Surviving critical illness

Since spending three weeks in critical care back in 2003 I've spoken to many other ex-patients. The reasons for their critical illness vary greatly, from chronic conditions, illness, trauma, surgical complications, the list goes on. What never ceases to surprise me is despite the different reasons for admission and length of stay is the commonalities we share through our experience.

We tend to be sedated while in critical care and certainly in my own case I had no memory of the first two and a half weeks in ICU or even the day of the accident that led to my admission. I went to bed one night and when I woke up nearly three weeks were missing and my life had changed forever.

I can now look back and identify periods of anxiety, depression and paranoia, recall mood swings, thoughts and behaviour I can now attribute to delirium and the utter lack of physical energy that meant I needed to take a nap at lunchtime every day for months afterwards. I thought I was unique. I didn't think anyone else had ever experienced this. If this was normal, I'd have heard about it; someone would have told me. No one did or at least if they did, I didn't comprehend it. So I struggled on and managed to find a way to cope.

Imagine the relief I felt when I learned that actually I was normal and that all I'd experienced was not unusual for someone who'd been through a period of critical illness. Just realising you're not alone and being able to break down the barriers of isolation can make it that much easier to get through the recovery process on the road back to just being a normal person again. Older, wiser, but normal.

You're not alone in what you feel and think.

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  • I so agree with you about feeling 'alone' with all your ICU experiences and the consequences in terms of fatigue and so on which go on much longer than you anticipate!

    My memories of being awake on ICU are of a lot of things that turned out later to be imaginary: of thinking I was talking to people when in fact I had a tracheostomy, of hearing conversations where the staff were saying my husband was complaining about my care and I should be punished as a result, of seeing a family of people of reduced stature visiting the bed opposite, of hearing a nurse say to another “ isn't she horrible –she’s always trying to hold your hand”, and thinking that when I asked for help the nurses deliberately turned their back on me.

    All these things aren't ‘true’ but they are still very real memories for me in a period where I have 8 missing days. For a long time afterwards I asked everyone I saw for information as I tried to fill that time in, but eventually you realise that no amount of people telling you things will ever fill that gap. I wish I had photographs (which my husband asked to do but wasn’t allowed) and a diary, as I found out other ICUs do.

    As a result of reading about after care I emailed my own Critical Care Consultant and got a full de-briefing appointment, and two visits to ICU, one with the liaison nurse. This was fantastically helpful and I would encourage anyone who hasn't done this to do so. I was also really helped by finding ICU steps and realising I wan't alone. I think these things helped prevent me developing PTSD.

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