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Resource type: Article

Visiting the Intensive Care Unit for the first time

Visiting the Intensive Care Unit for the first time

Some patients are admitted to Intensive Care as a planned part of their care-after major surgery or to allow specialist treatments to be performed, for example. In the case of planned major surgery, it is sometimes possible to visit the Intensive Care Unit beforehand, so that you and your family member have some idea of what to expect. Some people prefer to do this, while others don't.It's completely up to you.

Many patients are admitted to Intensive Care, however, after a sudden illness or in an emergency situation such as an accident or unexpected complications during an operation.

How am I going to feel?

When visiting your family member in the Intensive Care Unit for the first time, it is completely understandable to feel completely overwhelmed by seeing him or her sedated and surrounded by the monitors, machines and tubes they may be connected to. Patients sometimes look bloated or swollen due to the fluids we often have to give in order to stabilise their condition, and may not look quite like themselves.We understand this can be very frightening. The staff will do their very best to prepare and support you as best they can.

"...we weren't prepared for what we saw, but I don’t think anybody could have prepared us. They could have sat down with us for an hour and tried to describe and explain. I just remember being...just completely overwhelmed and shocked and distraught. But I think shock sets in and – and it was like a safety mechanism as well, you know. You just have to pull yourself together."

"It was a huge shock, but then...I think you’re so in shock that all you can do is just sort of sit and stare."

"I don't think I realised how serious it was until I came and saw him.  I'd never seen anybody in Intensive Care before, so I got quite a shock. I didn't stay very long."

Others have told us, however, that they feel very reassured by the staff, monitors and equipment.

"...he had like that many things round him, all the machines. Actually, we were very struck by how amazing it all was..because if that wasn't there, he wouldn't be here (alive)"

When will I get to speak to the medical staff?

A Consultant or a senior doctor will speak to you as soon as they possibly can after your loved one has been admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. Please be aware that it can sometimes take some time to stabilise your loved one's condition. Having to wait a while before you can see him or her does not necessarily mean that something is wrong.

The staff will do their very best to reassure you by giving you easily understandable information about what's happening with your loved one, and by answering any questions you might have about their condition, their treatment or about the lines and machines they might be connected to.

Your loved one will usually be looked after by one nurse if they need support from a ventilator or breathing machine (sometimes also called life support). If he or she doesn't need that type of support, the nurse at the bedside may also be looking after one other patient.

Visiting at other times

Most Intensive Care Units have an open visiting policy, which generally means that you can visit whenever you want. However, there may very well be certain times of the day when they would prefer you not to visit- during ward rounds, for example. We generally try not to interrupt your visit, but you should be aware that there may be times when we will ask you to wait in the waiting room while we carry out nursing care or certain medical procedures e.g.  putting in lines or drips.