Intensive care: experiences of family & friends

Waiting for news

Waiting anxiously for news of a patient's condition is a common experience for friends and relatives in intensive care. Here relatives, partners and close friends talk about waiting at the patient's bedside for news. Most ICU patients are unconscious or sedated in the early stages of critical illness. 

For most people being with the patient in ICU had been all that mattered, even if it had been difficult to see, touch or talk to the patient and even though there'd been little they could have done to help. Many recalled how they'd spent much or all of their day and sometimes night at the patient's bedside, watching monitors, waiting, hoping or praying for their survival. During this traumatic, uncertain time, normal daily activities had usually fallen by the wayside, and relatives and close friends had lived from one day to the next, not knowing what might happen or what the future held.

Many described how they watched monitors hour after hour, almost obsessively, willing a change in the readings. Some felt they'd gained a good knowledge of the monitors and what they'd shown. Others explained how, on the advice of staff, they'd stopped staring at the screens because a change in readings often meant many different things. A few described how monitor readings had sometimes changed when close family were present. Many explained how they'd waited desperately for any sign of improvement - a change in the monitor readings, a twitch on the patient's face, a squeeze of the hand - anything to give them hope. They also described how the patient's condition had improved and then deteriorated again, often more than once, and how it'd felt being forced to live in this uncertainty (see 'Uncertainty'). 

Most people recalled how they'd been encouraged by nurses to talk to the critically ill person because there was a possibility that they'd been able to hear. Some had spent hours by the bedside talking to the patient, even if at first it had felt strange or they hadn't known what to say. Many had just wanted to help in whatever way they could and would have tried anything to have made a difference. One woman said she'd talked to her sedated husband about the news, sports and crosswords in her paper. Others had talked to their ill relative about their children, grandchildren and pets, most saying they'd talked about anything and everything in the hope it would help the patient's recovery. 

Some had sung to the patient, others had played music or taken in recorded messages of support and well wishing. Several said they'd believed talking to the patient, singing or reading to them had helped and that those patients' who'd had no such support had often taken longer to improve.

One woman, who said she'd never been close to her critically ill sister-in-law, had felt uncomfortable talking to her but had been allowed to play music to her.

Usually only two visitors are allowed at the bedside at a time, and some people described how different relatives or close friends had taken it in turns to sit with the patient, ensuring that someone had always been there in case there'd been any change (see 'At the bedside: signs of improvement and progress'). One man, who'd taken turns with his partner's parents to sit by her bedside, said he'd felt it important to be positive and had hoped his positive energy would help his partner improve.

Many people had felt helpless sitting at the bedside but, by being there and talking to the patient or holding their hand, they'd felt they'd been doing some good. When encouraged and instructed by nurses, some had helped with the patient's care and this again had made them feel they'd done something positive. Some had helped clean the patient's face, sponge their mouth or carried out 'suction'. This is usually done by a nurse or physiotherapist who passes a smaller tube down the large breathing tube to suck out secretions from the chest. Other people had massaged cream into the patient's hands or feet. One man light-heartedly recalled how he'd taken part in so much of his wife's care that the nurses had started calling him 'Nurse'. One woman said she'd become her best friend's next-of-kin because her friend's father was elderly, weak and lived too far from the hospital to visit. She'd ended up doing all the things that would have normally been done by close family.

While sitting at the bedside, many had observed the care and treatment the ill person had received from physiotherapists. A few people had known complementary therapists who'd been allowed by the ICU staff to massage the patient. 

Sitting at the patient's bedside, often unable to do anything but watch, most people said they'd observed ICU staff at work. Many said they'd noticed how hard most nurses had worked and that they'd treated the patient like a person, with dignity and respect. Most said they'd been encouraged by nurses to bring in personal items, such as toiletries and photos, and that nurses had asked for personal information about the patient so they could know more about them as an individual. Often, nurses had also displayed the patient's get-well cards around the bed. One man, who was an ICU consultant, said he'd been able to tell when his father had needed more pain relief and had talked to the trainee doctors involved in his care.

While waiting for news, many people were impressed as they observed the treatments the critically ill person had been receiving. Some talked about the drugs or surgery the patient had needed. Others described how ICU staff had used special beds and, very occasionally, had put the mattress on the floor in the hope that this would help the patient. 

Patients stay in ICU for varying lengths of time, depending on the nature of the illness, and during much of this time they may be sedated or unconscious. Many relatives and close friends described how, after some time, the ill person had shown signs of improvement. Some patients, who'd been brought round, had to be re-sedated for a while because they'd been pulling out equipment vital for their recovery. After regaining consciousness (coming round), most patients had gradually been able to move, talk, walk, and start rebuilding themselves physically and emotionally.

Last reviewed May 2015.

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