Monday, 17 December 2012

Susanne Kean: Beyond Intensive Care

Early on in my Edinburgh residency, I met Susanne Kean, a former critical care nurse and now a research academic. It was Susanne who first sparked my interest in the world of intensive care, a thread that has run through my writing over the past few months. Over coffee that morning, she talked about the experience of the patient in ICU, mentioning delirium as one of the worst aspects.
‘What’s the difference between delirium and dreaming?’ I asked.
‘You can wake up from a dream.’ said Susanne.

It reminded me of a time, years ago, when my father was in intensive care in Dublin. The line our family took was that his delirium was a kind of blessing – he knew nothing of his illness, was ‘out of it’ in a dream of his own making. Looking deeper into the ICU experience I now realise we were comforting ourselves with a falsehood. Delirium is more usually terrifying for patients, nightmarish, and incorporates strange interpretations of the uncomfortable procedures necessary for their medical care. Patients often think they have been kidnapped, or subjected to torture.

Susanne’s current work is to look at the experience of ICU survival for patients and their families. When I asked what had motivated her to enter nursing, it turned out that concerns of families and intensive care were there from the very start. When Susanne was eight , her two-year old brother became dangerously ill with meningitis. At that time, children were not allowed to visit the ICU, so Susanne and her sister knew what was happening only through witnessing the upset of their parents. She hated being excluded and she resolved to become a nurse.

"I am the knitting one – this being ‘in’ in the 1980s. 
The other two are my friends and we were waiting for 
exams. We had to ‘dress up’ for those."

Susanne graduated in Germany in the 1980s, when the hospital system was very task based – wards served 38 to 50 people, which meant taking up to 50 blood pressures or temperatures each round, and not getting to know the patients very well at all. She then moved to Switzerland where a very different system was in operation. Nurses looked after all the needs of fewer patients, and planned the care with the patients. It was a radical change for Susanne, who at first found the new system very slow, until she realised it was not about completing tasks in an efficient time, it was about basing care around the patients needs, rather than the system’s. This principle has defined her work ever since.

This interest in developing a quality relationship with her patients brought Susanne into intensive care nursing, where there is a one-to-one relationship between nurse and patient. I’m struck by the way that Susanne, throughout her career, has constantly moved forward, questioning the way healthcare is practiced and searching for ways to improve the experience of patients.

 "Shift handover in our kitchen. I was working as a
nurse on a septic surgical ward and loved it!
The other person is our charge nurse."
Her bedside nursing career ended when she developed back problems – sadly common among nurses. She went into management and teaching, but was soon drawn to the relatively new area of nurse-led research.  Britain was further ahead of Germany in the development of this and Edinburgh University was especially strong. Susanne learned English to access the research and did her Masters, and Phd here. ‘Research gives you evidence, and evidence gives you clout.’ she says. ‘Otherwise, people will not listen to you.’

She is now part of the inter-disciplinary critical care research group based in the School of Health in Social Science, carrying out a ‘longitudinal’ study looking at how patients who survive the ICU experience fare over time, not only their physical health, but the psychological, emotional and social effects of the stay.  A recurring theme of her interest is not just the patient’s health, but also the effect on the families and circles of friends who support the survivor.

‘An important but invisible aspect of nursing is establishing a relationship with the patient. In an ICU it is difficult to establish a relationship with the patient as they are normally sedated and attached to a ventilator which prevents speech. Even so, you talk to them, explain what you are doing, even if you don’t know if they hear you or what they can make sense of.’

In this setting, families provide the opportunity to get to know the patients.
‘In an ICU you don’t withdraw when the family visits, you have to stay with your patient. Nurses get to know family members well, and the families have someone on hand to talk to about the patient’s condition.'

'Families are fascinating. Each family member is different, and have different needs. One may want to know absolutely everything in the tiniest detail, others want to know no more than the general direction we are travelling in. Balancing those needs in a single communication is difficult, but they are part of the story, they are the people we discharge the patient to, you need to include them.'

A lot has changed since Susanne was kept from her tiny brother’s bedside by a system more concerned with it’s own efficient running than the wider effects on the families concerned. A stay in ICU is always a traumatic event, and the ripples of that event change patients lives for a long time, and those of their friends and family too.

"I grew up and for a while I loved to ride motorbikes.
This was while working in ICU!"


  1. This story really resonates for me as my Mum was in intensive care for nearly 3 weeks in 2000. I still can't walk into similar areas without an emotional response - the sounds and smells – I burst into tears a few weeks ago after visiting a student on cardiology as the alarm sounds took me right back to that time. We need to really take care of folk after the experience - my Mum never really did get over the trauma of the experience. I got her to write about it at the time, knowing that it would go some way to help her as I knew a diary might be a way of helping her make sense of that experience, and since her death in 2006 I keep thinking I ought to "do" something with her words.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm sure getting your Mum to write about the experience did help her, as it has many others, to come to terms with the experience in some way. Simply to sort out the sequence of events, it seems, can help a great deal with the psychological effects of the crisis. All the best to you, Nicola