

    Oh, and yay socialized medicine! I had a pacemaker implanted, and all I had to pay for was the parking.

    Nice to have you back, by the way. I hope your mother gets better.

  23. watry says

    I’m so glad for you, Jen!

    @Madhatter, #16
    I’ve been in the hospital a number of times for diabetic ketoacidosis. Once, I had a tech insist on, quite literally, laying on hands. I was only 18 or 19, still unsure about my atheism, and, as it was the middle of the night and he was the only tech for the area, I was unwilling to possibly offend him.

    Strangely, the only time I’ve ever been approached by anyone who could be considered clergy was when I was diagnosed at 10, still a believer, and it was my family pastor. Although when he asked if I wanted him to pray for me, I said no, so maybe I’ve been questioning longer than I think. :)

  24. says

    Although I understand what you’re saying, I think you are also somehow taking it too far. For instance, “the snubbing of science” is not necessarily what I would make of the talks as you describe it. Not all Christians make that sort of contradiction between science and their sense of spirituality (granted not all Christians are spiritually mined like that – but they aren’t all fundies, not even those who like talking about Jesus).

    Besides, when you perceive a “snubbing of science”, it’s good to also look at the recent history of modern atheism. The new atheists have done everything to connect science with atheism, including the beautiful evolution theory – in any of its current 4 scientific variations – and this comes at a price. Now I am atheist too, but being a non-theist doesn’t mean I have to condone all that’s been done in the name of ‘atheism’. The best PR people of science (think Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis, think Gould, think E.O. Wilson) are gone, and few took their empty seat with the same brilliance. Atheism has been presented in ways that piss off even many atheists – a world-wide, noisy campaign along the lines of “religion poisons everything” turned every believer essentially into a poison-loving freaky asshole, I do not think we can blame every single believer (especially not those who are not educated with solid scientific notions – as in the case of older generations) for ignoring (or “snubbing” as you say) science. They may simply have a very confused idea about science.

    Having said that, I have no intention to defend fundamentalism. But… I’m not from the U.S. – In Europe, atheists are not that frustrated usually. We look at the U.S. as a wonderful but also weird country – their religious fundamentalists and their atheistic fundamentalists are, let’s say, almost the incarnation of binary thought, and this is hard to grasp sometimes. Although I do understand frustration with certain situations, mind you. It’s just that mere frustration is not such a strong argument.

    I must admit the language of those Christians, as you describe it, does piss me off too. But when I think of it, it pisses me off because it is dumb and rude to use that language in a public place. It does not lead me to the conclusion that these people were pointing fingers at your mom or any other people. Dumb is not necessarily mean. And it is a cultural thing too. I don’t have that much trouble to understand this.

    In fact, when we call ourselves atheist (in stead of, say, humanist) – we know all too well how this has always a certain negative sound to it – it says something like “you are a theist and I am against your theism” (and then, if we are polite – as we should, towards good people – we start explaining what atheism means “technically”, isn’t it? But in general, we love saying “atheist” in stead of simply “non-theist”). So whether we like it or not, our terminology – and thinking – is also ‘hostile’ in a certain way, from the get go. So from an empathic point of view I do understand why this may “piss off” believers in much the same way as you were pissed off by the language that “believers” often use. However, I would also repeat: many Christians don’t talk like that at all. But in the U.S. there are a lot of “pissed Christians” and “pissed atheists” so it seems – probably because there are a lot of “pissing” Christians and atheists, who don’t know how to communicate with their fellow man anymore – if they did not altogether lose their ability to recognize their fellow man (woman) on the other side of the ‘gap’.

    But thanks for this (accidental) reading – not a bad blog, I recognize the situation.

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