Visiting a patient in critical care

Monitoring and treating patients with life-threatening conditions

This page outlines the things you need to know if a friend or relative has been admitted to critical care. For more detailed information, see our patient leaflets (available from the relatives room), or ask a member of staff.

Visiting a patient who is critically unwell in one of our units can be stressful for family and friends – the patient is most often unaware of what is happening around them.

However, we have found that people often feel better if they able to participate in their relative's care. Some examples include the following, but please consult with the nurse looking after the patient first.

  • reading to the patient a favourite book or newspaper
  • chatting about daily events or other family members at home

We think that hearing is one of the first senses to recover after sedation or a period of unconsciousness. This is why doctors and nurses explain to patients, even when they are unconscious, what they are about to do. Some people find it comforting to talk to the patient but do not be afraid or embarrassed. No one knows whether a loved one can hear you or not at a particular time, but it can help you to retain a connection to them.

Visitors may be alarmed or confused by the equipment and treatment in critical care. The unit can be a busy environment, with lots of activity and noise - please try not to be concerned by any of the noise and alarms.  If you have any questions, the bedside nurse will explain what the noises are and the treatment and equipment we use.

Admitting Patients to Critical Care

Once it has been decided that your friend/relative will need to be cared for in intensive care, it can take around one to two hours to check patients and settle them into the unit. Sedation (medicine to make the patient sleep) is often given to make sure that patients are comfortable while on the ventilator or getting other treatment.

Advanced Directives (living wills)

If the patient has made an advance directive (sometimes known as a 'living will') please make staff aware of this as soon as possible so that we can respect the patient's wishes.

Key information before you visit

In the early days, visiting may be restricted to close family and friends only.

  • Two visitors are allowed at the bedside at any one time, so we recommend that you do not visit in large groups. You must speak to the nurse in charge before bringing children into the unit as it can be a distressing environment for children to visit.
  • You may visit at any time, but please talk to a nurse before you approach the patient to make sure that it is ok to visit. If the patient needs to receive care you will be asked to wait.
  •  Real flowers are not allowed on the unit, for infection control.
  • Eating and drinking is not allowed at the bedside, for infection control reasons.
  • Mobile phones can be used in the visitors' rooms but please ensure they are on silent mode before visiting the patient on the unit.
  • If you are feeling unwell, you will be asked to avoid coming into the clinical care area in order to lower the risk of infection to our patients.
  • Lines and procedures

    All patients have monitoring leads and equipment put on them when they arrive on the unit. This allows staff to closely watch their heart rhythm, blood pressure and oxygen levels in their blood.

    The person you care about is likely to look very different to how they would normally look and may have:

    • lots of equipment attached to him/her
    • a breathing tube in his/her mouth which is attached to a ventilator (a 'breathing machine')
    • a swollen face and/or limbs
    • been sedated and therefore be sleepy or drowsy.

    Despite the sedation, many patients respond to reassurance, such as a familiar voice or hand holding. The bedside nurse will make sure that you are able to be with the patient without disturbing any of the monitoring equipment. He/she can also explain any of the equipment and why it is needed.

    Our patients often need a lot of rest to help them recover. If a rest period has been set up for them we will ask you not to visit at this time.

  • Support, facilities and accommodation

    Support

    The hospital has a multi-faith, spiritual care team who are available 24 hours a day. If you would like their involvement, the bedside nurse can contact the team for you.

    We know that having a relative or friend in critical care can be a very stressful experience. It is important to make sure you get enough rest and eat properly so that you do not become unwell yourself.

    In certain circumstances we are able to provide overnight accommodation for the patient's next of kin. For more information please see the accommodation page, or speak to the nurse in charge.

    Facilities for you

    The visitors' room has a toilet and a drinks machine. See our pages on other shops and facilities at Guy's Hospital and St Thomas' Hospital

  • Help us to reduce infections

    Hand washing. Critically ill patients have a high risk of getting an infection. To lower this risk we ask visitors to clean their hands when they enter and leave the unit by using the spray foam, alcohol gel or by washing their hands. For more information see our hand washing page.  

    Aprons
    . You will be asked to wear a plastic apron at the bedside. This should be placed in the yellow bin at the bedside after use. 

    Isolation rooms
    . Some patients are at higher risk of infection than others, or have an infection that specifically needs isolating. These areas are restricted to close family and friends only. You will be asked to take extra precautions in these rooms, such as wearing a mask or washing your hands using soap and water. 

    Staff uniforms
    . Staff wear raspberry coloured uniforms ('scrubs'), aprons and gloves and must always clean their hands before and after caring for patients.

Recovery

See the recovery page for information about rehabilitation, when patients no longer need critical care. Also see our information for when recovery is not possible.