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.
She was shocked when she saw her sister in ICU She'd been temporarily paralysed by her illness...
She felt her husband looked like a stranger after his mountain bike accident and dreaded breaking...
Did you know much about Intensive Care at this point? Or was this the first time you'd really heard about ICU and how critical it can be?
It was the first experience I'd ever had of ICU.
So you came back from work, you went straight to hospital?
And you saw your husband in ICU?
It might have been quite a blur for you as well at that time. Can you remember, obviously it must have been a huge shock?
Yes, I just didn't feel it was my husband at all. It just seemed like a total stranger lying there.
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.
Although, due to his work, he felt he knew all about intensive care units he was completely...
I found it easy enough to talk to them [ICU staff] about what was going on and so on and so forth and they were very forthright with me about what to expect and what not to expect. And their words of wisdom were always 'the worst is yet to come', which was so true but you don't believe it at the time and it was. And I don't think, nothing can quite prepare you for your wife going into Intensive Care and the shock of that, no matter how much you know about the business, nothing can prepare you for that.
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.
Everything was explained to them so, when they left ICU, they felt their son was in safe hands...
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.
All her visitors found it distressing seeing his wife in ICU but he noticed that men and women...
But yes men do react differently to women in situations like that. There's no doubt about it. We perhaps, we shuffle down to the nurses and talk quietly to them in the corner. I don't know.
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.
Even though medical staff were treating their critically ill son, he looked comfortable when they...
When I very first saw our son, I had a feeling that he would be all right when I saw him. And funny enough when I went in with my husband and we saw him again, after my husband had seen him, we came out together and he said, 'I think he'll be alright.' And I said, 'Yes, I got that feeling too, I think he will.' When I went in to see him, I never sensed, but I could tell by looking at him that he, you get a feel for some things. When I was working on the Intensive Care years ago I was working on it for several weeks when all of a sudden I got to the stage where I could tell whether somebody was really ill or not. If, and I don't know what it is, and I don't know how it comes about, maybe because you're doing so many checks on the patients all the time, you suddenly get to the stage where you are connected to the point where you can look at somebody and you know whether they're ill or not. When I looked at our son when he was being attended to in the Emergency Room I got the feeling that he would be all right. He looked all right. He was all of a piece. There was something, and my husband had exactly the same kind of feeling. He shared it with me even though I hadn't said anything to him. I didn't say, 'I think he'll be okay.' That came straight from my husband as soon as he saw him. And I said to him then, 'Yes, I think he will be too.' And as it turns out, we were right.
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.
Because a friend had previously been in ICU after a car accident, he knew what to expect when his...
Yes. I mean I think the nursing staff and the medical staff were aware that after that second operation, they were aware, because as I arrived at the hospital they said, 'Well, your wife has already gone down to theatre. When she comes out, she will be going to Intensive Care' and explained that to me.
And did they say why she would be going into Intensive Care?
Not in detail I think. I think it was when I went down and saw the staff in Intensive Care at 3 o'clock that morning, after she came from the theatre. They explained that I suppose as a result of a second operation in four weeks, a serious operation in four weeks, then this, I think it was a matter of imbalance of sodium and potassium, and the effect of the drugs over the weeks and of the operation itself.
Yes. And did they tell you before you went into Intensive Care what equipment she might be attached to once she was in there?
I don't think I was. I think when I arrived at Intensive Care the nurse then explained in detail. I think probably, you know, forewarned me that my wife would be sort of hooked up to all sorts of equipment. And so this was explained then, but not before I went down.
So you'd been prepared a little bit before you went into Intensive Care. And when you did go, did you find it a shock or a surprise? Or you'd been prepared and maybe seen TV programmes or documentaries?
Yes, yes, I was prepared. We'd had a friend who'd been in a very bad road accident some years ago and so we'd had experience of Intensive Care before. And perhaps if that had not been the case, I think it would have been more alarming. But, yes.
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 August 2018.