10 Dos and Don’ts for Friends of ICU patients


10 ICU Dos and Don’ts      I’ve been helping out a dear friend who has been in the ICU of a local hospital for more than three weeks.  The turmoil and emotional pain experienced by the family has been a real eye opener.  Attached is a list of 10 Dos and Don’ts for Friends of those in ICU that I’ve put together based on that experience,  and the popular Diabetes Etiquette Card.   Below is a quick summary.  Please share with anyone who wants to help someone who is hospitalized. 

1)  Don’t offer unsolicited advice about the medical care the patient is receiving.    You mean well, of course, but offering advice about a potentially dangerous medical situation is uncalled for and distracting.

2)  Do offer unconditional support and encouragement.  Having a family member in ICU is just plain stressful.  It’s extremely difficult emotionally to see loved ones struggle with acute illness.   The family members’ daily schedules can change from hour to hour, based on the patient’s condition.  If they have to cancel or reschedule some commitment, try not to take it personally.

3)  Don’t share your horror stories of ICU stays.  Every patient is different and what happened to you or someone that you know might be very discouraging to the patient and the family members in this situation.

4) Do offer more than lip service assistance.   If you are lucky enough to be able to offer help and the family member accepts it, then please follow-through.    Nothing is as discouraging as accepting an offer of help, then having it rescinded.   

5)  Don’t ask for specific medical information such as blood counts, respiration rates, urine outputs, etc., unless they are offered.  This information is private and can only be shared if the patient gives permission.  Your direct question can be very difficult for the family member to dodge, and let’s face it, it’s also intrusive.    If you are struggling for something to say, see numbers 6 and 8 below.

6) Do take a cue from the family members – if they want or need to talk about the illness, they will bring it up.  If not, then it is often a relief to talk about normal, usual activities outside the hospital.   Topics from the newspaper, common interests, etc., are appreciated.    All you have to do is ask “how are you doing today?” and the response will let you know just how much the family member wants or needs to talk about the illness.

 7) Don’t offer meaningless reassurances.    How is a suffering family member supposed to respond to a comment such as “he’ll be okay soon…” when the prognosis might not be that positive?

8)  Do express your understanding and support.  “I know this is hard, and I hope the best for you.  You are in my thoughts and prayers,” is adequate and doesn’t put a burden of response on the family member.

9) Food gifts are usually welcome.  They can be delivered to the ICU waiting room in the name of the family.  Volunteers in the waiting room will make sure they are delivered.  You can also offer food gifts to the ICU staff in the name of the patient.  Many ICU staff members are so busy caring for patients that they don’t have time to stop for lunch or dinner.    A healthy food basket is always appreciated.

10) Hopefully, you can help the family members prepare for a return to normal.  Once they return home, invite them to gatherings, out to lunch or to coffee.  Soon they will be eager to catch up with your life and activities, and eager to rejoin their usual routines.

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2 responses to “10 Dos and Don’ts for Friends of ICU patients

  1. Thank you for this ICU primer of dos and don’ts. My neighbor was taken away in an ambulance last night; it appears she is in an extremely high risk pregnancy (and may have lost her baby). As a caring but privacy-respectful neighbor, I am in a bit of a quandary about what, if anything, to send to the ICU. This helped.

  2. Thank you for this helpful post. Food has been sent for family and staff.

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