Hearing the term “critical care” provokes many emotions, most of which invoke a sense of doom. At the same time, it brings up confusion among patients, family members and even people in the medical profession.
The simplest definition of critical care is “any illness that threatens life and requires comprehensive care and constant monitoring.” This can include poisoning, surgical problems, premature birth or organ failure. Any of these can be caused by environmental factors, such as car accidents, or by diseases resulting from infections, such as pneumonia.
A common confusion is differentiating between critical care and emergency medicine. Essentially, in emergency medicine, doctors and nurses stabilize patients and then transfer them to the appropriate area of the hospital, which may include critical care or intensive care units.
The critical care team is a group of specially trained caregivers who work closely to deliver care to the patients admitted to the intensive care unit, or ICU. Some identifying terms for team members you may hear are intensivist, critical care nurse, pharmacist, respiratory therapist, physical therapist and chaplain.
Although the roles for each of these professionals is beyond the scope of this article, it is worthwhile to know that the intensivist is usually the “captain of the ship.” He or she is a medical doctor who has studied and trained in caring for very ill patients. The intensivist will arrange and prioritize things that need to be done to improve the health of the patient. All the other members of the team work with the intensivist.
The ICU is a busy, noisy environment. There are many alarms, monitors and devices. Watching everything that happens here may raise questions. The doctors, nurses, therapists and other staff are there to answer your questions. There are no wrong questions, so ask away.
Stress makes it difficult to understand and remember unfamiliar information. It is OK to ask questions more than once. Interacting with the patient is especially challenging, since family members are usually unsure about how to achieve this without bringing discomfort to the patient or interrupting care, while also communicating well wishes and prayers. One good rule to remember is, “When in doubt, ask the nurse.”
No one wants to be in an intensive care unit, but if you end up in the ICU, you can rest easy that there is a highly specialized team taking care of your loved ones or you.
Dr. Muhammad Iqbal, a pulmonologist with Baptist Health Medical Group Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine in Richmond, practices at Baptist Health Richmond.