Offering support after intensive care

By Jane Elliott
Health reporter, BBC News

Neil Holland

Neil Holland suffered multiple injuries

Neil Holland was so badly injured in the car crash that killed his 14-year-old son that medics gave him only a 1% chance of survival.

He spent three weeks in intensive care being treated for serious chest and leg injuries.

A year on he is making great progress, but says a vital part of the recovery process is having people to share your experiences with.

“Meeting with others who have suffered critical injuries, and chatting about the hurdles and different emotions during the recovery process is really important and makes a huge difference,” he said.

Supporting patients

Intensive care nurse Sarah Herbert, from Barts and the Royal London, agreed.

She carried out research among former patients and found some faced an uphill battle to recover emotionally as they suffered isolation, depression or anxiety attacks.

She has helped set up a support group, the first in London, for intensive care patients (ICU) to give them a forum to talk with other patients and families about their experiences.

I remember being very weak and feeling useless and unable to control my body
Neil Holland

“If you are ill with a long-term illness, there are numerous support groups for you,” she said.

“If you have an acute illness it is perceived that you will have acute recovery as well, but tragically very often that is not the case and it is months and years for these people to get better from what is an accident that takes minutes.

“They can have psychological problems such as recurrent nightmares which might refer back to the accident or incident that brought them in, images of their time in intensive care, sleep disturbances, anxiety and stress levels higher than those for other illness.

“Because of the sudden onset of illness, the relatives have even higher levels of depression and stress because they have had no preparation for their life change.”

This can often lead to partners struggling to cope financially if the injured person is the main wage earner, Ms Herbert said.

“In Neil’s case, as well as having to deal with the trauma of losing her son, his wife also had to care for an extremely sick husband.”

Psychological legacy

Neil, from Dorking, Surrey, agreed saying that, although he had a supportive family, he had still battled with feelings of guilt about Luke’s death after their car skidded on black ice and crashed.

“I had a couple of bad dreams but no flashbacks,” he said. “But I feel very guilty to be alive when my son is not.”

The support group has had its first meeting and Neil went along.

“People can talk about their experiences which was very good,” he said. “It was warming listening to people’s stories.

“One year on, my advice to anyone recovering from trauma, whether physical or emotional, is don’t give up, keep battling and although recovery may be slow, any progress, however small, is a bonus.

“I remember being very weak and feeling useless and unable to control my body. Mentally I felt very low and depressed.

“Attending this support group was difficult but very rewarding.”

Last year 1,009 patients were admitted to intensive care at the Royal London.

The hospital has offered a follow-up service since 2002 but patients and families wanted a more ongoing kind of support.

Ms Herbert said: “This first meeting was emotionally charged, as you would expect, with patients reliving what brought them to the ICU. A clinical psychologist and occupational therapist were on hand to help them.”

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