Advice I hope You Never Need: Using Emotional Intelligence to Navigate the Intensive Care Unit

Recently, my mother had to undergo open heart surgery and she asked me if I would remain with her in the ICU. Of course I said yes. Soon after I realized that I had questions about the best way to be present to my mother in this situation.

Since I myself had little experience with hospitals, I reached out to a friend who had dealt with several medical emergencies in her family. “What do I need to know?” I asked. “Do you have any advice for me?”

I share her response with you here because I think it contains valuable information. It is certainly my wish that you never need it, but I believe that good preparation can provide some ballast in an emotional situation.

  • If you can, find out ahead of time what kind of facilities the hospital has for family members staying overnight in case that impacts what you bring.
  • Wear the most comfortable clothes you own, but dress in layers. Hospitals can either be really warm or cold. (I had on 3 layers of clothes--including my coat during my stay with my mother!)
  • Bring music. Believe it or not, music does have positive effects on pain management. (I brought Baroque music for my mother.)
  • Be vigilant and don’t hesitate to ask questions or advocate on behalf of the patient. The patient is not in a position to advocate for herself, so it’s up to you to ensure her comfort and quick recovery. (I asked questions about everything--IV drips, medicines, machinery, etc.)
  • Find out the names of the ICU doctors and head nurses so you know where to go if you have a question. The ICU staff are in charge of the patient’s care. The admitting doctor may not be around if you have a question. (I talked with everyone involved in my mother’s care.)
  • Learn the name of the social worker for the ICU. This person can provide information about available resources and also acts as an advocate for the patient/family if there are communication issues with nurses or doctors. 
  • If there are any issues with patient care, speak to the ICU Director immediately. If need be, seek out the social worker or case manager and request a family meeting. 

Thankfully, my mother’s surgery went extremely well and she was moved out of the ICU after the second day--a whole 24 hours ahead of time. Still I was grateful to have some guidance about what my role should entail if issues had arisen. Being prepared eliminated unnecessary worry and anxiety and maximized my positive emotional outlook.

If you are facing a challenging situation in your work or personal life, be proactive. Acknowledge the emotion, do your homework, prepare as rigorously as you can for the “what ifs,” and then visualize your desired outcomes.