A seriously ill or injured person is usually taken to the accident and emergency department of a hospital by ambulance. They are taken to the nearest hospital with the most appropriate facilities. On arrival, a patient is taken to an area sometimes called the resuscitation room. This does not necessarily mean that your loved one needs to be resuscitated. A standard assessment, which checks a patient's airway, breathing and circulation, is carried out, along with any necessary further examinations and treatment.
There is always an accident and emergency doctor and a senior nurse in the resuscitation room. Further staff will help as required. If a patient needs an operation urgently they may go straight to the operating theatre. If a patient is in a very serious condition, possibly life-threatening, they are often taken to an intensive care unit.
You may have arrived at the hospital while the assessment of your loved one's condition was taking place. Time can pass very slowly when waiting for news. Family and friends are usually shown to a waiting room and informed of what is happening as soon as possible.
What is an intensive care unit?
Patients whose conditions are life-threatening, either through serious injury or illness, need constant, close monitoring. They often need equipment and medicine to support normal bodily functions. This care is provided in an intensive care unit (ICU) which is sometimes called an intensive therapy unit or a critical care unit. Each ICU is run by a senior nurse who manages an ICU team. There are more nurses than on an ordinary ward.
Some hospitals have separate departments for people with particular problems. Occasionally it is necessary to move a patient to a unit in another hospital to provide specialist care. The length of time patients stay in an ICU depends on the extent of their illness or injuries. Some patients recover fairly quickly, others may remain in the ICU for weeks. Recovery is not possible in all cases and sometimes a patient dies.
What happens when a patient is taken to an ICU?
When a patient is brought to an ICU it can take more than an hour for the doctors and nurses to assess the patient's condition, make them as comfortable as possible and attach them to the necessary equipment. It is normal to have to wait during this time. This can be frustrating but it is important that the ICU staff stabilise the patient's condition. A member of staff will explain what is happening as soon as possible.
Visting an Intensive Care Unit
What an ICU looks like
ICUs can vary in size. They may be small with four to six beds or they may be larger with twelve or more beds. ICUs do not have separate male and female sections but efforts are made to ensure that privacy and dignity are maintained.
Entering an ICU
To enter an ICU you may need to press a buzzer and speak to a receptionist or nurse on an intercom. Some ICUs have a reception desk near the entrance. Unless you are told otherwise, you should always check with a member of staff before entering. When you enter an ICU, you may be asked to wash your hands and you may need to wear a facemask to prevent the spread of germs.
Is an ICU noisy?
The noise levels in an ICU can vary but it can be quite noisy, especially during the day. There may be beeping noises from equipment and even an occasional alarm sound. This is normal and does not necessarily mean something is wrong.
Intensive care units may be found in hospital buildings that are old or new. The age of the building has no bearing on standard of care, which should be uniformly high.
Will I recognise my loved one?
Your loved one may look very different from the last time you saw them. Their body may be bruised or swollen if they have suffered injuries. They may be attached to lots of equipment. The ICU staff will be able to tell you what to expect.
Can I touch my loved one?
Tubes and wires often surround a patient in an ICU. It is usually possible to touch your loved one but it is a good idea to check with a nurse first.
Can I talk to my loved one?
Patients in ICUs are often unconscious, at least during the early part of their treatment. This is often because they are being given drugs to make them sleepy and comfortable. Patients who are conscious may appear sleepy or confused. A patient may be able to hear even if they cannot respond. Nursing and medical staff usually talk to unconscious patients to tell them what is happening. Feel free to talk to your loved one and let them know you are there.
It is normal to feel upset at seeing someone you love in an ICU. It is understandable if you experience strong emotions or find it hard to cope. The staff are there to answer any questions you may have. You may find it helpful to have someone with you who can offer you support.
Click here to go to the next section of this guide - Equipment in an Intensive Care Unit