Nightmares after Intensive Care ; People Who Endure I.C.U. May Be Haunted by Post-Traumatic Stress

By Hoffman, Jan | International Herald Tribune, July 24, 2013 | Go to article overview

Nightmares after Intensive Care ; People Who Endure I.C.U. May Be Haunted by Post-Traumatic Stress


Hoffman, Jan, International Herald Tribune


People who endure the I.C.U. are susceptible to horrible post- traumatic stress.

When Lygia Dunsworth was sedated, intubated and strapped down in the intensive care unit at a Fort Worth hospital, she was wracked by paranoid hallucinations: Outside her window, she saw helicopters evacuating patients from an impending tornado, leaving her behind. Nurses plotted to toss her into rough lake waters. She hallucinated an escape from the I.C.U. -- she ducked into a food freezer, only to find herself surrounded by amputated body parts.

Mrs. Dunsworth, who had been gravely ill from abdominal infections and surgeries, eventually recovered physically. But for several years, her stay in intensive care tormented her. She had short-term memory loss and difficulty sleeping. She would not go into the ocean or a lake, and was terrified to fly, even to get into a car and travel alone.

Nor would she talk about it. "Either people think you're crazy or you scare them," said Mrs. Dunsworth, 54, a registered nurse. In fact, she was having symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

About five million patients stay in an I.C.U. in the United States each year. Studies show that up to 35 percent may have significant symptoms of PTSD for as long as two years after that experience, particularly if they had a prolonged stay due to a critical illness with severe infection or respiratory failure. Those persistent symptoms include intrusive thoughts, avoidant behaviors, irritability and mood swings, emotional numbness, and reckless or destructive behavior.

Yet I.C.U.-induced PTSD has been largely unidentified and untreated. When patients leave the I.C.U., said O. Joseph Bienvenu, a psychiatrist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, "Everyone pays attention to whether patients can walk and how weak they are. But it's the exception for them to be screened for psychiatric symptoms like post-traumatic stress or low mood."

Now critical care specialists are trying to prevent or shorten the duration of the mood disorders, which can rattle not only I.C.U. patients but their frantic relatives. Sometimes family members, rather than the sedated patient, develop the symptoms of having been traumatized, tormented by harrowing memories of a loved one thrashing in restraints, delirious, near death.

Other PTSD sufferers -- victims of combat, sexual assault or natural disasters -- endure flashbacks, but theirs are grounded in episodes that can often be corroborated. What is unsettling for post- I.C.U. patients is that no one can verify their horrors; one patient described a food cart in the I.C.U., its vendor selling strips of her flayed flesh.

"I.C.U. patients have vivid memories of events that objectively didn't occur," Dr. Bienvenu said. "They recall being raped and tortured as opposed to what really happened," such as painful procedures like the insertion of catheters and intravenous lines.

The I.C.U. setting itself can feel sinister. The eerie, sleep- indifferent lights. The cacophony of machines and alarms. Certain treatments in the I.C.U. may be grim, but they are essential for survival. Intubation, for example: Patients who need help breathing must have a plastic tube placed down their windpipes for mechanical ventilation. The feeling of near-suffocation and the inability to speak can be nightmarish. Studies show that experiencing such invasive procedures raises the odds that a patient may develop PTSD.

A longer stay in the I.C.U. also increases the risk of post- traumatic symptoms. But some patients arrive more vulnerable to PTSD. Women may be more at risk than men, as are patients with a history of depression or other emotional difficulties. Because patients often arrive in the I.C.U. unexpectedly, doctors do not have the opportunity to take a psychological history and rarely foresee the possibility of PTSD.

Age may be a factor. Elderly patients generally recover more slowly, but younger patients may be more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD. …

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