Almost exactly a year ago, I dragged my husband of twenty-two years to the doctor because he had a fever he hadn’t been able to shake for a couple of weeks. Four hours later, he was in the Intensive Care Unit, paralyzed and sedated on a respirator, unable to breathe due to H1N1 that had progressed to double pneumonia. The ICU doctor took one look at his x-ray and told me it didn’t look good.
I’ll compress the next few weeks in the interest of space. My husband, who I’ll call Left-Brain (for no particular reason), lay on the brand-new oscillating respirator with the highest of high-technology invading every inch of his body and an experimental drug rushed from the CDC pumping in his veins. He had a full-time respiratory therapist, a full-time nurse, and eighteen different doctors before I lost count. He chose one from every column on the menu of complications: a stroke, additional viral and bacterial infections, a fungal infection, loss of circulation, loss of kidney function, and many more I have thankfully forgotten. I was brought into the room to “say ‘goodbye’” six different times because they were “losing him” (the euphemisms fly in the ICU). I was told that even if he did live, his legs would have to be amputated as he was half-paralyzed, and it appeared that he had nerve damage so bad that he could not move his extremities. It was unclear whether there was brain damage, if he had an aggressive cancer, if his kidney functioning would return, and probably a lot of other things that my brain was kind enough to keep from me. To cut to the chase, Left-brain woke up after six weeks with muscles so atrophied he couldn’t stand up. Now, one year later, he is almost completely back to normal and has even kept off the fifty pounds he lost during the whole ordeal. As he says, “It’s a heck of a way to diet so I wouldn’t want to undo all that hard work.”
The biggest surprise from this whole experience? While I could write a book about the unexpected twists and turns, the most shocking part was when Left-Brain woke up. I had spent weeks imagining that, if he awoke, we would spend our remaining days together arm-in-arm walking in slow-motion as if in a commercial for certain male products. But then he woke up. And he woke up pissed. Yes, pissed. He didn’t realize that he had just gone through weeks of intense scenarios of the worst and somehow even worse case, after which the longing for and appreciation of normalcy would be hard-won. Nope. All he knew was that he went to sleep with a to-do list at home and a pile of work at the office and woke up after the holidays, unable to walk. To make matters worse, everyone surrounding Left-Brain was telling him how very grateful he should be. He didn’t feel grateful, to put it mildly. The lesson to be learned here: Gratitude is an attitude that flows from our thoughts and Left-Brain had to be gently brought through the experience himself in order to understand even a portion of the thankfulness that our family felt.
Once I slapped him upside the head and set him straight, I started to think about gratitude and appreciation. I was like the boy in high school who scored a date with the head cheerleader and swore I’d never ask for anything again. I sometimes found myself slipping out of that Zenful acceptance of all things, including dirty underwear on the floor, but all I had to do was conjure the sight of Left-Brain lying on the hospital bed full of tubes to be snapped back into what could have been my alternate reality. (On a side note, it’s incredibly easy to have a perfect marriage when one partner is sedated and paralyzed. Really. You should try it sometime.) Many of the ICU doctors told me that Left-Brain was the sickest person they’d ever seen survive without major complications and that they honestly didn’t expect him to live. One doctor said that’s the reason he works in the ICU. It reminds him every day not to sweat the small stuff and that everything, except this, is small stuff. He stays in a state of gratitude by reminding himself every day of what he has to be thankful for and what can go wrong.
A quick look at research on gratitude reveals that it’s the fortified cereal of the emotions, building strong and resilient minds fourteen ways. People who had a daily gratitude practice (such as a journal or a daily exercise) had the following benefits in various studies: more regular exercise, fewer physical symptoms, more optimism, more progress toward personal goals, more alert, more enthusiastic, more determined, more likely to help another person, more connected to others, better sleep duration and quality, and more likely to win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes1. I may not have remembered that last one correctly, but you get the idea.
The kissing cousin of gratitude is appreciation: letting those human beings you are close to know you’re glad they’re hanging around. This can be zillions of times harder than the contemplative, higher-self, spiritually-infused general good feeling of gratitude because we have to let other imperfect people know that this imperfect person cares—and that can be vulnerable. But, as William Arthur Ward said, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”
It’s worth swallowing hard and making the leap from gratitude to appreciation because the expression of gratitude to others, “can also improve one’s physical health and functioning.”2 Not to mention, it helps create the kind of world we all want to live in. While the list of health benefits is long, the exercise is simple: it consists of letting someone know, specifically, how they have positively impacted you. For example, during my husband’s hospital stay a kind doctor arranged for me to get an H1N1 vaccination (I hadn’t been able to get one because I wasn’t in an official high-risk group in spite of spending sixteen hours a day in his negative-air-pressure, infectious disease isolation room). The next time I saw the doctor I thanked him for thinking of me and told him that I felt very relieved due to his consideration. He accepted my appreciation in stride saying, “When I looked at you, I saw a walking Petri dish.” Maybe that’s not exactly the reaction I was going for, but it’s nice to know he heard me.
Last year, I spent Thanksgiving with my three kids in an Intensive Care Unit grateful that my husband, their dad, was still alive. The year before, we sat around the table with friends and family and realized that half the people at the table wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for modern medicine. All I need to feel grateful is a little bit of that old time perspective. As the one and only Buddha put it, “Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.” Amen, and I would appreciate it so much if you would please pass the turkey.
1Emmons, Robert A. and McCollough, Michael E. Highlights from the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness, http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/labs/emmons/ November 1, 2010
2Kerns, Charles D. Gratitude at Work, Graziadio Business Report, Pepperdine University, 2006 volume 9, issue 4