The Heart of ICU Nursing: The Emotional Resilience and Compassionate Care Behind Critical Patient Support
Nursing has a long reputation for being one of the most rewarding careers. Those who take it up contribute directly to their communities, providing care and support to the sick who are often at their lowest.
Nurses touch lives wherever they practice, but it is important to acknowledge that as rewarding as the profession is, it requires emotional resilience. Working in the ICU requires even more emotional resilience because the patients in this part of the hospital are often very ill, and many are terminal.
Today, America has more than 63,000 ICU nurses, and they are trained to provide care for patients of all ages who are recovering from life-threatening illnesses, serious injuries, or who are terminal.
Also called critical care nurses, these professionals are usually well paid and the demand for their services is high. Those who train as ICU nurses today stand a good chance of securing lasting, well-paying jobs, and if they are emotionally resilient and take good care of their emotional and physical health, they can expect to enjoy long careers caring for the critically ill.
Anyone who is thinking of becoming an ICU nurse should first think about whether it is the right career for them. Because the job is fast-paced and potentially stressful, certain qualities are necessary for anyone who is considering a career as an ICU nurse.
These individuals must be able to think clearly but critically in highly charged situations; they must be excellent communicators and good team players; they must have the physical and mental stamina necessary to provide care to patients; and they should have an aptitude for technical knowledge, improving themselves throughout their careers with additional training.
Those who don’t possess these skills shouldn’t assume that they cannot become good critical care nurses. These skills can all be learned as long as the right courses are chosen.
Those who train to become an ICU nurse at Holy Family University, for example, can enroll in an online accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program, which imparts the necessary skills to become an ICU nurse. The program covers topics such as foundations of nursing practice, medical-surgical nursing, nursing for older adults, and nursing care for children. Students also learn how to transition into a professional role, where they participate in the interactive application of the concepts they have learned.
Although these topics may not explicitly cover emotional resilience and compassionate care skills, they are carefully interwoven into everything that student nurses cover during the course so that by the time they graduate, they have a fair idea of how to cope within an ICU setting.
Even before they enroll in such a course, students need to familiarize themselves with the everyday issues that critical care nurses encounter, how they can prepare themselves to deal with them, and what steps they can take to counter stress and fatigue within this unique environment.
What is it like for nurses in an ICU?
No two days are the same for ICU nurses, which in itself makes for interesting work. It is a busy environment, and although tasks may differ depending on the medical facility and the patients that these nurses care for, certain aspects are universal.
On any given day, after they report these nurses are given their patient assignments for the shift. Together with the previous shift nurse, they discuss the various patients on their lists to understand their history, their current state, and what care they will need during the coming few hours.
The incoming nurse visits all assigned patients to ensure their current status, make sure that they are stable and administer any required medications. After they are finished, the nurse reports back to their station and carries out an in-depth review of each of their patients.
Having a good background means that they can anticipate complications that arise and are better prepared to handle them. It also allows them to answer any questions that doctors may have when they do their rounds.
Because most patients in the ICU are non-ambulatory, the rest of the shift usually involves the careful monitoring of patients, making sure that they are comfortable and administering prescribed care.
This may not sound very different from a day in the life of a nurse in any other section of the hospital, but it is.
Because most of the patients who are in ICU are critically ill, most nurses are required to care for fewer patients. In a typical environment, they are assigned three or four patients per shift, but they may get more depending on where they practice. In inner-city hospitals where there are more patients, for example, ICU nurses may have to carry a bigger workload for each shift.
Because critical nurses tend to have a smaller workload, they can focus on each of their patients, attending to their needs as required by the treatment team and making sure that each one gets the best possible care.
It is a complex work environment that requires a lot of technical knowledge, the ability to make split-second decisions, and the acceptance that despite providing excellent care, many patients who are admitted to the intensive care unit eventually pass on.
There are many things that ICU nurses do to make sure that the patients under their care thrive, heal and carry on with their lives.
Administering general care
This is the primary role of the nurse, and in the ICU it is even more important than in other parts of the hospital. Because the patients who are admitted in this section are critically ill, their carers must do everything that they can to make sure that they are comfortable.
Problems such as bed sores and stiff muscles are common in these patients, for example, and the nurse practitioner does whatever they can to ensure that these conditions do not develop. They make sure that the patient is turned frequently to avoid bedsores and massage them to stimulate blood flow in their muscles.
Each ICU patient has a carefully developed treatment plan that includes a list of medications, and it is the job of the nurse to make sure that they are administered in the right dosage at the recommended time. They work closely with doctors, monitoring patient responses, and if they note any negative reactions, they report their concerns to the treatment team so that they can come up with alternative medications.
This is a critical element of patient care, and critical care nurses ensure that their patients are clean and comfortable. They provide them with sponge baths, trim their nails, comb their hair, and do whatever else is necessary to keep the patient clean.
These nurses also look out for symptoms that may indicate a lack of hygiene because they can exacerbate a patient’s condition.
Help patients navigate through traumatic experiences
Many patients who are in the ICU have undergone traumatic experiences, and one way that nurses show their compassion is to talk to them about what they have been through and reassure them as best as they can. In a sense, they are the first step in psychological and emotional healing, and they help patients overcome some of the emotional pain that they have been through.
ICU nurses provide family support
When families have a loved one in the ICU, they are worried and anxious and they want to know as much as they can about the patient’s condition and also what they can expect for the future. ICU nurses hand-hold these families through the experience, reassuring them along the way and explaining as best as possible what they can expect in the near and even distant future.
Liaising with the treatment team
The nurse is the point of contact for all medical professionals who are involved in the care of the ICU patient, and they liaise between the patient and doctors to ensure that everyone is up to date and the patient is progressing as expected.
They are patient advocates
Just as the ICU nurse liaises with the treatment team, they also act as the patient advocate, making sure that everyone under their care receives the best care possible. If the treatment team recommends a certain treatment that isn’t helping, it is the job of the nurse to follow up and make sure that alternatives are sought by all those who are involved in treatment.
Helping with the transition from ICU
When patients are deemed well enough to leave the ICU, it is the job of the nurse to transition them to the next stage of treatment. Often, this involves moving them to an ordinary ward, but sometimes patients leave critical care and go straight home.
The nurse makes sure that they have all that they need and helps them to prepare for the move. They talk to them about what they can expect, help them become ambulatory again, make sure that all medications are lined up, and do whatever else is needed to ensure that the patient can have as smooth a transition as possible.
If the patients are supposed to leave the ICU and go home, then the nurse ensures that they have a carer, and they train that person on what they ought to do once the patient is settled comfortably in the home. They talk to them about how to administer medications, feed the patient, bathe and clean them, and also any potential pitfalls that they ought to look out for.
It can be difficult for patients who wake up only to find that they have been in critical care for days, weeks or even months. They are confused about where they are and why they are there, and the nurse helps to reassure them by talking to them about the circumstances that led to their current situation, the care they are receiving, and what they can expect for the future.
If necessary, they loop in other more qualified professionals to help patients overcome the initial shock of finding themselves in the ICU and quell any anxiety they may have about their prognosis.
How can ICU nurses best prepare for their role?
The best way for nurses to prepare for working in critical care is to get proper training. There are many courses in institutions all over America that help nursing students prepare for this role, but it is important to remember that not all colleges and universities are created equal.
Those who want to get proper training in critical care nursing should choose their school carefully, making sure that it is renowned, accredited and has a highly qualified faculty. The best nursing schools have detailed websites that provide details about the courses on offer, and they also give an overview of each of the faculty members so that potential enrollees can get a good grasp of what they should expect.
Accreditation is very important because it is the process through which universities and colleges get their courses evaluated. Independent bodies look at the different curricula to ensure that they meet the needs of the job market, are properly designed and meet the required standards.
Good nursing schools also have a clinical unit for each of their nursing courses where students are attached to hospitals and other healthcare facilities so that they can apply what they learn in class.
Each enrollee is sent to work for a fixed term in an institution, and they are given a guide or mentor to take them through the process. It is a way to expose students to the workings of a real healthcare facility, and they get an understanding of what it takes to treat and care for patients, interact with different departments, and work with doctors and other medical professionals.
It is a good idea to enroll for online critical care courses because they offer the student flexibility and they also tend to be cheaper. For those who choose this option, all of their course materials are presented through an online portal, so it is necessary to have a fast and reliable internet connection.
Online learning requires a high level of commitment, and students must make sure that they attend whatever lectures have been uploaded by their instructors, read their notes, and do all the tests and assignments.
Some colleges require that students attend a week or two of on-campus study, so potential enrollees should be prepared if this turns out to be the case for their chosen nursing school.
One of the biggest advantages of online courses is that they can take a relatively short time to complete. Whereas a typical nursing degree can take three or four years to complete, those who opt to study online can complete their courses in as little as two years if they are keen and dedicated. They should not miss any lectures, and they must complete their tests and assignments on time.
Each course has instructors who are available to learners throughout, and it is a good idea to keep in touch with them as they can provide much-needed guidance not just on the course but also on available career options after graduation.
Most online courses encourage learners to form study groups within a week or two of course commencement, and these groups are important because they are a good way to bounce off ideas and learn from others in the class. They can provide fresh perspectives and learners can find new approaches to dealing with difficult topics.
The most important thing for anyone who is contemplating an online critical care course is that they are able to set aside enough time to cover the curriculum and prepare for exams.
How rewarding is it working as a critical care nurse?
For many, it is a rich and rewarding experience because they get to help people who are very ill, bringing them back to health and wellness. It helps that many of these nurses have a smaller workload than ordinary nursing professionals, so they can dedicate more time to their patients.
This isn’t to say that the job doesn’t have challenges, but there are certain things they can do to overcome them:
- Make sure that they are technically adept – If a nurse has all the skills necessary to do their job, they will find it easier to accomplish tasks and will not feel overwhelmed by everyday chores. If necessary, they can enroll in online courses to improve their skills.
- Have enthusiasm for their work – In many professions, enthusiasm is a bonus; in nursing, it is a requirement.
- Have a self-care routine – Every nurse should be as keen to take care of themselves as well as they take care of their patients.
- Be good planners – When a nurse is well-organized, their tasks are easier to accomplish, and because they are efficient, they often leave enough time for rest and recuperation.
ICU nurses encompass compassionate care
ICU nurses are in high demand in the US, and their job is rewarding and well-paying. By caring for patients in critical care, ICU nurses can support them through traumatic injuries with care and compassion and the evidence-based practices needed in the area of healthcare.