After the ICU: A 'Fraternity of People Who Are Struggling'

Carrie Arnold

June 18, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

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.

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 between 8% and 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.

Defining the Problem

As an ICU nurse at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, Annie Johnson, ACNP-BC, knew lots about helping hospitalized patients, but she says she didn't know anything about what to do after discharge ― at least not until her own mother became a patient.

On the first day of retirement in October 2014, Johnson's mother flatlined. Quick-thinking paramedics resuscitated her, and after several days in critical care, she was discharged. Since then, her heart has remained healthy. Johnson's sister, who spent time worrying over her mother at the hospital, also had lingering effects. Both have since struggled, plagued by nightmares, flashbacks, and insomnia.

Johnson initially believed her mom's and sister's neuropsychiatric, post-ICU struggles were unique to her family. It was only a year later, at a seminar she was attending, that she first heard the words "post–intensive care syndrome." Suddenly, Johnson had a name for her family's experiences, and she began to create support groups and resources to help other families like hers.

"I thought of all the patients I had treated over the years who had been on ventilators for days and days and days. And if this happened to my mom after 48 hours, what must they be going through?" she asked.

Once physicians formally defined PICS, the Society for Critical Care Medicine helped create programs to educate ICU staff, patients, and families about potential post-discharge challenges. Researchers also began to investigate factors affecting post-ICU functioning. Follow-up studies of patients with delirium (ranging from general confusion about time and place to extreme agitation and violence) showed they had striking cognitive deficits. Problems with short-term memory, flexible thinking, and motivation plagued patients for years after their critical illness, similar to the physical deficiencies seen after ARDS. Delirium was one of the strongest risk factors for neuropsychiatric problems.

"Delirium is basically a stress test for the brain," said Babar Khan, MD, a critical care specialist at Indiana University's Regenstrief Institute, in Bloomington. But whether delirium accentuates preexisting cognitive difficulties or creates them afresh isn't yet clear.

Sophia Wang, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at Indiana University who works with many critical care patients, says patients who had experienced delirium in the ICU showed significant defects in memory and executive functioning long after their hospital stay. She points to a 2015 study that followed 47 ICU patients for a year post discharge. Among those who experienced delirium, brain volumes, as measured by MRI, were smaller at 3 months, something associated with cognitive problems at 1 year. Many struggled at work, and unemployment was common. Depression and posttraumatic stress compounded these difficulties. Among those with acute respiratory distress, ICU patients who are young, female, and unemployed are most likely to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder after they are discharge.

Critical care medicine may have given these patients a second chance at life, Wang says, but the life they return to often looks nothing like the one they had before their illness.

Prolonged mechanical ventilation and the heavy sedation that often accompanies it are predictors of PICS severity. Some of these links could be explained by the gravity of the illness that landed someone in critical care, but others are more likely to be iatrogenic, says Gerald Weinhouse, MD, a pulmonology and critical care physician and co-director of the Critical Illness Recovery Program at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. The involvement of loved ones at the patient's bedside, however, improved the entire family's outcome.

When Weinhouse saw those data, he and his colleagues founded a peer support program for ICU survivors. In a study published in 2019 in Critical Care Medicine, they identified six different models for peer support for those with PICS and their families, including both online and in-person approaches. An ongoing challenge for physicians, Weinhouse says, is getting patients to engage with these programs, given that their calendars are crowded with medical appointments and that they suffer from increased physical and mental disability.

Studies such as these led critical care physicians to form the ICU Liberation Collaborative to rethink critical care medicine. At Vanderbilt, Sevin and Jackson headed up one of the world's first post-ICU clinics, which uses an interdisciplinary team to help patients maximize their functioning. They redesigned their critical care unit in a way that allows families to spend the night and that encourages patient mobility. Both Needham and Weinhouse continue tracking patient outcomes.

Even before the novel coronavirus struck, the United States — and the world — had begun to realize that graduating from the ICU was only the start of what was often an extensive recovery.

The Long Road Back

When COVID-19 patients began flooding intensive care wards around the world, physicians scrambled to meet their complex and desperate acute medical needs. Over the past few months, physicians have focused on keeping these patients alive. "We've never seen anything like it ― not even during polio — with the sheer number of patients, all with respiratory distress," Needham said.

But he and his colleagues know this is only the beginning.

"We're aware that survivorship issues are coming. There's going to be a wave of sick people who survived the coronavirus but are going to need more help," Weinhouse said.

Intensivists have been drawing on PICS research in their fight to help COVID-19 patients. Work from the past few years has shown that although sedation is required during intubation itself, not everyone needs it while on a ventilator. Titrating down sedating medication helps reduce delirium, Wang says. Such medication has been shown to contribute to later cognitive problems. Needham's studies showing that prolonged bedrest by ICU patients causes muscular atrophy has led him to encourage patients to move as much as possible. With the help of physical therapists, many patients on ventilators can be awake, alert, and moving around the ward.

One of the biggest challenges critical-care coronavirus patients face is prolonged isolation. The constant presence of a familiar face helps orient confused and delirious patients and provides emotional support during a frightening time. But because the immediate need for infection control outweighs these benefits, few hospitals allow visitors, especially for COVID-19 patients.

To address this, some units have been using video technology to allow loved ones to call in. At Johns Hopkins, physicians have also been relying on the expertise of occupational therapists (OTs). Needham says that one OT found that rubbing the hand and back of an agitated, delirious patient helped soothe and calm him better than many medications.

Ronan, who spent 5 days in intensive care, echoes that problem. She says she found the relative lack of human contact to be one of the most challenging parts of being in a bed on a COVID-19 ward. Separated from her husband and daughter, suffering from high fever and severe illness, she lost all track of time.

Her return home was difficult, too. Although her job as a home health nurse had prepared her on some level for the challenges she would face after discharge, Ronan says the hospital provided little practical help.

"Everything is so much harder at home, even little things like going to the bathroom," she said. "I feel like I'm trying to bail out a sinking ship with a teacup."

Khan and other physicians, aware of the challenges Ronan and others face once home, aim to create post-ICU clinics specifically for COVID-19 patients. They want to build what Khan calls a "one-stop shop" for all the support patients need to recover. Some of that can be provided via telehealth, which may also help ease the physical burden.

Because there's so much physicians don't know about the coronavirus, Johnson says, such clinics are not only a chance to help the sickest COVID-19 patients, they will also help researchers learn more about the virus and improve critical care for other illnesses.

Today, nearly 2 months after discharge, Ronan is back on the job but struggles with a persistent cough — likely due to the lung damage she sustained while ill. She has constant fatigue, as well as ongoing upset stomach from all the medications she took to reduce fever and body aches. When she dons a mask for work, the tangible reminder of her hospital stay sends her into a panic attack. Physically, she's weaker than before.

Researchers are still trying to understand everything that Ronan and other COVID-19 patients need to move on with their lives after being in the ICU. Mysteries abound, but the ground laid by Sevin, Needham, Weinhouse, and others has provided a solid foundation on which to build.

Carrie Arnold is a public-health journalist based in Virginia.

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