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Resource type: Article

Intensive Care: how much will they remember?

Everyone is different. Some patients have few or only jumbled memories of how they ended up in Intensive Care, or what happened while they were there. This can be due to a number of things, including the nature of their illness or accident, how ill they were, and the use of sedative drugs to keep them comfortable and sleepy during their time in ICU. Not remembering is very common. 

Some patients want to know "everything", whereas some prefer to put their experiences behind them for the time being, and to concentrate on their recovery. Some patients only want to find out more, once they feel recovered enough to do so. You know and understand your family member better than anyone, and you will have a very important role to play in helping them understand what happened, and if and when they might be ready to hear more. There are several things you can do to help, if and when you feel the time is right.

Some ICUs have follow-up or outreach services, where staff follow up patients on the hospital wards or after getting home (usually in a clinic or by telephone). Some Units also offer return visits to the ICU, as some patients find these useful. They can help some people to understand how ill they've been, or to make sense of some of the strange dreams or memories they may have had. Some hospitals also have "buddy" services, where former ICU patients visit people who've just come out of Intensive Care. Ask the ward staff if any of this is available in your hospital, and they will do their best to arrange this for you.

Some ICUs provide patients and families with a brief, easily understandable summary of why your family member ended up in ICU, and what happened while they were there. You should be given a hospital discharge letter to give to your GP, but these can sometimes be written in quite medical or technical terms or may be quite brief.It is possible for patients to see their own medical notes (please see "How can I find out more about what happened to me?" elsewhere on this website). He or she will have to make a formal written request to do this, and there is sometimes a small fee involved. It can take several weeks to arrange this. You should be aware, though, that much of what's written in medical notes is very technical, including some medical terms or abbreviations that you may not understand. It can help to have a healthcare professional explain these things to you, as you read these notes together. 

There are now patient support groups throughout much of the UK, and these are open to both patients and family members. Please vist the ICUsteps website, to find out if there's a support group near you.The website also contains lots of really useful, easily understandable information on many aspects of ICU care, and what to expect during recovery. You could also visit the HealthUnlocked website, which has a dedicated forum or blog for patients and families after ICU.   

Finally, it's really important that you look after yourself, while helping your family member to understand what's happened. It's very common (and completely understandable!) that you yourself may not feel ready to talk about things. You may very well have visited your family member while they were in ICU, and it can feel upsetting and overwhelming to "relive" the experience, if you're not ready.You may not remember or may not have understood everything that you were told during that time, and it may feel like a huge responsibility. Talking to your other family members and friends will help you decide what's best. Be kind to yourself.