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A drawing of an intensive care unit

Understanding intensive care

“Your loved one may seem impossibly ill. But the intensive care unit, or ICU, is designed to take care of the sickest of the sick, bringing all possible expertise and resources to bear — and the large majority of its patients survive and get better.” 

Those encouraging words are at the heart of a book by Lara Goitein, MD, who specializes in pulmonology and critical care medicine at Dartmouth Health in New Hampshire. “The ICU Guide for Families — Understanding Intensive Care and How You Can Support Your Loved One” (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) is 238 pages. 

Goitein explains what “stable” means — that oxygen levels in the blood, heart rate and blood pressure are consistently in a safe range. Add she goes into detail about the most common procedures that are done in the ICU, including intubation, insertion of a central line and others. 

She also suggests four things loved ones can do to help: 

  • Alert the patient’s primary care physician, so they know the patient is hospitalized. 
  • Get a blank notebook; review the events of the days leading up to the ICU admission and write them down to solidify your memory. 
  • Gather a list of the patient’s medications, their allergies, medical records, test results and advance directives. And let the medical team know if you are their health care proxy. 
  • Learn who is in charge of your loved one’s care. It could be “the attending physician” or “the ICU doctor,” or in a teaching hospital, this may be a resident or fellow — physicians in specialized training programs. Also get to know the ICU nurse assigned to your relative. 

About 4 million people are cared for in an ICU each year. Remember, a large majority survive and get better. 

This article appears in the 2024 Upstate Health magazine, Issue 1.