Information for friends, relatives and visitors

This section gives information that should reassure you and let you know where to turn to for help when you need it. A patient may be in intensive care because of an accident, an illness, or for treatment after having a major operation, and relatives and friends will be worried about them.

Seeing the patient there for the first time can be very distressing. They are likely to be connected to a number of machines and drips and will often look very different from how they normally look.

The early days

Your relative or friend has been admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) because their body cannot work normally. If they do not get special help, they may have serious long-term effects to their health or they may die.

Sometimes patients in an ICU may have to be moved to an ICU in a different hospital. This could be because the patient needs specialist care that is not available locally, beds are needed for new patients who are more seriously ill or because there aren't enough beds. This can be very upsetting for you and you may have to travel further to visit your friend or relative. However, patients are only moved to a different hospital when it is absolutely necessary.

When a patient is first admitted to an ICU, it is normal for you to feel helpless, and desperate to know everything you can about their chances of recovery. However, the patient will need time to let their body rest and get over the shock of becoming so ill. Sometimes they will be given strong pain-killing drugs or sedatives to help the healing process begin. If you have questions about what is being done, ask the staff in the ICU. They will answer your questions as well as they can, but they will not want to give you false hope. The staff will be happy to explain what they are doing and they will be able to update you as time goes on.

If you're unhappy with the care being given to a patient

The staff normally do all they can to keep relatives informed about what treatment is given and why. Where possible, they will let the patient and relatives know what treatment options they have. If there is anything you don't understand or want to know more about, ask the staff. If you're unhappy with the care being given to the patient and you are not able to deal with this through the ICU staff, you can contact the hospital Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) who will help you to find the answers you need.

Looking after yourself

You can help the patient by taking care of yourself. You shouldn't feel guilty for not being by their bedside 24 hours a day. You need to give yourself a break and this will also give the patient time to rest. The patient will be very well cared for and the staff will contact you straight away if they need to or if there is any change in their condition.

Your family and friends will be concerned about you and the patient, and they will want to know how things are. You may appreciate their concern, but it can be tiring if the phone is ringing all the time when you're at home between visits to the hospital. Passing on the information by e-mail or text message to several people at once can be easier. Or, you could speak to one person regularly and they could pass the information on to others.

You may not feel like eating and you may have difficulty sleeping, but do take time to eat regularly and rest when you can. If you become tired and ill, you won't be able to care very well for the patient.

Many ICUs will give you an information sheet about contacting the unit by phone, hospital parking, meals for relatives and visitors and overnight accommodation if it's needed. If you're not given this information, ask a member of staff.

Visiting hours for ICUs are usually more flexible than for normal hospital wards, and staff will be able to give you details.

If the patient is your partner

If the patient is your partner, you may suddenly feel very alone. Accept offers of help from friends and family. You will have less time to do things like shopping and may need help with childcare.

Often, in times of worry and stress, people turn to their partner for support. If you don't feel like you can tell other family members about your worries of what may happen in case you upset them, you could get help from one of the organisations listed in the Useful contacts section.

Make sure that your bills are being paid and if you need to get access to your partner's bank account, contact your bank and explain the situation. You may be able to get temporary control of the account while your partner is not able to deal with these things.

If money becomes a problem, contact Citizens Advice for information on any financial help and benefits that are available to you.

When the patient comes out of the ICU

You may have a reaction to the stress that you have been under once the patient is out of danger. If you feel guilty, worried or depressed, you can get help and information from the organisations listed at the end of this booklet. Or, see your GP (family doctor) if you need more support. They may be able to arrange counselling, so that you can talk to someone about what has happened.

If the patient does not survive

Despite the best efforts of the ICU staff, sometimes patients are too ill and do not survive. A person dies when their heart stops beating or they are brain stem dead. If the doctors believe the patient is brain stem dead, they have a set of tests they must follow to confirm this.

If the patient has died the next of kin and family members may be approached to discuss organ donation. Knowing the patient's wishes regarding organ donation can help in making the right decision for your family. Most families who agree to donate one or more of the patient's organs find it comforting that something good will come from their loss.

It may help you to talk to a bereavement counsellor at this difficult time. They can offer support and understanding for adults and children (see the Useful contacts section).