Resource type: Article

"I don't remember much about Intensive Care"

It’s extremely common for patients to remember very little of their time in Intensive Care. Sometimes patients “lose” the few days prior to ending up in Intensive Care and may struggle to make sense of how they ended up there.

“The last thing I remember was…the ambulance. I don’t remember anything else until I woke up weeks later.” (Elizabeth, 61)

“It felt very strange…because I really wasn't sure whether I was ill, whether I'd had an accident…or been kidnapped or what, you know? I just couldn't make any sense of it at all.” (Simon, 54)

Patients’ memory of their time in Intensive Care can often be very “jumbled”. It can be very difficult to make sense of the passage of time, to piece together what happened on a day-to-day basis or to make sense of bits of memories related to specific incidents or treatments.

“It’s all a bit of a blur, really. I have vague a recollection, I can’t really think if it was in the ICU or not, but I got put on dialysis for a bit. I’m not 100% sure about that memory, whether that’s a true memory or not” (Allan, 59)

Patients often remember physical sensations, however, (such as thirst) or care related activities (such as being turned in bed) or visits from family and friends

“They were putting the sponges in water in my mouth… and they kept telling me to waken up. That's what I remember. ..and somebody telling me that I was okay, that I had had a serious operation but that I was okay.” (Sarah, 56)

“My sister was there and I was thinking, “What on earth is Jane doing here?” And where am I anyway?” (Jessie, 73)

Although patients can appear to be completely "with it", many don’t properly “come to” until after they’ve been transferred to a general ward.

“My first memory was the first night (on the ward). I think I had a nightmare. I was trying to determine what was real and what wasn’t...but then it all just suddenly clicked into place. I suppose I was…getting the drugs out of my system and I was only aware then of where I was and what I was doing.” (Eddie, 63)

Patients often tell us that the ward staff after Intensive Care don't seem to know or understand much about their time in Intensive Care. Family and friends therefore often become the most important source of information.  Patients are sometimes reluctant to ask, however, as they often feel that family members have “been through enough”.

“I felt terrible guilt...for what they had to go through. I remember what it was like when my Dad was ill...the amount of hand wringing, pain and suffering we all went through. So the darkest time for them, I wasn’t aware.” (John, 49)

Family members, equally, may either not wish to “relive” the experience or are concerned about distressing their recovering loved one.

“It took him a long time to tell me about the horror stories…and I’m sure he still hasn’t told me them all. They’re just coming out now….’cos I think he really got a fright. I have tried broaching the subject but he wasn’t really very keen on saying anything.  So I kind of left it. He could tell me in his own time.” (Sally, 56, at 6 months after discharge from Intensive Care)

The need to know what happened varies enormously between patients, and over time.

“I said, “Tell me once I’m better. Don’t tell me just now, because every day is a battle”. Obviously I knew about the collapsed lung and the tracheostomy…but I really didn’t want to hear how ill I’d been…how close to death I’d been” (Pat, 47, on her time on the general ward)

“Some people would say, “Well, I don't want to know”, which is fair enough…  but I'd rather face it, face it right on and say “Yeah, okay, come on.”” (Nigel, 69, on his time on the general ward)

“Well, I kind of want to know what happened in those three and a half weeks, but equally does it really matter? It won't give me sleepless nights, not knowing exactly what went on 24 hours a day. All I know is that there were a lot of very kind people who saved my life.” (Sarah, 56)

The need to know can also change over time.

“I was just anxious to get on with my rehab. I knew that I’d had a fairly major operation, but I wasn’t, at that time, interested in what had happened.” (Christine, 51, on her time on the general ward)

And later….

“I really want to find out what happened to me. I think the only time anybody was going to tell me was before I left hospital, and I was in no fit state then to take it in. I would like to know now, now that I’m capable of understanding what happened.”  (Christine, 51, at 6 months after hospital discharge)

There may be instances, however, when even the best medical explanation isn’t quite enough to help you understand why you became so very ill.

"I don't think they (the doctors) knew themselves what caused it (severe pneumonia). To me, that's what it feels like. Nobody knows what's caused it or what's happened, so I'll just have to get on with it and recover as best I can.” (Liz, 56)

“At first I thought “Why me?” and then I thought, “Well, why not me?”  (Dave, 42)

If you would like to find out more about your time in Intensive Care, please visit our section on Frequently Asked Questions.