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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. 

 

She felt that visitors were supportive of each other and, because her son was so young, she...

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Age at interview: 49
Sex: Female
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When we did eventually go up to the visitors room and it's a lovely little room right off intensive care, you just walk through into intensive care. It takes you a while to get your bearings in a hospital. And it could be because accident and emergency is directly off the car park usually, well always, but the rest of the hospital is like a maze. And afterwards you think, 'Oh we went down there' and so initially it's all a blur. But the room is very comfortable, had a couple of sofas, had a telly, had coffee and tea making facilities, and a loo. And then direct access into the intensive care when you needed it. But when we first walked in, there were people who'd been there for a while and so there's a different mood with them. They usually know which way it's going and it's more positive or you know, they're dealing with it. We were still in a state of shock. We didn't know what was happening. He wasn't at that point even stable, I don't think. And it was too noisy. We needed a private room still. And we tended to go out and sit in the corridor. 

While you're in intensive care as well, though you are also very supportive of other families. While we were there obviously, we became the old hands, especially seventeen days. And you'd see the next come in and we found that if someone came in and it was their first day, we would actually vacate the visitors' room to give them space, knowing that we'd needed it. And we would go walk about so that they had the comfort of the room. And you tended also to make coffees and teas for everyone and you would always, you were as interested in other people as well. And great support, fantastic how they were all just so lovely. I had another case where a man came out and I was the only one in the visitors' room, at that time, and he just sat with his father while he died. And I was so pleased that I was there because otherwise he'd have come out to this empty room. And he needed to talk and he was saying how peaceful it had been and that that was great. 

And, you know, there were people dying in there and you did cope and you hopefully helped their relatives as well. You know it was very much a knock on affect. So you were a part of this club, this very, very unique, very special, and an incredible bond. And because my son was young, we got overwhelming support because everyone was so grateful that it wasn't them really. It was, I think they felt a youngster is the hardest thing. 

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.

 
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When other visitors asked him questions, it reinforced for him just how important it was for...

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Age at interview: 48
Sex: Male
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So at this point were you talking to quite a lot of relatives in the relatives' room? 

Yes. All the families are often waiting around there while the patients are being turned, rolled, washed, whatever. Or they would tell my mother they didn't understand what was going on so, when I turned up, usually in the evening after work, she would point them in my direction and say 'can you explain what this means?' I suppose they were taking advantage of someone who was in the relatives' room who had some background knowledge. But I think it just reinforced how doctors assumed they were  communicating well but, from a relative's perspective, perhaps it could or should have been better.

 

He tried to give support and encouragement to a man who was losing hope for his critically ill son.

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Age at interview: 66
Sex: Male
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While I was there in that there was a terrible situation I suppose with the parents of a young boy, a young boy in his teens, who were distraught because he appeared to be on his last legs and they were told to prepare themselves again for the worst. And we were talking, me and another man whose wife was in, we were talking with the parents in the visitors' kitchen, the relative's kitchen, and the parents were absolutely distraught. They were really broken by this news and they were on the point of giving up. And my advice to them was, whether it was good advice or not I don't know, was not to give up at all but to get in there, and particularly for the father to get hold of his son and tell him how much he loved him and needed him, and keep on doing it, day in and day out. And although he was unconscious, I believed with my wife something got through there because they said the monitors reflected a change, and continue to do that and never, never give up on him. 

And it might be very difficult for him to show his emotions and feelings like that, but nevertheless to do it because he was his son and he needed his support, as much as he needed his mother's support and his dad just couldn't be distant from it. And fortunately the son survived and was discharged and is fit and well from what I know. It wasn't because of what I said at all, it can't be because that was medical nursing skill that did that and the boys own determination I presume. But nevertheless the relatives, if they have got hope, I am sure that hope and expectation can have an effect on the patient's recovery. I am sure it can, a very positive effect, and therefore they must not ever give up or be scared or frightened or embarrassed in actually telling an unconscious patient how much they mean to them. Even in public, it doesn't matter.

 

She gained comfort from talking to other people in the relatives' room and did her best to be as...

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Age at interview: 59
Sex: Female
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Through that time in Intensive Care, in the relatives' room, I found comfort, tried to make my husband as well by talking to other people there. Other people, but nobody as young as our son, it was all older people, mothers, fathers. And we couldn't really compare but we became sort of like wrapped into them and they'd got us sort of through it and said, 'When he survives we'll all go out for a drink together, we'll go out for a meal together.'

But I think to be there, it helps to talk to other people that are there. There were several people while we were there that didn't want to talk, we felt that they were in the corner, but there was another couple I met who were very similar to us, and we involved them. We didn't actually talk about the actual incident, we were talking about other things and outdoor life. And suddenly these people came into our little you know not a gang but, you know, to be with us. And it was, they really didn't know what to say at the time but they came out and we all ended up talking about what they did for a living, and it, you know, they actually said to me, 'D'you know this has really helped me today.' 

'I've sat here and I've not spoken. I don't wanna pick up a magazine. I've been really down, but listening to how you're doing it.' And I'm not saying it's right, everybody's different, but I truly believe that if you can just try and hang on to the good times that you had with that person that you're losing, rather than looking at the worst time and when they're so very, very seriously ill or they are fighting for their life, if you can try and keep holding on and on and being more positive it really can get you through. 

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.

 

She found it upsetting talking to people who'd been bereaved but reassuring to see some people...

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Age at interview: 34
Sex: Female
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What I found quite difficult was meeting some of the other relatives of people in Intensive Care, because their family or friends were actually possibly not going to get better. And some of the people in there were really sort of seriously ill, and obviously my sister was seriously ill, but we knew that illness was going to get better whereas some of the other people, they'd maybe been with someone who'd been knocked off their bike and had head injuries. And that was quite difficult to speak to his family, because, you know, they didn't know if he was going to pull through the night. And there was a girl who'd been attacked and stabbed. And that was quite difficult because there was a lot of press coverage around that and there was lots of police around the ward to stop people from getting in. So the whole situation with that was quite difficult, because you had to, not only cope with going in and seeing your, a member of your family who was ill but also all these other things that were going on around you. And it was, I mean it was nice to see when some people did recover and moved out of Intensive Care quite quickly. That was great. But obviously there were some people who didn't make it. And that was quite upsetting to see their families and know that that person had not made it. 

Did you meet these all in Intensive Care, in the Visitors' Room? 

Yes. Yes, sort of sitting just outside Intensive Care. Because obviously sometimes you can't go into Intensive Care. Either they're, you know, they might be washing the patients or they, you know, there's certain times that you can't visit, like they have quiet times.

 
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She found it extremely traumatic when someone died and difficult to be supportive to others when...

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Age at interview: 58
Sex: Female
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When you're in the intensive care, you are very much aware of what's going on around you as well because all you're doing is sitting in a chair. And I was talking to my son, believing that he could hear me, that this would be a positive thing to do. But when you're in the relatives' room, you come into contact with other families. And that can be very traumatic. There were two young victims of road traffic accidents, both of whom passed away. And there are only curtains between the beds, in the main ward, I think I'm right in saying there were nine beds in the main ward. And there was one time when one young girl came in and her whole family were devastated, she was part of a traffic accident and a few days later she passed away. And so whenever you went out to the relatives' room and walked down the corridor, there were all of her relatives, they were obviously a very close family. That was very traumatic. You know, so you're trying to support each other as well as having your own relative to support. 

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. 

 

Many of the visitors she saw in the relatives' room were understandably wrapped up in their own...

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Age at interview: 70
Sex: Female
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I didn't say anything about the waiting room, which was a strange place. I mean very often when you get to the hospital, you ring at the bell and you say who you are at the door of the ward and they say, 'Well, could you wait. We're just doing something.' And so we would wait in the waiting room. And you kind of got to be familiar with the families who were in there, although again I didn't actually have many conversations with anyone. But everybody's situation was so different in a way, although we were all, everybody was focused in on really their own particular tragedy. But it was a kind of all-right place, although some people obviously spent long hours of the day there. I would learn to take a book and read in there. And there were facilities for making tea but I didn't actually do that, I don't think.

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. 

 

The relatives' room wasn't really big enough and you couldn't make yourself a drink.

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Age at interview: 46
Sex: Female
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Had you ever been in an Intensive Care Unit before? 

No. No I didn't really know what to expect. But they were very good. You have to put a bleep and they have got a video camera and they let you in, which is very good I suppose. They have to have security. And there was a waiting room. You could have done with a coffee machine. 

In the waiting room? 

Yes. There wasn't. It was further down in the hospital. So it was quite a walk. 

Was there anybody else in the waiting room? 

Yes there was. It could have done with being a bit bigger actually because there was only three chairs and a sort of smallish settee. There was another gentleman as well whose wife had died sadly and there was a few other families coming and going as well. 

And did you talk to them?

No. He didn't seem to want to talk. You know, he didn't make eye contact or anything so' 

Did you sit in the waiting room a lot? 

Yes a lot. Especially if, say, they were doing something to mum we would go and sit in there. And sometimes we have been there for about an hour and they would come and get us. 

How would you have liked that waiting room improved if they were going to improve it? 

Well it had a telly. Just may be a little bit bigger. And a coffee machine or some kind of machine like that. There was a toilet and everything in there, so it was okay. 

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 August 2018.

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