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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...

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Age at interview: 34
Sex: Female
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So the first time I saw her it was quite scary, because she was, basically by that point it [the illness] had gone sort of all the way up her body. So she was completely paralysed. And her face was affected as well. So she had, her eyes were rolling and she sort of couldn't focus on us. And obviously she was heavily sedated because she was in, with all the tubes and everything. And I think she was, they have to sedate people to stop them from getting too scared and pulling all the tubes out. So she looked pretty awful the first time I saw her. Which was not very pleasant. And I think we were all a bit shocked at that stage because we didn't know anything about the illness or what was going to happen. 

 
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She felt her husband looked like a stranger after his mountain bike accident and dreaded breaking...

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Female
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When we arrived at the hospital I was taken into a room. The senior nurse went through [my husband's] injuries, which included a fracture in his neck, a collapsed lung and a pretty bad head injury. I wanted to see him. So they took me in to see him. That was quite a shock, seeing him for the first time. Because he was all hooked up to machines and had tubes etc everywhere. What struck me as well was how swollen his face was. It looked totally unlike [my husband]. He had a breathing tube in his mouth and a chest drain coming off. All I could think of at that time though was, 'Oh, my God. I've got to tell his parents.' After having been there a short while, and because time was marching on and I didn't want to be ringing them in the middle of the night, I went home. So the friend that had come with me drove me back home and was a bit reluctant to leave me. But I said I'd be fine. 

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? 

Yeah. 

And you saw your husband in ICU? 

Yes. 

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...

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Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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I had been familiar with intensive care units because of my background. I have been involved in the health service all my working life and obviously I had been involved in them, I'd had them built, I knew of them, I'd set them up and so on and so forth. But that is very different from actually facing it firsthand. And if you talk to any of the consultants or nursing staff that work on them they think that it wouldn't faze them, yes it would if it was their own relatives. And it does. It is different, it is completely different. It is difficult to describe. You think because of your background you understand these things, you know what is going on, way back you do know what is going on and you are familiar with it, the machinery, the haemofiltration, all sorts of stuff. It wasn't strange to me. I knew what it was there for and what it did and all this sort of stuff you know, the oxygen level, saturation levels, I knew all that because of the work I'd done previously. So none of that was new to me, but when it is actually being done or someone you love dearly is on the receiving end of it, then it is very difficult. And you can see then how emotion can cloud judgements and it certainly did. It did, there's no doubt about it. 

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...

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Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
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And they came out to see us before we went onto the ward to explain that he was on a ventilator, he'd got lots of tubes and wires, but not to worry, he was all right, and not to be put off by the machines. And that, although he was asleep, they thought that he might be able to hear us. So they said, 'You know, talk to him normally and see what happens.' Which is what we did. And the nurse was explaining what the machines were doing so that we weren't put off by the noises while we were actually round his bed. And then the doctors took us to one side and explained that he'd actually had a perforated bowel, and that had to be removed and re-stitched, that he would be with them for a few days, but the operation had gone well. And obviously they said because of the lymphoma, they'd had to send parts off to research to see whether the cancer was in the bowel as well. And they took our telephone number and said that we could ring at any time during the night and, if we wanted to, or anything happened, they would ring us. And we left him feeling that he was definitely in safe hands and that they were fighting for him as much as we were. 

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...

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Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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I think men are hard-wired differently to women, and I know that when friends visited her [wife], a lot of her friends would come with their husbands, who are good friends as well, and a lot of them would walk into the unit and see her there, this little tiny head completely surrounded with tubes and monitors and god knows what else and nothing else on show. And they would just break down in floods of tears and the men, their husbands, were uncomfortable. I mean one or two of them that we know extremely well tried to give her a hug and so on, and they were quite emotional about it. But they had more difficulty in dealing with that situation than the women and one very close friend, who has been a friend for over 30 years, whose wife and daughter visited, the daughter is a young lady, and they were both in floods of tears and he wouldn't go in. Didn't need to see her, 'She was here' he said, and he left it at that. 

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. 

 
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Even though medical staff were treating their critically ill son, he looked comfortable when they...

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Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
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Then I was allowed to come and see our son. People were doing things to him. And he had no sign of any injury but I could only see him from the chest up. But he just looked like he was sleeping. He just looked utterly comfortable and fast asleep. And his motorcycle gear had been cut off him and it was in a pile by the door and his boots were there, and his helmet and everything. And then I went back into the little room and the policeman kept making me cups of tea. I think he made me about three altogether [laughs]. He was very friendly, very supportive. 

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...

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Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
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So your wife went in for the second operation. And after that, that's when she went to the Intensive Care Unit? 

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.

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