A nurse told me often that an illness can be harder on the caregiver than it is on the patient, and that caregivers often experience serious ailments during the first couple years of this stressful period.
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By Linda Cole

When our 12-year-old son Anthony experienced a cardiac arrest and brain injury due to a lack of oxygen during resuscitation, we found ourselves in the midst of a traumatic situation that immediately changed every aspect of our lives. Those seven to 10 minutes without oxygen left him in a coma for nearly a year, brain-injured and fully dependent for the rest of his life.

During the first three months that Anthony lived at Children's Hospital and for months after we brought him home, I had to find ways to deal with the overwhelming loss of my son, his unstable physical condition, the upheaval of our family dynamic, our normal routine and far more.

Somehow I managed to get through this profoundly sad and chaotic period, but only with the following tactics.

My 11 Coping Strategies for Crisis:

  1. Recruit and accept help and emotional support through family and friends. Do not try to weather crisis alone. Unfortunately, a natural human response is to turn inward, focusing available energy and efforts toward restoring a semblance of normalcy in yourself and your family. Because of Anthony's medical status, I worked closely with nurses and other medical personnel. In the end, these people became mentors who taught me how to deal with aspects of caring for a medically fragile person.
  2. Confide in your primary physician. Another important source of support, your doctor can help you if she knows what is going on in your life. She can ensure you get through those overwhelming moments that will inevitably occur. Don't wait until you are in the throes of panic to confide in her because she may be unavailable. My primary physician has always been involved in my life. To this day, she stays involved and supportive of me and my family.
  3. Be positive. Be proactive. Educate yourself and be involved. Your attitude will contribute greatly to the outcome. In Anthony's case, I was surrounded by resources: nurses, therapists, doctors, family life specialists, a media center/library and hospital chaplains. I relied on the nurses for their medical knowledge and their personal opinions, as well as their emotional mentoring. The therapists taught me what to do and what to expect as we navigated the long journey of rehabilitation. Being informed, proactive and positive will help you feel empowered, and less like a victim of a sad situation.
  4. Recognize that "this too shall pass." Life will be normal again, although it may never be as it once was. I remember driving home from the hospital in those first couple of weeks, wishing that I could be magically transported to a time and place 10 years forward so that I would know how this all turned out. What I know now is that if I had had that insight, I would have been overwhelmed and might well have chosen another path. I might never have known the new person that Anthony became or our new normal and rich (although complicated) life today.
  5. Find your mental get-away for particularly traumatic moments. There were many times when I mentally handed things over to God because they were beyond my control. I also often saw myself floating in calm water, as I blocked out the surrounding scene. During these moments, I would envision all the terrible things that were crowding my mind drift away, allowing me to center myself.
  6. Focus on others. Who else needs your help during this crisis? How can you contribute to those around you? Another constructive strategy, this will take the focus off of your personal distress, allowing you to feel less a victim. At the same time, you may be easing someone else's pain.
  7. Stay busy. This is a bad time to be idle. Don't sit home alone. During the first three months after Anthony's "event," I was at the hospital most of the day. I came home to concerned family members and friends who wanted to contribute. When there were times when I needed to get away from it all, I would walk the dog, do laundry and clean the house to keep my mind and body occupied.
  8. Exercise regularly. Walk, run, bicycle thirty minutes every other day. The endorphins released will help you mentally and emotionally. Your sleep will improve. Your body will be stronger and you will feel more in control. Even after Anthony's event, I would come home from the hospital and run a couple miles on my treadmill. The hard work tired my mind and my body, allowing me better sleep and keeping me emotionally on an even keel.
  9. Sleep. Try to get a good night's sleep. Your body and brain need the recuperation period. If you are exhausted, you will be less effective during this critical time. I realized after the first couple of weeks of staying night and day at the hospital with Anthony that his was a long-term situation. At that point, I went home to sleep, knowing that I needed my strength in order to be hands-on and additive for his sake.
  10. Eat well. Eat well-balanced meals -- lots of fruits and vegetables, good proteins and complex carbohydrates. Your body and mind are in a state of hyper-stress. They need useful nutrients -- not chemicals, processes and additives that sap your strength.
  11. Finally, find a place where you can really cry. (Mine was in the closet.) You will have moments that you can't avoid. Let the emotions come. But set a limit, perhaps four to five minutes. Afterward, move on. Do not dwell.

A nurse told me often that an illness can be harder on the caregiver than it is on the patient, and that caregivers often experience serious ailments during the first couple years of this stressful period. Take care of yourself, mind and body, so that you are better able to handle the many burdens of being a caregiver, while maintaining your health and a positive outlook.