When a loved one is in the hospital, it’s normal to want to be by their side to provide support and be involved in decisions about their care. This becomes even more of a priority if your loved one is unable to express their own wishes – for instance, when they may need mechanical ventilation to support their lungs while they recover from serious illness or injury.

People who have survived critical illness and successfully learned to breathe on their own again say that their family’s involvement in their care was important to them, with benefits including feeling reassured, comforted or calmed from visitors. To help you be prepared to support your loved one, we’ve outlined what you need to know about mechanical ventilation and what to expect as you support them.

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What is mechanical ventilation and why is it used?

Ventilators are machines that allow your loved one to get enough oxygen while getting rid of carbon dioxide through tubes inserted through the mouth or an opening in the neck, called a tracheostomy. Hospitals commonly use ventilators to help people with illnesses or injuries that prevent them from breathing normally.

What can I do to support my loved one on a ventilator?

When your loved one is strong enough to begin trying to breathe on their own again, it can be a scary time for them, especially if they have been on the ventilator for a long time. This attempt is called a weaning trial – the care team removes the ventilator for small periods of time and allows your loved one to adjust. The goal is to work toward more and more time off of the ventilator.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh looked at how loved ones can support their family member by expressing different behaviors that either help or interfere with the time it takes to go off of a ventilator. Based on those findings, these are the best ways to support your loved one:  

  • Touch. Touch is both important to you and your loved one because it’s a natural gesture of comfort. It’s important that your touch is soothing – lightly touching the hair or forehead, for instance, so your loved one feels your presence without feeling pressured. Other types of touch can be hand holding, stroking hair, massaging, hugging, kissing or helping your loved one adjust their position.
  • Communication. There are three ways to talk to your loved one that can be helpful:
    • Verbal encouragement and coaching can help relieve your loved one’s anxiety and get their breathing on track with yours. Saying things like, “You’re doing great – breathe with me,” can go a long way to support your loved one’s recovery.
    • Social talk about normal, everyday topics can distract your loved one from the work or worry they have about trying to get off of the ventilator. Find topics you know your loved one has interest in, whether it’s family updates, sports or hobbies. Try to avoid controversial topics or pressing conversations that seem to stress them out.
    • Acting as your loved one’s care representative can be calming as well, but it is mostly advised for people who have stayed at the bedside long enough to know the full care plan. For example, if you have kept track of your loved one’s vital signs or progress, you can communicate with the care team and interpret their updates to your loved one.
  • Learning clinical information. Your loved one’s care team may help you learn how to understand your loved one’s responses to the ventilator and how to read the numerical values on it. They do this to reassure you, reinforce information to you and your loved one and prepare you to help your loved one when they’re out of the room. Often, you will acquire the correct language to communicate with the care team, which can put your loved one’s mind at ease knowing you are in it with them and understand their care as well.
  • Providing space and calm. Try not to hover or smother your loved one, and if possible, don’t ask them too many questions that can overwhelm them and cause setbacks.

 What does care look like?

Treatment is overseen by respiratory therapists, nurses and doctors in the emergency department or intensive care unit of a hospital, where the main goal is to help stabilize your loved one’s condition.

Once that happens, and they still need continued recovery time outside of an emergency setting, a long-term acute care hospital, like a Kindred Transitional Care Hospital, is the preferred setting.

Many people have not heard of transitional care hospitals, because it’s a specialized style of caring for people who are recovering from serious injury or illness. But, the benefit of continuing your loved one’s pulmonary care in such a setting includes a lower risk of going back to the emergency room, improved health outcomes and faster weaning from the ventilator.

Our pulmonary care programs have evidence-based standard processes of care, including for medication delivery and infection prevention.

“What makes this program so important is that we are giving every patient, every day, a chance to be successful consistently,” Hunter Davis, Chief Clinical Officer of Kindred Hospital Houston Medical Center, said. “We are allowing the patient to progress early by making sure the plan of care is in play and functioning, and if that needs to be changed we do that very quickly. We are not waiting a week to see if a patient is progressing, weaning off of a ventilator. It’s an everyday conversation between nursing, case management, our rehab team and others.”

If you are interested in learning more about Kindred Hospitals, search for a location near you, or call 1.866.KINDRED to speak with a Registered Nurse 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.