Intensive care: Patients' experiences

Physical recovery

Generally people who are admitted to the intensive care unit as emergencies spend the longest time there. Planned surgery patients tend to have a relatively short ICU and general ward stay, sometimes with a brief spell in a High Dependency Unit. Everyone who has been in intensive care recovers at his or her own pace. Most people we talked to said they felt physically weak when they left hospital. Sometimes complete recovery can take up to two years, particularly if people were admitted to ICU because of an emergency illness, surgical complication or accident. Here people talk about their physical recovery at home after leaving hospital.

Emergency admissions
How long someone takes to recover after an episode in intensive care depends on many things, including their age, previous health, how ill they were in ICU and how long they stayed there. Most people said they were completely unprepared for the time it took to regain strength and mobility when they left intensive care. Having little or no memory of their intensive care experiences can also affect expectations of recovery time because people may not realise how ill they were at the time or why they feel so weak and debilitated when they leave hospital. Some remembered little about their hospital stay and even the first few weeks back home were hazy.

Weakness and mobility
In the first few days and weeks after being very ill in intensive care, people often found that the slightest activity 'wiped them out'. Most said they were weak and immobile when they first got home. Normal daily activities such as washing, walking, cooking and cleaning were often impossible and many found climbing up and down the stairs in a day was all they could manage. Some people had their beds moved downstairs when they first got home because climbing the stairs was too difficult and tiring. Others had to go up and down stairs on their backsides or hold on to furniture as they walked around the house.

One woman had come home with portable oxygen to help her breathing. Another came home with a VAC machine to help heal her wound faster and more completely than if she left it to heal naturally. ~Others said they returned with walking sticks or had to use a wheelchair to help them move around. One man said he came home with his tracheostomy and, on one occasion, had to go back into hospital for the day because he accidentally pulled it out.

Some people found their own ways around feeling weak and being unable to cope with everyday chores. One couple decided to stay in a hotel so they didn't have to worry about cooking and housework and then decided to go on a cruise. Others, who lived alone, said they appreciated getting their meals through the Meals on Wheels service.

Some people explained how carrying on with physiotherapy when they first came home helped them re-build physical strength. Others, who'd had surgery in hospital, said that they'd been visited by district nurses who changed their dressings. Many people stressed how much support they received from carers, who helped them cope with personal care such as dressing and washing.

Many people talked about being tired when they first got home and feeling completely drained of energy after doing something as basic as walking. Being extremely weak, needing help with many basic activities such as dressing, washing and cooking, some had felt 'like a child again'. Others had to rely completely on relatives for help until they got stronger.

Many people felt frustrated because they wanted to do things but were too weak or tired. One woman said, “On several occasions I'd go to stand up and think 'I can't do this', but in my head I was thinking I want to stand up and turn the television over.” People also recalled how they tried to do too much when they first felt they were improving. One man recalled falling down and then taking it slower again. Others remembered spending days feeling exhausted having pushed themselves too much.

Some people's physical recovery included gaining weight. Others said they had to change their diets or eating habits, for example eating smaller portions more frequently.

Improvement and recovery
Most people said they gradually regained strength and mobility day by day. Walking a bit further each day, doing more for themselves, building on their exercise regimens were all important signs of improvement. Many said they became less frustrated the more they could do things for themselves again and when they could go outdoors. This often started with short car rides or walks, then shopping trips and, later, holidays. Some noted that, although they were still very weak, because their disabilities were not visible other people could be inconsiderate when they were out in busy places.

Many people stressed the importance of setting themselves realistic goals while they were recovering because it gave them a sense of achievement when they succeeded.

For one woman, having a young baby to look after motivated her to get better as quickly as she could. For another, being strong enough to have another baby encouraged her to rebuild her physical and emotional health.

Most people stressed that, although recovery took longer than they'd expected, they now felt much stronger physically and able to look ahead. Many had made important changes to their lifestyles, such as stopping smoking, eating healthier food and working less (see 'Attitudes to life during and after recovery'). Some people also talked about interruptions in their recovery, such as infections. A few said that, after lots of progress in the first year out of hospital, they were now 'slipping' in terms of exercise.

Planned admissions
People who were admitted to ICU because of planned surgery were also weak when they came home. A few who'd had cancer had to have chemotherapy a few months after returning home. Others, who'd had heart surgery said that, although they'd felt weak when they first left hospital, they soon felt 'wonderful' because they were stronger than before their operations. For one man, it felt like being 're-born'. Others described how the surgery had changed their lives and enabled them to do so much more physically than before.

Many people recalled how relatives looked after them when they got back home, and some noted spending more time with their partners than they had for a long time (see 'Impact on family'). 

Last reviewed August 2018.


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