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...
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.
When other visitors asked him questions, it reinforced for him just how important it was for...
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.
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...
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...
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.
She found it extremely traumatic when someone died and difficult to be supportive to others when...
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...
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.
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.