Intensive care: experiences of family & friends

Sources of support in ICU

People are admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) for varying lengths of time because their illness or injuries may be life-threatening and they need intense support while they are treated, constant monitoring and 24-hour nursing care that cannot be performed on general wards]. Because critical illness is often a sudden, unexpected emergency, it can change the lives of both the patient and those they are close to in a matter of minutes. The everyday lives of relatives and close friends may come to an abrupt halt or be turned upside down as they live in the uncertainty of not knowing whether the patient will survive. Relatives and close friends usually know very little about why a person has become so ill so quickly and the ICU, an unfamiliar, alien environment, often becomes the centre of their lives as they wait desperately for any signs of change or pr ogress. 

Having a relative, partner or close friend critically ill in ICU is a crisis situation that everyone deals with differently. Here people talk about the support they received or would have liked when someone close to them was ill in intensive care.

Relatives and close friends had received support from various sources, including family, friends, neighbours and health professionals, and had valued different kinds of support during this extremely distressing, uncertain time, including help with looking after homes, young children and pets. 

Many people said they'd received a lot of support from family, and some said different relatives had supported them in different ways. One woman said her eldest sister had supported the whole family emotionally as well as taking care of many practical matters, such as looking after her ill sister's home while she'd been in hospital. Some people with young children praised the support they'd received from their mothers, who'd looked after their children, often moving into their homes so they could visit ICU every day. One woman said she'd had support from two families when her partner had been critically ill - her own and her partner's grown-up children. Several mentioned they'd grown closer to family members and partners because they'd spent so much time together, sharing the highs and supporting one another through the lows. 

Many people said support from family had been crucial during this time. One woman explained how she'd asked relatives to be positive while her son had been critically ill and to send him their positive thoughts and energy. Those who'd had large or extended families said they'd supported one another and ensured someone had always been at the patient's bedside. 

Some people said they'd received a lot of support from grown-up children. One 79-year-old man said that when his wife had been critically ill, his daughter had taken time off work and travelled some distance to where he lived to look after him and his home so he could focus on visiting his wife. Another said his daughters had cooked a meal for him every evening so that when he returned from visiting ICU he hadn't had to worry about cooking. Although he hadn't always felt hungry, they'd made sure he'd eaten and been looking after himself.

One woman said she and her sister stayed overnight in hospital throughout the time her husband was in ICU. Every evening her brother-in-law had brought her and her sister a cooked meal. Many said they'd valued support from family and had wanted to be mostly with their families at this difficult time, rather than with friends. One woman said that, although her relatives had lived some distance away, they'd always been there for her had she needed support but she'd often wanted to have peace and quiet. 

For some people friends had been particularly helpful, understanding and supportive and some said it was at this difficult time that they learnt who their true friends were. One woman said that, when her sister was in ICU, one of her sister's friends became 'like family' for a while as she'd become so involved in helping and supporting everyone. 

Another woman recalled how one of her close friends had taken a week off work to be with her while her partner was in ICU, even though she was self-employed and wouldn't get paid for that week. Others said friends had helped by cooking meals, looking after their homes and providing emotional support. One woman said she'd received a lot of emotional support from a friend who'd recently been ill herself. Another said a good friend had offered to cook and do her washing and made sure she hadn't had to keep repeating news of her partner's illness by updating other friends. Several praised the support they'd received from friends who'd left meals for them, often on the doorstep, for when they'd returned from a busy, exhausting day at the hospital. One woman said she'd received a lot of support from her sister-in-law's friends when her sister-in-law had been ill in ICU, even though she hadn't known or met them before. 

Some people praised the support they'd received from neighbours. Several explained how neighbours had cooked for them, looked after their pets or homes, or had helped by doing the shopping. 

Some said health professionals had been very supportive, especially ICU nurses. Some praised nurses who'd shown an interest in them as well as the patient (see 'Nursing care'). One woman praised the support she'd received from an osteopath, who'd massaged her husband when he'd been critically ill, and she felt this had helped his recovery. Several said relatives or friends who'd worked in the health field had been able to provide both information and support. 

Some people said they'd received support from other visitors in intensive care, who they'd often met in the ICU relatives' room (see 'The relatives' room' and 'Overnight accommodation'). One man said he'd received information and support from a couple who'd been through something similar themselves, and this had been extremely helpful. A few said they would have liked to speak to other people who had experienced what they'd been through. 

At this difficult time most people said they'd valued the practical support they'd received from family, friends and neighbours as much as the emotional. This included help with looking after their homes, pets, young children, lifts to the hospital, gardening, shopping and cooking meals. Many had been struck by how understanding employers had been during this time, and the support they'd received from colleagues who'd sent cards and other messages of good-will (see 'Impact on work and finances').

For many, a great source of comfort, support and hope had been their religion, spirituality or faith in God. Some people said that, when they hadn't been sitting at the patient's bedside, they'd been in the hospital chapel. Some had visited the chapel every day and lit candles. Many said they'd prayed the ill person would survive and be able to lead a full life again. A few had spoken with hospital chaplains and received comfort and support from them. 

Many said sitting in the chapel, often alone and in silence, had been comforting. Some said their faith had helped them through an extremely difficult time and to accept what had happened. Others said friends from their church had visited the patient in ICU and prayed for them. Many said friends, relatives and other people, often from across the world, had prayed the patient would recover and felt these prayers had had a positive effect on the patient.

Many people said that, although they hadn't considered themselves to be religious, during this traumatic, uncertain time, they'd prayed in desperation and hoped their prayers would be answered. 

One woman said her husband's critical illness had made her question her lack of faith. 

Some people said they hadn't always received the support they'd wanted and that some friends and family had been more supportive than others. A few said they'd wanted to deal with the patient's illness in their own ways and hadn't wanted to talk to other people. They'd often withdrawn from the support they'd been offered by friends and relatives because they'd needed to be alone. One man, an ICU consultant, said that, although he hadn't needed support because he'd been familiar with the ICU environment and treatments, he'd supported his mother who'd found it extremely difficult when his father was critically ill. Another said that, when his wife had been critically ill, he'd had very little support but, occasionally, his neighbours had walked his dogs if he'd been unable to. 

A few people said they would have valued having some counselling when the patient had been in ICU, had it been available. Many others, however, felt they wouldn't have been able to think about anything else at the time, though some did have counselling after the ill person had come back home. Some also said they'd joined support groups then, but hadn't been able to think about these while the patient had still been in ICU.

Last reviewed February 2013.

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