Experiences of intensive care with COVID-19

Whilst most people who get infected with COVID-19 experience mild to moderate symptoms and illness, or even no symptoms at all, a few become critically ill and require specialist medical care. Although older age groups and those living with pre-existing health conditions are more vulnerable to a COVID-19 infection, anyone can become critically ill or die.

In this section, you can learn about the experiences of being in an intensive care unit (ICU) and recovery from being critically ill with COVID-19, and the experiences of being a partner, friend, or family member of somebody admitted to ICU with COVID-19, by seeing and hearing people share their personal stories.

Between February 2021 to December 2021, medical anthropologist Annelieke Driessen interviewed 44 people across the UK about their experiences of intensive care with COVID-19: 32 patients, and 12 family members and close friends of somebody who had been in ICU with COVID-19, 6 of whom had lost their loved one in ICU. Two additional interviews came from the Healthtalk project [COVID-19 Recovery] and one interview was conducted by Syed Ahmed. All but two interviews were conducted via videoconferencing platforms and the phone, to comply with the public health restrictions in place at the time, and to ensure the safety of all involved. Lisa Hinton was involved as a senior researcher, and contributed to recruitment, analysis, and write-up.

Participants who had been admitted to ICU were aged between 33 and 77 years old at the time of their admission. Partners, family members and friends who participated were between 23 and 68 years old. Some participants were interviewed as soon as three months after their or their loved one’s admission, others were interviewed up to thirteen months afterwards.

In many ways, COVID-19 is a moving target. Since its emergence in the UK in March 2020, COVID-19 has known many variants, the most widespread and concerning came to be known as ‘Alpha’, ‘Beta’, ‘Delta’ and ‘Omicron’. In the early months of the pandemic the condition and its treatment were mostly unknown to clinical staff and scientists. Rapidly devised clinical trials demonstrated the efficacy of drug treatments to reduce the mortality rate. Vaccines have radically changed the way the virus was dealt with, both personally as well as politically. Health services were variously burdened with the sheer number of people needing care at the same time, which impacted not only how well people could be helped, but also their experiences in hospital and their health outcomes after discharge. Finally, public health measures including lockdowns, visitor restrictions to hospitals, public availability of testing and vaccines have shaped people’s experiences of seeking help, admission to hospital, the stay in ICU, recovery, support, and bereavement. Experiences of COVID-19 and intensive care are therefore diverse in many ways. Participants in this study spent time in ICU between March and April 2020 and September 2020 and April 2021, as part of the first two waves of COVID-19- infections in the UK. Speaking to patients with experiences of ICU with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was not within the scope of the study.

In this section you can find out about patients’ experiences of symptoms before admission, getting in touch with health care services, admission to hospital, experiences of ICU treatments and infection control measures, discharge, and recovery. From family members you can hear about their experiences with the visitor ban, communication with doctors and nurses, end-life visits and bereavement, or the time after their loved one came home.

This study is 1 of 4 healthtalk.org projects on COVID-19 in the UK.
COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by a virus known as SARS-CoV-2. Although COVID-19 is the official name of the viral infection, we use ‘Covid’ throughout for purposes of readability.

Funded by

This project is supported by the Health Foundation’s grant to the University of Cambridge for The Healthcare Improvement Studies Institute (THIS Institute). The project is a collaboration between the THIS institute at the University of Cambridge, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Health Experiences Research Group at the University of Oxford.