Malpractice News

July 24, 2013

I.C.U. stays can cause PTSD

Mrs. Lygia Dunsworth had been experiencing severe abdominal infections when she was checked into the hospital for surgery. During her stay in the Intensive Care Unit (I.C.U.) Mrs. Dunsworth said she was wracked with hallucinations. She dreamed she “saw helicopters evacuating patients from an impending tornado, leaving her behind,” and another time she dreamed “nurses plotted to toss her into rough lake waters.”

Though Dunsworth eventually recovered physically, her mental health remained affected for years after her hospital visit. She experienced everything from short-term memory loss to difficulty sleeping to fear of flying or swimming. She didn’t know it, but her symptoms were actually akin to those associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

5 million people stay in I.C.U. each year

According to The New York Times, “annually, about five million patients stay in an intensive care unit in the United States.” Of those five million, 35 percent may experience symptoms of PTSD up to two years into the future, especially if their critical illness was caused by infection or respiratory failure or if their stay in the I.C.U. was protracted. However, despite this proliferation of I.C.U-induced PTSD, the condition goes largely undiagnosed.

PTSD rarely diagnosed after I.C.U.

Dr. O. Joseph Bienvenu, associate professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, said, “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.”

Patients have vivid hallucinations

In some cases, family members can also be affected by PTSD, even when the patient himself is not affected by it. Other times, I.C.U. patients report having vivid visions of things that didn’t actually occur during their stays. Dr. Beinvenu said, “They recall being raped and tortured as opposed to what really happened.” For instance, they did not remember painful procedures, like having their IV lines inserted.

Risk factors for PTSD

One of the procedures that most often induces PTSD is intubation. When a patient needs help breathing, their health care providers insert a plastic tube into their windpipes. This creates “the feeling of near-suffocation and the inability to speak.” Longer stays in the hospital, age, having a history of depression, and having emotional difficulties are also risk factors for developing PTSD.


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