It can be stressful whenever kids are in the hospital — and even more so
when they're admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). But a basic understanding
of the people and equipment in the PICU can help you feel better prepared to help
your child recover.
What's the PICU?
The PICU is the section of the hospital that provides sick children with the highest
level of medical care. It differs from other parts of the hospital, like the general
medical floors, in that the PICU allows intensive nursing care and continuous monitoring
of things like heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.
The PICU also allows medical staff to provide therapies that might not be available
in other parts of the hospital. Some of these more intensive therapies include ventilators
(breathing machines) and certain medicines that can be given only under close medical
Who's Sent to the PICU?
Any child who's seriously ill and needs intensive care and whose medical needs
can't be met on the hospital's main medical floors goes to the PICU.
Kids in the PICU might include those with severe breathing problems from asthma,
serious infections, certain heart conditions, some complications of diabetes, or those
involved in a serious automobile accident or near-drowning.
Some kids may have been stable enough to initially be cared for on the hospital's
medical-surgical floors, but may be transferred to the PICU if they become more acutely
ill. Following major surgery, many children are cared for in the PICU for several
How long kids will be in the PICU depends on their condition — some
might stay a single day; others might need to stay for weeks or even months. As always,
ask the doctor or nurse caring for your child if you have questions.
Who Takes Care of Kids in the PICU?
The PICU has many highly
skilled people who care for kids. But not knowing who everyone is and what they
do can be confusing and a little overwhelming at first. Most people will introduce
themselves and tell you how they're involved in your child's care, but if they
don't, feel free to ask. At all times, you should feel comfortable asking the doctors
and nurses questions about your child and the care being given.
The nurses who work in the PICU are experienced in caring for the sickest children
in the hospital. They're the people most closely involved with the minute-to-minute
care of the kids. The PICU also tends to have a higher nurse-to-patient ratio than
other parts of the hospital (in other words, each nurse cares for fewer patients,
which gives them more time with your child).
Numerous physicians may care for your child, but the attending physicians are in
charge. Your child might be cared for by a pediatric intensivist, who is a doctor
who did a 3-year residency in pediatrics after medical school, followed by 3 more
years of subspecialty fellowship training in intensive care.
The PICU team may include residents (doctors who've completed medical school
and are training to be pediatricians) and PICU fellows (pediatricians training to
be attending intensivists).
Many other subspecialists, such as cardiologists (heart doctors) or neurosurgeons
(brain surgeons), might be involved, depending on your child's needs. Respiratory
therapists are experienced with ventilators and other breathing equipment, and are
often involved in the care of PICU patients with breathing problems. Also, physical
therapists, nutritionists, and pharmacists
may play a role in your child's care.
You also might meet social workers who help families cope with the emotional burdens
of having a critically ill child. They can help to arrange temporary housing for families
(through organizations like Ronald McDonald House), assist with insurance issues,
or coordinate discharge planning when your child is ready to go home.
You may want to ask whether the hospital has child life specialists. Trained in
fields like development, education, psychology, and counseling, they help kids understand
and manage being in the hospital. For example, they'll listen when a child needs to
talk, calm fears about what's happening, or provide distractions like books and games.
The medical team meets every day, usually in the morning, to discuss each patient's
case in detail; these discussions are known as rounds. You may see a group of doctors,
nurses, and others walking from patient to patient, planning the medical care for
each patient. During rounds, you may be asked to stay in your child's room or instructed
to not enter or exit the PICU. This is to protect the privacy of other patients.
Family-centered patient care might be practiced in the PICU. If this is the case,
you'll be asked to participate in your child's daily rounds. If you're not present
for rounds or don't want to participate, the attending physician will inform you of
the daily goals for your child by phone or in person.
By understanding everyone's role and how each contributes, you may find the group
of people caring for your child less intimidating.
What Should Kids Expect While in the PICU?
Possibly the most alarming aspect of the PICU environment is the medical equipment
that may be attached to your child. The machines have alarms and display panels, and
the noise and lights can be overwhelming.
Your child's stay in the PICU might include:
IVs. Almost all kids in the PICU have an intravenous catheter
(or IV) for fluids and medications — usually in the hands or arms, but sometimes
in the feet, legs, or even scalp. An IV is a thin, flexible tube inserted into the
vein with a small needle. Once in the vein, the needle is removed, leaving just the
soft plastic tubing.
Some situations require larger IVs that can be used
to deliver greater volumes of fluids and medicines. These are known as central lines
because they're inserted into the larger, more central veins of the chest, neck, or
groin, as opposed to the hands and feet. Arterial lines are very similar to IVs, but
they're placed in arteries, not veins, and generally are used to monitor blood pressure
and oxygen levels in the blood, not to give medicine.
Medications. Most medicines can be given anywhere in the hospital,
but certain ones that can have dangerous side effects are only administered to children
who are closely monitored in the PICU. Instead of being given every few hours, some
are given continuously, several IV drops at a time, and are known as drips. Doctors
may use these medicines — like epinephrine, dopamine, and morphine, for example
— to help with heart function, blood pressure, or pain relief.
Monitors. Kids in the PICU are attached to monitors. The monitors
are secured to the body with chest leads, which are small painless stickers connected
to wires. These leads can count a child's heart rate and breathing rate. Many kids
are also connected to a pulse oximetry (pulse-ox) machine to check blood oxygen levels.
Also painless, this machine is attached to the fingers or toes like a small bandage
and emits a soft red light. Unless blood pressure is being directly monitored through
an arterial catheter, kids usually will also have a blood pressure cuff applied to
their arm or leg.
Tests. Doctors may order a variety of tests
to get more information, such as blood
tests and urine
tests. Sometimes they'll test cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), which surrounds
the brain and spinal cord. Images or pictures of different parts of the body also
might be taken through an X-ray, ultrasound, computed tomography (also called
a CT or CAT scan), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Ventilators. Kids in the PICU sometimes need extra help to breathe.
This may mean getting some extra oxygen from a face mask or tubing in the nose. But
sometimes, a child needs to be connected to the ventilator (or breathing machine).
This is done with an endotracheal tube (a plastic tube placed into the windpipe through
the mouth or nose) or a tracheostomy (a plastic tube inserted directly through the
skin into the windpipe) connected to the ventilator on the other end. There are different
kinds of ventilators — different situations call for different machines —
but they all serve the same basic purpose: to help a child breathe. A child will receive
sedative and pain relief medicines while the breathing tube is in the windpipe.
Taking Care of Yourself
In the PICU, all of your child's physical needs will be met by the staff. You,
as a parent, are there to provide emotional support, love, and a familiar voice or
touch. However, you shouldn't feel as if you have to stay at your child's bedside
every minute of the day. Getting away from the commotion of the PICU briefly or even
leaving the hospital grounds can
help you gather your thoughts.
Staying around the clock with a child who's in the PICU for more than a few days
can be both physically and emotionally draining. Although some hospitals let parents
spend the night with their child, some do not. Often, hospital staff will encourage
parents to go home, get a good night's rest, and return to the PICU refreshed in the
morning, which can help them be even more of a comfort to their child.
If the hospital allows parents to spend the night, the decision whether to stay
in your child's room is yours. Either way, the PICU staff will support you and reassure
you that your child will be well cared for. Whatever you do, make sure you get enough
rest to be able to support your child throughout the PICU stay.
When Kids Leave the PICU
While some patients are sent home directly from the PICU, many are transferred
to a regular floor of the hospital for further, less-intense monitoring and follow-up
care. Still, discharge from the PICU is a significant milestone on the road to recovery.
It means that a child no longer needs such an intensive level of monitoring, therapy,
and/or nursing care.
But leaving the PICU might also cause some anxiety. It's not unusual for parents
of kids who were in the PICU to think, "He was so sick and now he's better. But shouldn't
he stay here until he's completely back to normal?" But the doctors and nurses in
the PICU won't transfer kids before they think they're ready and stable, and the team
on the hospital's regular floor will have the resources necessary to continue guiding
your child's recovery.
Caring for a critically ill child is always stressful and difficult. But understanding
the people and things in the PICU can help ease your family's stress —
leaving you better able to support your child and plan for when the entire family
is home together again.