Intensive care: experiences of family & friends

Nursing care

In ICU, patients are constantly looked after and monitored by a highly specialised team, which includes consultants, physiotherapists, dieticians and nurses, each with specialist knowledge and skills. Specially trained nurses provide round-the-clock care and monitoring, and there is a high ratio of nurses to patients - each person in ICU is usually assigned his or her own 'named' nurse

Here relatives talk about their perceptions and experiences of nursing care in ICU.

Most people spoke highly of all the staff in ICU and the care the patient had received, one saying it had been fantastic 'from the most senior doctor down to the domestic staff'. Many praised the nurses in particular, who'd they'd seen day in, day out, during an extremely traumatic time in their lives. For many the nursing care had been 'excellent' and the nurses caring, patient and supportive. Several said they 'couldn't fault' the nursing care, and some felt it had been as good as any care the patient could have received in the private sector. Some also felt that nurses had been crucial in saving the patient's life. 

Many people were pleased with the information they'd received from nurses, whether that had involved clarifying or explaining what doctors had told them earlier, giving information about ICU equipment or about the nursing care itself. Most felt nurses had answered all their questions, were easy to talk to and that they trusted them, one woman saying she'd felt quite dependent on them in the early stages. 

Relatives and close friends spoke highly of nurses who they felt gave information and explanations about care or treatments clearly and honestly. Many also appreciated nurses who'd shown an interest in relatives as well as patients, especially when they'd seen how busy they'd been with patients. Some praised nurses who'd shown sensitivity and had treated the patient with dignity and respect. One man said that, whenever he hadn't been at his wife's bedside talking to her, a nurse would be there instead, talking to her while she was unconscious. Many noted how nurses had combed the patient's hair, cut their nails or carried out other care while the patient had been unconscious, sedated or too weak to do anything for themselves. 

Nurses had sometimes encouraged relatives and close friends to become involved in the patient's care, and this had helped them to feel they were doing something useful and positive. 

Sitting at the bedside all day, many people said they'd observed how hard working ICU nurses were, and how well they worked as a team as well as on their own. They'd also been impressed with nurses who'd shown commitment and friendliness, and felt this had been particularly important in an environment that sometimes felt depressing. 

Several people had felt ICU nurses had become 'like friends' and, because they'd spent so much time visiting the patient every day, they'd got to know many of them quite well. Some explained that, despite the serious environment of ICU, they'd shared laughter and jokes with nurses and many special moments. Some said nurses had often joked with the patient too, bolstering them, and the atmosphere had often been calm and peaceful.

Some relatives talked positively about the reassurance and hope they'd been given by nurses, who'd encouraged them to never give up or had comforted them when they'd been distressed. Most had valued the support nurses had given them through such a difficult, uncertain time and some said that, if it hadn't been for this support, they might not have got through such a stressful crisis. One woman said that nurses had been her main source of support, information and advice over the four months her partner had been in ICU. 


Some people said that, overall, they'd been happy with the nursing care in ICU but felt some nurses had been better than others, some more optimistic than others, and some had given more explanation and information than others. One woman said some nurses had been more welcoming than others when she and her family had visited ICU. A few people said they'd been disappointed in particular nurses, who they'd felt had been abrupt, slack or less hygiene conscious than other nurses. One couple had been particularly disappointed in a nurse who they felt had been dishonest with information and another who hadn't taken the hygiene measures they knew were essential to avoid cross infection.

When someone is critically ill in intensive care, one relative or close friend is designated to phone ICU and pass on updates to other people. When away from the hospital, many people had relied on nurses to ring them if there'd been any change in the patient's condition. Some said they'd often phoned ICU to get a quick update before going to hospital or phoning other relatives. A few said there'd occasionally been a bit of confusion in who the designated person had been and, when they'd phoned ICU for an update, had found it difficult to get information from nurses. One woman said her father had been so distressed when her mother had been critically ill that he withdrew and gave them very little information. When she'd phoned ICU for information, some nurses had been helpful but others had refused to give information to anyone who hadn't been the designated person.

A few people said that, although they felt the nursing care had been good, they'd rarely seen the same nurse twice. One woman wondered whether this was deliberate so nurses wouldn't get too attached to particular patients. 

Some people said they'd felt sad and emotional saying goodbye to the nurses, especially when they'd been visiting ICU for several weeks, seen nurses every day and felt like they'd got to know them. Many felt they built a bond with the nurses, having shared such a traumatic time with them. A few said they could never repay them for what they'd done and, though they'd bought them gifts when the patient had been discharged, these had felt small and trivial compared to what the nurses had done for them.

The nurses will do things for the patient include the following:

  • Taking regular blood tests
  • Changing the treatment in line with test results
  • Giving the drugs and fluids that the doctors have prescribed
  • Recording the patient’s blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels
  • Clearing fluid and mucus from the patient’s chest using a suction tube
  • Turning the patient in bed every few hours to prevent sores on the skin
  • Cleaning the patient’s teeth and moistening his or her mouth with a wet sponge
  • Washing the patient in bed
  • Changing the sheets
  • Changing the patient’s surgical stockings, which help circulation when s/he is inactive (lying still) for a long time
  • Putting drops in the patients eyes to make it easier for them to blink

Last reviewed May 2015.

Last updated May 2015.

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