Being in limbo: The experience of critical illness in intensive care and beyond


Critical illness is a sudden traumatising lived experience that affects the sufferer and their family throwing them into a crisis situation [1,2]. It is disruptive and alienating. Critically ill patients emerging from unconsciousness often suffer from confusion that could be momentary or lasting. There is an increasing number of critical illness survivors in intensive care units (ICU)1 with numerous life changing ongoing physiological and psychological sequelae from critical illness and ICU hospitalization, with inadequate ongoing treatment for ICU survivors. Medicalised accounts of critical illness fail to recognise the significant impact on the person, their embodied sense of self and their ability to move on with their life after they leave hospital. The main purpose of this study was to explore the experience of critically ill patients in ICU and beyond. This phenomenological study describes what it was like for twelve people to experience critical illness in ICU and in the months after discharge. The finding was that critical illness is an acute life threatening event with long lasting effects which translate into temporal and biographical disruption, imprisonment by the ICU and its therapies and being trapped in an alien body that is plagued by uncertainty and long lasting conditions arising from the critical illness and the ICU therapies. Critical illness survivors are left in a state of limbo characterised by a struggle to reclaim their precritical illness ICU identity and uncertainty about their future. Hence an overarching theme of being in limbo under which three major themes of 1) disrupttion, 2) imprisonment and 3) being trapped were generated from the study.

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Tembo, A. , Parker, V. and Higgins, I. (2012) Being in limbo: The experience of critical illness in intensive care and beyond. Open Journal of Nursing, 2, 270-276. doi: 10.4236/ojn.2012.23041.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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