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Intensive Care: A Guide for You and Your Family

What to expect

As your family member or friend lies in bed getting treatment and care, you may find that all you can do is sit, watch, and wait. Often days will go by with no changes that you can see.

People can often hear what’s going on around them even if they’re sedated or not awake. You’ll notice that many nurses talk about what they’re doing as they provide care. This can be reassuring to your loved one even though they may not remember it clearly when they do wake up.

Help your loved one

Talk to your family member or friend. Tell them what’s happening outside, what the kids are doing, or anything you’d normally talk about. Keeping up a one-sided conversation can be hard, but this can help your loved one relax, feel more connected and cared for. Talking about shared experiences of holidays and good times can make you feel better too. You could also try reading a newspaper, magazine, or book out loud.

Your loved one may find it hard to talk to you even if they’re awake. If they have trouble talking out loud they may able to:

  • write
  • point to words, letters, or numbers that are written on a piece of paper
  • use a cell phone to text or “talk” to each other

The ICU staff may suggest that you bring in some of your family member’s personal items to help in their recovery such as favorite books or music.

Some family members want to be involved in the care for their loved one. You may be able to help by doing things such as:

  • brushing their teeth
  • massage their hands, feet, legs
  • put lotion on their hands and feet

What and how much you can do will depend on how ill your family member is. Talk to the staff if you want to help in this way.

Help ICU staff get to know your loved one

Getting to know your family member or friend better may help the ICU staff give more personal care. They may ask you what your loved one likes, doesn’t like, and prefers to be called.

They’ll also talk to you about a personal directives (a living will) or if your family member has any wishes about the care they want if they can’t speak for themselves. Things like quality of life after being very ill, do they want CPR, and other important decisions will help the staff know your loved one’s wishes. You might recognize this as Goals of Care or their Green Sleeve.

All of these help to provide a more complete picture of who your family member is and what they’d want in this situation. Any type of decisions about care will always be discussed with the family or the person chosen to speak for your loved one.

Help your loved one remember

You may find it helpful to keep a diary of what’s happening each day. It can help you to see small changes in how your family member or friend is doing when you look back.

This diary can also be very useful to help your loved one understand what happened to them. They may have very confused memories of their time in the ICU or no memory of it at all. The diary can fill in gaps in their memory.

Many ICUs in Alberta provide a notebook for you in the ICU welcome package. You can use this for your diary or to write down questions that you want to ask.

Help stop infection

People who are critically ill may not be able to protect themselves from germs and infection very well. Staff will do all they can to protect your loved one.

You can help too by cleaning your hands using soap and water or using hand sanitizers (alcohol-based hand rub) you’ll see around the unit. Clean your hands before you come in to the ICU and before you go near or touch your loved one. Be sure to clean them again when you leave the ICU. It’s OK to ask other visitors to clean their hands too.

Your family member or friend may need isolation precautions to protect them from infection or to protect others. If this is needed, the staff will be show you how to put on the masks, gowns, and gloves as needed.

Other things you can expect

The ICU can be a very busy place with people coming and going and lots of strange noises. The bedside area can often be very crowded with machines, equipment, and chairs. You may be asked to leave at times so that certain treatments or procedures can be done. This can include things like X-rays, dressing changes, or going to the bathroom.

You may also be asked to leave to protect the privacy of another patient in the next room or cubicle.

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