Intensive care: experiences of family & friends

Seeing the patient in ICU for the first time

For families, coming into the Intensive Care Unit for the first time can be upsetting. Here people talk about how they felt when they first saw their relative, partner or close friend in ICU. Everyone is different and experiences ranged from shock to reassurance. 

Most people had never had a relative or close friend in intensive care before. The environment had been new and alien to them and seeing the ill person in ICU for the first time - connected to lots of equipment, often looking very different from normal - had been shocking, frightening and upsetting. Patients who have been in accidents might have bruises and swellings, and sometimes obvious injuries. Patients who are gravely ill may be excessively pale, bloated, or shrunken and gaunt. Above all, most of them are unconscious.

One man said that, although he'd worked in the fire service and was accustomed to seeing distressing things, when he first saw his own father in intensive care he was shocked, but felt he had to reassure his sister and mother. Others, who'd worked in the health field, said that although they were accustomed to hospitals and even the ICU environment, it was very different seeing someone they loved so helpless and vulnerable.

One woman;s husband had been admitted to intensive care after planned surgery. Despite having lots of information and visiting ICU beforehand, she said that she'd still found it frightening and hadn't liked being there for very long (see 'Planned admissions'). 

One man described the ICU environment as 'overpowering' and some said they'd felt very aware of the alarms and equipment at first. Most recalled how nurses had prepared them for the environment and that they'd felt reassured by and confident in them. Nurses had also told them that they could call for information whenever they wanted or they would phone them if there were any changes in the patient's condition. 

It hadn't taken long before people had felt more comfortable and familiar with the intensive care environment. Some had felt the atmosphere was calm and respectful and several had taken children in to visit the critically ill person (see 'Impact on children'). For those who'd seen the patient connected to some equipment in Accident and Emergency or on wards, it had often been easier to accept seeing them in ICU. However, they remembered just how difficult it had initially been every time other visitors came in for the first time. Many were upset and distressed and needed comforting. During this difficult time most people had only wanted very close family and partners to visit, though one woman became her best friend's next of kin, when she was admitted to intensive care, because her friend's father was elderly, very weak and lived a long way from the hospital.

Some people had felt a sense of relief when they'd first seen the critically ill person in intensive care because they'd looked like themselves and as if they'd been sleeping. After seeing her son like this immediately before being admitted to ICU, one participant, who'd been an intensive care nurse, said she'd felt reassured. 

A few people, who had had reason to visit close friends in ICU before, felt that this had helped them to know what to expect and prepared them for what it would be like seeing their relative there. 

One person we spoke to, himself an ICU consultant, said that having a critically ill father reaffirmed for him the importance of keeping family and close friends informed and updated. Most people were very impressed by the way they'd been kept informed about what was going on but two people complained that their relative had been transferred to ICU and they hadn't been contacted about what was happening. 

Last reviewed May 2015.

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