What is icu?


Who works in the intensive care unit (ICU)?

You will work closely with staff in an intensive care unit (ICU). ICU staff is more specialized than in other parts of the hospital. Here's some of the staff and what they do.

  • Critical care medicine specialists: Medical doctors (or intensivists) who specialize in caring for people who are in the ICU.
  • Specialists: Doctors who focus on certain areas of medicine. For example, a cardiologist might help treat a heart problem.
  • Nurse practitioner: A nurse with advanced training.
  • Nurse: Responsible for daily care and often a main point of contact for a patient's support network. Nurses keep patients as comfortable as possible. They track vital signs. The nurses can also teach patients and their caregivers how to perform many daily tasks.
  • Certified nursing assistant (CNA): A CNA, or nurse's aide, cares for patients under a nurse's direction.
  • Respiratory therapist: Helps treat breathing problems. This may include managing ventilators and other breathing equipment.
  • Physical therapist: Works with patients on exercises to help them move better and relieve pain.
  • Technicians: Operate some of the equipment in the ICU. This may include X-ray machines, ventilators, and feeding equipment.
  • Pharmacist: Prepares medicines and recommends the best and safest medicines.
  • Social worker or family advocate: Helps patients and their loved ones in the ICU. He or she is your guide to the ICU. The social worker helps you understand how the ICU works and handles discharge planning when it's time to go home. He or she can also help if you have disagreements with any members of the ICU staff.
  • Chaplain: Attends to your religious or spiritual needs. Most hospitals have a chaplain or spiritual adviser available. You can request a spiritual adviser in your own tradition as well.
  • ICU clerk: The administrative assistant for the unit. He or she keeps track of everything that goes on in the ICU. This person can be a great contact for you.
  • Cleaning, maintenance, and food service staff: Have special training for the ICU.

While the staff provides medical care, patients have a support network as well. Family and friends are there to give patients the things they can give best: love, hugs, support, and more. The patient support team may also help make decisions about patient care. The staff knows that this is all new to you. They expect you to have questions. They will do their best to answer them.

What is the intensive care unit (ICU)?

An intensive care unit (ICU) is a part of the hospital where very sick people get care. It could be a special unit for people with heart, breathing, or other serious medical problems, or a place to recover after surgery.

It may be scary to see relatives or loved ones in the ICU. There are lots of things happening that might be hard to understand at first.

But remember: You are an important part of the care team along with doctors, nurses, and specialists. The ICU staff can help you understand the care that your loved one is receiving. They can help you learn about the technology, medical words, rules, and procedures in the ICU. You know best what matters to your family. You will make the decisions about what is best for your family.

What kinds of questions can you ask in the intensive care unit (ICU)?

You can ask the ICU staff any questions that you have. For example, you might ask the nurse:

  • Which doctors and specialists are helping us?
  • When can we visit? Is there anything we should know about visiting our loved one?
  • Do you know how to get in touch with me in an emergency?
  • How can we help?

And you might ask a doctor:

  • What kind of treatment are you providing?
  • How will we know if it's working?
  • What can I do to help?

What breathing support can you expect in the intensive care unit (ICU)?

Over time, people in the ICU may not need as much breathing support. As a person gets stronger, the doctor may move (or wean) him or her from a ventilator to a CPAP machine, then to a mask or nasal cannula with oxygen, and finally to breathing without the need for help.

You may see tubes and wires attached to the person. This can be scary to see. But these things help the doctor treat the person. The tubes supply air, fluid, and medicines. The wires are attached to machines that help the doctor keep track of vital signs. These include temperature, blood pressure, breathing rate, and pulse rate.

Ventilators and other equipment have alarms that alert the care team to any sudden changes. Often an alarm is not a reason for concern, but the care team may come in and check an alarm. If you have questions about any alarms, you can ask an ICU staff member.

The ICU staff is highly trained to care for very sick people. They will do everything they can to help. If you need it, ask for support from friends and family. You can also ask the hospital staff about counseling and support.

How does breathing support work in the intensive care unit (ICU)?

An intensive care unit (ICU) is a part of the hospital where very sick people get care. One reason a person might be in an ICU is for trouble breathing. The ICU has special equipment to help people breathe. The doctor may use different equipment depending on how hard it is for the person to breathe.

  • A ventilator is a machine that breathes for a person while the lungs are healing. It sends oxygen or air into the lungs through a thin tube and allows carbon dioxide to escape. The tube is placed in the windpipe through the nose or mouth. If the person needs the ventilator for a long period of time, the surgeon may place the tube in an opening made directly into the windpipe through the neck. This is called a tracheostomy, or "trach" (say "trayk") tube. The tube is placed in the opening.
  • A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine may be used when a ventilator isn't needed. It gently pushes oxygen or air into the lungs through a mask over the nose or mouth. People can breathe on their own with this extra help.
  • A nasal cannula is a device with two prongs that are placed in the nostrils when a person just needs more oxygen. The oxygen goes through the tubes and into the nostrils.
  • Oxygen may also be given through a mask. Oxygen flows through a tube and into a mask that is placed over the nose and mouth.

The equipment that helps a person breathe may need to be adjusted a lot. If you have questions about breathing support, ICU staff can help explain the different types of equipment and how they work.

The ICU staff can use other devices to track breathing.

  • A heart monitor has a sensor that attaches to the chest to track heart rate.
  • A pulse oximeter clips to the end of the finger. It measures how much oxygen is in the blood.
  • An arterial line is a thin, flexible tube that is placed into an artery. This line is usually placed in the wrist or groin. It can take blood samples to measure the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. (It can also measure blood pressure.)

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