Intensive care: experiences of family & friends

The relatives' room

Although all hospitals are different, every intensive care unit (ICU) will have a room normally just outside the ICU for the use of relatives, partners or the close friends of patients. This room may be called 'the relatives' room', 'visitors' room' or 'waiting room'. Visitors are usually asked by staff to wait in this room while the patient is being treated, washed, turned or seen by doctors. Relatives' rooms vary in size and in terms of facilities. They can range from fairly small and basic to comfortable, with tea and coffee-making facilities, kitchen, toilet and even a shower. 

Here people talk about their experiences of the ICU relatives' room.

Most people had used the relatives' room while the critically ill person had been in intensive care. Many had found it comfortable and said they'd valued having somewhere to wait, close to the ICU itself. It was often while they were waiting in this room that they'd met other visitors. Some recalled observing the highs and lows other visitors went through as the patient had improved or deteriorated, and described how they'd been able to relate to these emotions because they'd experienced them too or had been going through them. This shared empathy for one another's crisis often created a bond between them. 

Some people said they'd tried to support other visitors by comforting or reassuring them. Occasionally they'd been able to talk about the progress their own patient had made as a way of instilling hope in others. One man, an ICU consultant whose father had been critically ill, had been in a unique position to comfort others by answering their questions.

Some people had found it difficult meeting others in the relatives' room, especially if these visitors had experienced a death, because they hadn't felt strong enough to deal with other peoples' trauma as well as their own. They said they'd been unable to support other visitors at this time because they'd been too deeply enmeshed in their own crisis to be of any real help. Often, it had also been a stark reminder of just how close to death ICU patients usually were.

Some people said they hadn't spoken to other visitors in the relatives' room, having usually been the only person using the room. Others said that, although they'd had brief, casual conversations with other visitors, their time had mostly been spent talking to members of their own family who were visiting at the same time. 

Some people said that, because there had been only one relatives' room and quite a number of visitors, it had felt too small. A few of these people felt that facilities for relatives could have been improved. 

While the critically ill person was being treated or seen by ICU staff, some people had taken the opportunity to phone and update others or get something to eat. A few who had waited in the relatives' room said they'd felt 'forgotten' because the nurse hadn't called them back in for what seemed like hours. While they'd been left waiting, some had become anxious that the patient might have deteriorated. 

Last reviewed May 2015.

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