Intensive care: Patients' experiences

Emotional experiences in ICU

Admission to an intensive care unit is often a brief but extremely important hospital experience for most people, and one that affects everyone in different ways. Here people talk about how they felt emotionally while they were ill or injured in intensive care.

Feelings of weakness and dependence
Many people - particularly those who'd been admitted as emergencies and had spent a week or more in intensive care - said that although they didn't 'feel ill', they did feel extremely tired and weak. Some realised only when they were moved or 'hoisted' out of bed to a chair how weak they actually were. Even after just a few days of being ill and motionless in intensive care, muscle wastage and neuropathy can make many normal, daily activities extremely difficult. Understandably, patients hadn't known this, so this weakness often surprised or shocked them. Although the causes of ICU neuropathy are poorly understood, it is estimated that 33 - 57 percent of patients who stay in the ICU for longer than 7 days could get neuropathy.* Exact data is hard to find as there is no agreed definition of the disease.

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Many people, who had been strong and independent before their illness, found their dependence and weakness difficult to accept. Frustration sometimes set in if they were too weak to write and couldn't communicate in any other way because breathing equipment prevented them from being able to talk. Some couldn't eat by themselves, walk, brush their teeth or comb their hair, and said they spent a lot time 'watching and staring'.

Because they felt so weak and tired, some people said they didn't want many visitors while they were in intensive care. Having to be alert or to make an effort for their visitors was often 'hard work' and draining. 

A few people wanted only close family to visit at this time, not wanting others, particularly young children, to see them so ill or looking so different (see 'Impact on family'). Others said they couldn't remember exactly who had visited them and only learnt that certain relatives, friends or colleagues had visited through later conversations during their recovery at home (for more information see our section on Intensive care: experiences of family & friends).

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Feeling powerless
Feelings of being 'completely out of control' in intensive care were common because many people were unable to do anything for themselves. Others explained how being so weak made them feel they were like children again as they had to re-learn how to do many normal daily activities. Having to rely on medical staff for every kind of personal care troubled others.

Feeling alone
Some people had been depressed because of their weakness and very slow recovery. Others had felt frustrated, bored, lonely or isolated. 

Feeling calm or hopeful
Some people said they felt 'hazy', confused or paranoid because of the morphine they received to ease pain, others felt calm and peaceful because of it.

One man said that, despite being ill, he stayed positive throughout his time in intensive care because of the support he received from his family. Like many, he focussed on getting better and being well enough to go home. Another man discussed the targets he consistently set himself to improve and recover.

Some women praised the pampering and care they received from nurses - including nail-care and shaving legs and under-arms - which helped them feel better about themselves and how they looked.

Many people described how they gradually regained their strength and improved. One man had stayed an extra day in intensive care to help translate for another patient. Others described how they felt when they were well enough to be taken outside again for the first time since being admitted. One woman had insisted on being taken outside as it was so long since she'd seen natural daylight and felt fresh air. Others didn't go outdoors until they left hospital.

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* Johnson, KL (Apr–Jun 2007). "Neuromuscular complications in the intensive care unit: critical illness polyneuromyopathy.". AACN Advanced Critical Care 18 (2): 167–80; quiz 181–2. doi:10.1097/01.AACN.0000269260.99169.70. PMID 17473545.

Last reviewed August 2018.

Last updated May 2015.


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