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Learning About the ICU Environment

Busy scene in the intensive care unit

What happens in the ICU?

An intensive care unit (ICU) is a part of the hospital where very sick people get care. It could be a special unit for people with heart, breathing, or other serious medical problems. Or it could be a place to recover after surgery.

There's a lot going on in the ICU. It can be scary and confusing for patients and their families, friends, and supporters. The ICU is often busier than other places in the hospital. There's more medical staff on duty and more equipment, blinking lights, and noise.

The staff knows that you might have lots of questions about what's going on in the ICU. You can ask about anything you see there. ICU staff spends more time with fewer patients, so you may get to know the same nurses during your time in the ICU.

The ICU will probably have its own waiting room for visitors and its own clerk to check in with. Many ICUs are designed so that nurses and doctors can watch over their patients from a central location.

What can you expect in the ICU?

Some ICU patients can communicate with their care team—doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff, as well as family and friends. But many cannot. Some patients may be able to write messages on a whiteboard or pad.

There is lots of equipment in the ICU. You can expect to see tubes, wires, and machines everywhere. The staff will help you understand what all of this equipment does.

Patients in the ICU need to rest. They may sleep much of the time. Hospital staff may dim the lights to help people sleep. Visiting hours may be different in the ICU. You may be asked to move to the waiting area so that the staff can treat your loved one.

The ICU must be as clean as possible to help prevent infections. You will be expected to wash your hands each time you enter the ICU. Depending on your loved one's condition, you may also have to wear a disposable gown.

You may have to make serious health decisions in the ICU. If a patient is unable to make these decisions because of medical reasons, his or her designated supporters will need to help make decisions. The ICU staff will help provide support and as much information as they can for you to make these decisions. Some of the decisions you may need to make include what types of treatments or surgeries to pursue and how to plan for the end of life.

Who will you see in the ICU?

  • ICU patients are in critical condition. They may have breathing or heart problems, serious head or other traumatic injuries, and uncontrolled infections. Many patients move from the emergency room into the ICU for extended critical care.
  • The staff at the ICU includes a larger team for each patient. This team includes specialized nurses and doctors, therapists, and technicians. You may also see social workers and maintenance staff. The team is designed to keep your loved one comfortable and safe and to provide the best medical care.

Where can you learn more?

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