By Nancy Valko
As I have related before, back in the early 1970s when I was a new ICU nurse, I was teased for talking to comatose patients. I was even asked if I talked to my refrigerator. I explained that if hearing was truly the last sense to go, it made sense to talk to the patients and explain what we were doing just as we would for any other patient. The other nurses thought this was ridiculous — until “Mike.”
Mike was a 17-year-old boy who was admitted to our intensive care unit in a deep coma with massive injuries caused by a terrible car crash. The neurosurgeon on duty pronounced, “He won’t live until morning and it’s a good thing, because he’d be a vegetable.” I was shocked that he said this in front of Mike!
But Mike didn’t die. I kept talking to him and eventually he could even move a finger on command. But he would not respond to the neurosurgeon, even with tests to see if he would move with pain stimuli.
Later on, when Mike was able to breathe on his own, he would even say “Hi” for me on command but it was only after I repeatedly begged that Mike finally said “Hi” to the neurosurgeon. The neurosurgeon called this a “miracle” but shortly after that, Mike was transferred to a nursing home. None of us ever expected to see him again.
However, about 2 years later, a handsome young man strode into our ICU and asked “Do you remember me?” It was Mike! He said he had driven 60 miles to tell us thanks for saving his life and we all dissolved in happy tears.
I told him that he wouldn’t remember this, but he would move and say “Hi” for us nurses but not for the neurosurgeon. Mike got very serious and said “I remember him calling me a vegetable and I wouldn’t move for him!”
After that, every nurse on our unit was told to talk to every comatose patient as if he or she was totally awake and soon we found more patients who unexpectedly woke up or improved.
And no one ever teased me about talking to “comatose” patients again.
Throughout the decades since, I have talked to other patients who were considered comatose or otherwise unconscious, not just to patients with a major brain injury but also to patients approaching death and to patients sedated while on a ventilator for breathing. I’ve always considered this talking and explaining just basic respect for every patient. I was pleasantly surprised when I followed up with patients and families after they left our ICU and found many who remembered and told me how much this had helped them.
“Observations from ICU patients we thought were asleep, but they were not”
So I was thrilled to see this title for a new Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) learning audio for doctors with stories from patients about what they experienced in an ICU while their treating doctors and nurses thought they were “asleep.”
In the audio, most of the patients were on sedation while on a ventilator and assumed unaware. One such woman related how she became so angry at her doctor’s attitude that she wanted to throw something at him and was frustrated when she couldn’t. Another man related how painful it was when the electrodes checking for his level of sedation were used without explanation or warning. Another complained about hearing nurses talking about her mom and dad poorly and their lack of empathy.
But there were also good stories about nurses or doctors taking the time to explain what was happening, talking as if the patient could hear everything and helping patients communicate without words. One doctor told about how his own father was in a hospital for an extended time and his dad remembered hearing the doctor talking about all the things he couldn’t do instead of what he could do. This doctor says that his father’s discouraging experience made him a better doctor.
The audiotape also explains how difficult it can be to not over- or under-medicate people, especially when it comes to pain, confusion and anxiety. The audiotape recommends that health care professionals try to avoid long-acting drugs with potential side effects and continuous medication infusions and to use simple tools to assess delirium, confusion and anxiety.
The audiotape also recommends that health care professionals “treat patients like real persons”, “take the time to explain,” “be careful to assess level of awareness,” “realize that every action and word have real consequences” and that the “human element” is the most important.
Being in an ICU can be especially stressful for patients and their families and I hope this information is helpful. Medicine can do wonders today but it is the human connection that provides the best environment for healing for both patients and their families.
Editor’s note. This appeared on Nancy’s blog and is reposted with permission.