Surviving the ICU
Although the new coronavirus has pushed the world’s critical care system to its limits, it was an outbreak in 1952 that inspired the creation of intensive care units. That summer, a wave of paralytic polio swept over Copenhagen, Denmark, and anesthesiologist Bjørn Ibsen, MD, PhD, used mechanical ventilation — physically operated by medical and dental students – to help 316 children breathe for weeks at a time while their small bodies worked to fight off the virus. The effort halved the mortality rate from polio that affected breathing, from 80% to 40%.
In these wards, dedicated to the very sickest, each patient was assigned his or her own nurse. Over the next decade, hospitals in the United Kingdom and the United States established their own ICUs to treat patients with a variety of conditions. Although it helped improve survival, mortality rates in critical care units remained stubbornly high, owing to the patients’ severe underlying illnesses.
“We thought we were doing a good job if the patient survived, but we had no idea what happened after discharge,” said Carla Sevin, MD, medical director of Vanderbilt’s ICU Recovery Center. Nor did their efforts to find out always bring answers. “We struggled to get people to come in for support — they were debilitated, physically burdened, and weak.”
Through further advances in life support, by the early 2000s, the average mortality rates in American ICUs had dropped to 8% to 19%. As the number of critical care survivors began to climb, clinical researchers noticed that the lives of these patients and their families were profoundly altered by their severe illness.
As Dale Needham, MD, PhD, began his pulmonology and critical care residency in Toronto, Canada, in 2005, a group of physicians there began a 5-year longitudinal study to assess long-term outcomes of patients who developed acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Although ARDS is an acute condition, the investigators found that patients felt effects for years. Younger patients recovered better than older ones, but none of the patients› physical functioning was equivalent to that of age-matched control persons. Even 5 years later, former ICU patients only reached 76% of expected physical functioning, according to results published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study was a wake-up call.
At a meeting in Chicago in 2010, Needham, now an intensivist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, gathered an interdisciplinary group of colleagues, including patients and caregivers, to clarify the phenomena they were seeing. What emerged from that meeting, published in 2012 in Critical Care Medicine, were the diagnostic criteria for PICS: According to the new definition, PICS is characterized by new or worsening physical and neuropsychiatric deficits that range from forgetfulness and loss of motivation to physical weakness and insomnia.
The issue, Needham says, is that although the trouble starts in the ICU, it only becomes clear once patients leave. “ICU doctors aren’t the ones dealing with this,” Needham said. “We need to build stronger bridges between critical care and other professions.” That’s where PICS comes in, a definition that exists explicitly to alert healthcare providers about the constellation of challenges many of these individuals face as they try to reenter “normal” life.