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Intensive Care

What is intensive care following surgery?

Children who require close or specialized monitoring after surgery will spend time in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) or neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), depending on their age. Intensive care is needed for children who have had certain types of major surgery, such as heart operations, organ transplants, or neurosurgery. After some surgeries, the patient may remain on a breathing machine and have special monitoring lines that measure pressures in major veins or arteries. In the ICU, your child will be closely watched 24 hours a day.

Learning about the intensive care unit's equipment

ICUs are equipped with complex machines and monitoring devices designed for the unique needs of critically ill and postoperative children. Equipment may include the following:

  • Cardiorespiratory or heart monitor
    This monitor continuously displays your child's heart and respiratory rate. Wires from the monitor are attached to adhesive patches on the skin of your child's chest and abdomen.
  • Blood pressure monitor
    Blood pressure is measured using a cuff placed on your child's arm or leg. Periodically, a blood pressure monitor pumps up the cuff and measures the blood pressure. Some children need continuous blood pressure monitoring. This can be done using a small catheter (small tube) in one of your child's arteries.
  • Pulse oximeter
    This machine measures the amount of oxygen in the child's blood through the skin. A tiny light is taped to the child's finger, ear, or toe. A wire connects the light to the monitor where it displays the percent of oxygen in your child's red blood cells.
  • Transcutaneous oxygen/carbon dioxide monitor
    This machine measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your child's skin. A small, circular pad is attached to the patient's skin, most often on the chest or abdomen. The pad warms a small area of skin underneath and measures oxygen, carbon dioxide, or both. A wire connects the pad to the monitor and displays the levels. Because the transcutaneous monitor heats the skin, it must be moved to different places on the skin every few hours. The heating may leave a temporary reddened spot on the skin.
  • X-ray
    Portable x-ray machines are brought to the child's bedside in the ICU. X-rays are taken for many reasons including checking placement of catheters and tubes, looking for signs of lung problems, and checking for signs of bowel abnormalities.
  • Endotracheal tube (ET tube)
    This tube is placed through the child's mouth or nose and into the trachea (windpipe). The ET tube is held in place with tape and is connected with flexible tubing to a mechanical ventilator (breathing machine). Because the ET is uncomfortable, your child will be sedated and his or her wrists will be restrained to prevent him or her from pulling the ET out. Your child will be unable to speak or cry while he or she has an ET tube, because the vocal cords are unable to vibrate and make sounds with the tube in place. This is temporary and your child will regain his or her voice after the ET tube is removed, although he or she may be hoarse.
  • Respirator or mechanical ventilator
    This machine helps children who are unable to breathe on their own due to anesthesia, or who need help taking bigger or more effective breaths due to illness. Ventilators can also deliver extra oxygen, if needed.
  • Intravenous (IV) pumps
    Intravenous (IV) pumps deliver fluids and medications in very accurate amounts, through catheters into the veins.

How often will I be able to visit in the ICU?

Ask someone on your child's healthcare team, when you first arrive, about visiting hours. If needed, ask about services provided to families (such as social workers or chaplains, and telephone numbers to call from home) when you cannot be there with your child.

Will other physicians be seeing my child in the ICU?

Your surgeon may ask other specialized physicians to help manage your child's care while in the ICU. These specialists may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Pulmonologists (who manage breathing or lung problems)
  • Anesthesiologists (who help manage pain)
  • Critical care medicine physicians (who help coordinate your child's care when many physicians are involved, and observe for complications that might arise after surgery)

What can I do for my child while he or she in the ICU?

Even if he or she is receiving medication to control pain or help him or her sleep, your child needs to know you are there. The healthcare team that is caring for your child will be happy to suggest ways that you can comfort your child at every stage of recovery. They will also welcome suggestions from you regarding how to make your child feel more comfortable and secure. A child life specialist can be a great resource for showing you and your child relaxation and pain management skills. The following are a few things that you can do for your child while in ICU:

  • Touch your child and talk to him or her in soft, soothing, reassuring tones.
  • Bring your child's favorite music from home.
  • Record your family reading your child's favorite story on a tape recorder.
  • Place pictures of your family, child's friends, or family pets where your child can see them.
  • Bring an item or two from home that helps your child feel secure, such as a favorite stuffed animal, a soft blanket, a special cup to drink out of, or a pacifier.

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