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What it's like to visit someone in ICU

A monitor showing a patient's heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure sits beside a hospital bed.
The Intensive Care Unit of a hospital is reserved for the sickest patients and operates differently to other areas of the hospital.

Receiving a call that someone you know is in the Intensive Care Unit can be shocking. Visiting them can be even more so. We spoke to the staff of Ipswich Hospital’s ICU to find out what visitors can expect when coming to the ward.

You won’t be let in straight away

The ICU is reserved for the sickest of sick patients at the hospital. This allows them to receive specialist care that might save their life and be monitored constantly. The ICU is a secure area, which means the doors will be shut and if you’re not hospital staff, you can’t just walk in.

When a person is first admitted to the ICU, staff might take a couple of hours or more working on them to understand what’s happening and make them stable if possible. While this is going on, you will not be allowed in the room with them and will be asked to stay in a waiting area, even if you have come to the hospital with them.

Until they’ve done their work, the staff won’t really be able to give you an idea of what’s going on. This can be difficult, but it’s important to remember that the priority for staff is to save the life of your loved one.

Your first point of contact with staff will often be a social worker who can support you while you wait. They’ll give you advice about what to expect from the ICU and can help you process what’s going on. It can also help to call someone who can sit with you and provide support if you have come to the hospital alone.

ICU time

If you’re waiting, staff will try their best to give you an idea of how long it will take for you to see your loved one or for someone to be able to give you more information. They want to do this for you as quickly as possible. Time in the ICU is fluid, however, as patient’s needs and conditions can change quickly. Staff call this “ICU time”. They’ll try their best to talk to you as soon as possible, but their first priority will always be looking after the patients.

An example of a bed in ICU, with large machines on either side and a rack of lights overhead.

Prepare for sensory overload

When you’re allowed in to visit, you’ll notice that the ICU is not like other hospital wards. There will be a lot of noise from various machines around each patient, the lights will be bright and the atmosphere can feel sterile. Regular alarms will sound and staff will attend to them. Staff may need to move around you and work with the patient without talking to you very much.

When you’re already worried, this can all be overwhelming, particularly when you see your relative lying on a bed surrounded by machines and tubes. They may not be conscious and may show signs of illness. If they are ventilated, which means a tube is inserted down their throat to help them breathe, they will be unable to talk to you even if they are awake. They may not look or feel like your relative at all.

It’s not easy to prepare for this situation, but understanding what you’re walking into can help. It can also help to know that there is no right or wrong way to feel, and how you feel and react to what’s going on may change often. The staff know that the ICU can be a scary place to be, and will try to prepare you for what you’ll see and experience when you’re invited in and do their best to look after you.

Visitors and visiting hours are strictly limited

Most wards of a hospital will have visiting hours, but the ICU’s are stricter than others. At Ipswich Hospital ICU, only two visitors per patient are allowed at a time and only at limited times of the day. Visitors are usually kept to immediate family only.

You may be asked to wear special protective items, like a gown, gloves or mask when you visit and to wash your hands when you enter and leave the ward.  Staff may require you to leave the ward if your loved one or another patient’s condition changes and they need life saving treatment.

You will meet a lot of different staff members

ICU staff work in a tight knit team. Unlike in a general hospital ward, where one doctor will be assigned to work with a patient, your loved one will be treated by a rotating team of specialist ICU doctors. An ICU nurse will always be by the bedside caring for your loved one. Other permanent staff members in the ICU will include social workers and administration staff.

Other specialists will also visit the ICU. Physiotherapists, dietitians and medical imaging staff, among others, may work with patients depending on their needs.

Family meetings

Each hospital will have a system in place for getting information to the patient’s family. Having scheduled sessions where the staff share information with the family allows the doctors to have prepared all the information they need to give a full account of what’s going on. This also means that everyone gets the correct information at once.

At Ipswich Hospital, staff try to hold a ‘family meeting’ with the patient’s visiting group within 24 hours of their admission. At this meeting, they will update everyone with all the information they have about the patient.

Because of a privacy policy, staff can’t give detailed information about a patient over the phone if you call the ICU. They will only be able to provide a basic condition report, like ‘stable’ or ‘their condition is unchanged’.

A young woman holds an older woman's hand as she lies in a hospital bed.

What you can do to help

Even if they are unconscious, your presence can help the patient. They won’t be familiar with the touch or sound of the doctors and nurses like they will be with you and your voice.

Hold their hand and talk to them, even if you’re not sure they can hear you. You won’t hurt them by touching them gently. Staff might encourage you to play music they would like or hang pictures and photos where they can see them.

What you won’t be allowed to do

You won’t be allowed to bring flowers into the ICU, as they can spread germs throughout the ward. You also won’t need to bring special clothes or pyjamas for your loved one to wear, because the staff will need them to wear a hospital  gown that allows them to provide intensive care therapies.  

Hot drinks and food are not allowed at the bed space when you’re visiting, as these could spill and cause burns or unnecessary mess.

You are not allowed to take photos or share photos of a patient in ICU who is unable to give their consent to being photographed. Staff may ask you to delete photos if they see you taking them without permission.

You will be asked to turn off your phone when visiting the patient.

You must wear shoes when visiting someone in ICU, bare feet are not permitted.

It’s important to look after yourself

Even though you’re caring about someone who is very unwell, your wellbeing is also important. You still need to eat meals, try to get some sleep and look after yourself. You might need to look after other family members, arrange for time off work or keep your own appointments. If you take regular medications, ensure that you remember to take them.

The ICU staff will be looking out for you as well as the patient. They can refer you to other services you might need like pastoral care, Indigenous Liaison Officers and interpreters.

Social workers are an important part of the ICU team. They are there to care for family and visitors as well as the patient. They act as an advocate for the patient and family and are there to support you. They can help you sort out “outside world” issues, like parking or getting extended leave from work, while you focus on your loved one.

**Throughout Queensland, different communities and cultural groups have different needs, which might change how an ICU operates. This is an overview of what you can expect when visiting the ICU of a large public hospital like Ipswich Hospital.

Last updated: 21 August 2019