Walking onto an intensive care unit can be almost otherworldly. Nurses, gowned, gloved, and masked, hover like anonymous overseers, busily moving from one human form to another. These forms, the patients, float silently on shifting air mattresses, tethered to machines of various shapes and sizes, the sounds and lights amplifying a sense of measured urgency. Some patients have just arrived, and others, consciously or unconsciously, have resided here for weeks.

The goal of this fastidious operation is not wholly apparent. Is it to heal, this goal? Or simply to sustain or prolong life? One might assume from the frenzy of nursing activity and array of machines that most of the forms are reasonably closer to death than to life, beating hearts not excluded. In the limbic realm of intensive care, this truth—made less evident by our extreme efforts to evade it—is our most bewildering one: eventually, death is certain.


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