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Inside the ICU (Intensive Care Unit)

The ICU is a busy place. There may be other patients with monitors in the same unit. Be prepared to see lots of wires, tubes, and equipment.

Your loved one

Your loved one may be asleep, not responsive, or unconscious. Surgery or illness may make the skin pale, flushed, or ashen (grayish). The person may look puffy and swollen, especially the face, hands, and feet. He or she may feel cold and clammy. This is the body’s normal reaction to stress, low blood pressure, certain medications, and some diseases.


Monitors have alarms that signal the medical team when something needs to be checked. But alarms are not always cause for concern. Sometimes even a patient’s movement may sound an alarm. But if you see something that doesn't seem right, let the medical team know. 


Patients in the ICU often need extra oxygen. It may be given through a face mask, ventilator, or nasal cannula. The cannula is a soft tube with two prongs that fit just inside the nose.


A ventilator is a machine that helps a person breathe. If your loved one has breathing problems or needs sedation, he or she may be connected to a ventilator by a special tube. The tube goes in through the nose or mouth. If the person needs to be on the ventilator for a long period of time, the medical team will make a cut (incision) called a tracheostomy in the throat. A shorter tube will be placed in the hole. The patient will be unable to speak while on a ventilator. Flash cards or a writing tablet may help in communication.

Compression stockings

Special compression stockings or other devices may be used to help prevent blood clots in the legs.


Frequent tests and treatments may be performed. At times like these, you may be asked to leave the room to clear the area around the patient. Blood may be drawn often. The body contains a large volume of blood and slowly replaces any blood drawn.


Medicines can cause sleepiness, nausea, or confusion. Your loved one may be receiving several types of medicine. These can include antibiotics, sedatives, and medicine for pain. Let the nurse know if your loved one seems to be in pain.

IV lines and tubes

Your loved one may have one or more IV (intravenous) lines and tubes in place. Tubes help drain or suction fluids or air from the patient’s body. Some IV lines provide nutrition and medicine. Others measure blood or heart pressure. All lines and tubes are closely monitored.


Your loved one’s hands (and sometimes ankles) may need to be restrained. This prevents him or her from pulling out tubes or wires. 


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