Critical but stable, now there’s an interesting phrase for you…

Critical but stable is the term we have lived with for almost two weeks now with my dad in the ICU.

Not nearly so bad for us as for him, of course, but it is really starting to shit us to tears because, in this age of instant gratification, for how long really can you be critical-but-stable?

Some days we go in and his temperature is 37.4, he’s doing his own breathing with support from the ventilator and getting 40% of his oxygen by himself and he is only on morphine, not under sedation, and can even wake up and focus his eyes. Although, not speak. Because to speak you need a voice box, natch, and his is currently squished out of operation by the tube down his throat.

“Oh he’s doing really well!” says the bright and bubbly highly-intelligent and very well-trained ICU nurse.

Then you go in the next day, and his temperature is 38.8, and he is not able to breath alone so is back on full ventilation and his lungs are only pulling 30% of the oxygen out of the air he gets shunted down there and he’s fully sedated again because after a few hours of having him off sedation they realise (every other day) that they can’t manage his pain with elephantine doses of morphine alone, and…

“Oh, he’s doing really well!” says the caring and compassionate, highly-intelligent and very, very well-trained ICU nurse.


Critical but stable is, we have realised, hospital speak for “Not dead, not better”.

One of these days, by virtue of the high turnover of ICU nurses (they work 12 hour shifts and always have several days’ gap before working with the same patient again so they don’t get emotionally attached to them), one of these very bright, very adept, very bubbly and very compassionate nurses will turn to me and say:

“Well, he’s not dead, but he’s not better either. Sucks, doesn’t it?”

And then I’ll know we’re getting to the heart of it.