After the ICU: A ‘fraternity of people who are struggling’


By the time she was discharged from a suburban New Jersey hospital on April 10, Kathleen Ronan thought the worst was behind her. For a week before her husband rushed her to the emergency department (ED), incoherent and struggling to breathe, the novel coronavirus had ravaged her body. She tried to treat her fevers with acetaminophen and ice packs. Despite taking enough Tylenol to risk liver damage and packing herself on ice like the catch of the day, Ronan’s fever continued to rise. By the time her temperature reached 104.5° F, Ronan knew the time had come for more drastic measures.

A team of masked and gowned nurses greeted her at a triage tent outside the ED, and from there, everything becomes hazy for Ronan. She was immediately rushed to the hospital’s special COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU), where she spent 5 days. But she has few distinct memories from this time. What she does remember is the exhaustion, the pain, the loneliness, and the fear. Her family couldn’t visit, and though Ronan works as a home health nurse, her brain was so addled with fever that she couldn’t make sense of what was happening. After a week in the hospital, 5 days of which were spent in the ICU, 51-year-old Ronan was discharged.

Her years of working as a home health nurse told her that the return home wouldn’t be easy, but nothing prepared her for just how much she would struggle. The once-active Ronan, who had supplemented long days on her feet caring for others as a nurse with regular trips to the gym, now needed a walker to traverse the few steps from her bed to the toilet, an effort that left her gasping for air. Her brain couldn’t even focus on an audiobook, let alone a short magazine article.

“It just completely knocked the stuffing out of me,” Ronan said.

Ronan’s lingering symptoms aren’t unique to COVID-19 patients. In as many as 80% of patients leaving the ICU, researchers have documented what they call post–intensive care syndrome (PICS) — a constellation of physical, cognitive, and psychiatric symptoms that result from an ICU stay. Although underlying illness plays a role in these symptoms, the amount of time spent in critical care is a major factor.

Nor is PICS simply a set of side effects that will go away on their own. It includes ongoing cognitive difficulties and physical weakness, both of which can lead to employment problems. Beyond that, depression and anxiety can exacerbate – and be exacerbated by – these challenges. Psychologist Jim Jackson, PsyD, assistant director of the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee, recently spoke with a former ICU patient who has struggled since her discharge 30 years ago.

“Her life essentially stopped with her critical care stay. She hasn’t been able to move forward,” he said. “She’s part of a whole fraternity of people who are struggling.”

The good news is that over the past decade, researchers have made important strides in understanding what makes PICS symptoms worse and how critical care physicians can tweak ICU protocols to reduce PICS severity. Practitioners will need to draw on this knowledge to help Ronan and the thousands of COVID-19 ICU patients like her.


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