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What to Expect When Someone You Love is on a Ventilator


WRITTEN BY: UPMC
Thursday, March 24th, 2016

This information will help you understand what a ventilator is and how it helps your loved one.

If you have any questions or concerns, be sure to ask your loved one’s UPMC doctor, nurse, or respiratory therapist.

What is a Ventilator?

A ventilator is a machine that helps a patient breathe. It allows the body to rest so your loved one can heal.

Patients who need a ventilator often have a medical problem that makes it hard for them to breathe well on their own. Often, patients on a ventilator receive medicine that puts them to sleep so the ventilator does the work of breathing.

Limited Communication While on a Ventilator

Your loved one may feel frustrated or anxious because he or she can’t talk while on the ventilator. However, there are some ways to help promote communication, so speak with the nurse about what might work best.

Eating and Activity While on a Ventilator

Your loved one will receive food and nourishment through an IV (intravenous) or feeding tube while on the ventilator. Some patients with tracheostomy tubes are able to eat by mouth.

If your loved one is strong enough, he or she may sit up in a chair while on the ventilator.

How You Can Help Your Loved One

There are many ways you can comfort your loved one.

  • Try talking to him or her as you normally would.
  • Let your loved one know you’re near by touching or holding his or her hand.
  • You may be able to bring items from home, like a pillow or robe. Please check with the nurse first
  • Your loved one might need special instructions for visitors, such as visiting times or time limits to the visit. These rules are in place to allow the staff to give your loved one the care he or she needs.

Hospital Alarms, Alerts, and Warnings

There are many devices that alert the UPMC care team of any problems or changes, even when not at your loved one’s bedside.

The small screen (monitor) above the patient’s bed tracks heart rhythm and blood pressure.

Both the monitor and the ventilator have alarms.

The alarms alert a staff member of a change in the patient’s condition, and each sound refers to a different condition.

Often when an alarm sounds, there’s no great cause for concern.

The problem may correct itself. Staff will check this from the nurses’ station.

Other times, a care team member may come to check the alarm.

Coming Off the Ventilator

The ventilator brings oxygen into the lungs and helps get rid of carbon dioxide from your loved one’s body.

Some people become dependent on a ventilator because of their medical problems. This may make it difficult to get the patient off the ventilator.

When your loved one’s medical problems have improved — and he or she is well enough — “weaning” will begin.

Weaning, also known as a “weaning trial” or “CPAP trial,” is the process of getting the patient off the ventilator.

If these trials go well, we may remove your loved one from the ventilator. At this point, we may also remove the breathing tube from his or her throat (a process called extubation). Patients with tracheostomies will most likely need more time before the tracheotomy tube can be removed.

Your Loved One’s Care Team

The care team at UPMC is a group of professional and support staff who provide personal care to your loved one.

Medical team members include:

  • Doctors, including lung or pulmonary specialists.
  • Registered nurses.
  • Respiratory (breathing) therapists.

Support staff team members include:

  • Social workers.
  • Nursing assistants.
  • Dietitians.
  • Physical and occupational therapists.

If you have any questions about your loved one’s care, or hear something that you don’t understand, please ask one of these care team members.

We’re happy to answer your questions and ease any concerns.

Terms You Might Hear When Your Loved One is on a Ventilator

Following are some terms you may hear from the care team:

  • Alveoli (al-VEE-o-lie) — Tiny sac-like air spaces in the lungs. This is where the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen takes place.
  • Arterial Blood Gas (ABG) — A sample of blood taken from an artery (usually in the wrist) to measure the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. This is different from taking blood from the usual place, which is a vein.
  • Atelectasis (at-a-LEK-tay-sis) —  A condition that occurs when part of the lung collapses or compresses because of blockages in the airway.
  • Bronchi (BRON-key) — The large air ways of the lungs.
  • Bronchioles (BRON-key-ols) — The smaller airways of the lungs.
  • Bronchodilator (bronk-oh-DY-lay-tor) — A drug that relaxes the smooth muscles in the airways to help make breathing easier.
  • Endotracheal (en-doh-TRAY-kee-ul) tube — A flexible plastic tube that a doctor or nurse inserts through the mouth or nose and into the trachea (which is the large airway from the mouth to the lungs). The care team might connect this tube to a ventilator.
  • Extubation (ex-too-BAY-shun) — Taking the breathing tube out of the windpipe (trachea).
  • Intubation (in-too-BAY-shun) — Putting the breathing tube into the windpipe (trachea).
  • Pneumonia (nu-MO-nya) — Swelling and redness of the lungs caused by an infection.
  • Pulse oximeter (ox-IM-eh-tur) — A probe that is placed on a finger, toe, or earlobe to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood.
  • Respiratory (RES-per-uh-tor-ee) failure — A medical condition where a person can’t get enough oxygen or get rid of enough carbon dioxide through normal breathing. This may require the help of a ventilator.
  • Restraints — Soft ties used to restrict movement so that your loved one does not pull out important breathing tubes or medicine lines.
  • Suctioning (SUK-shun-ing) — Using a small plastic tube, called a suction catheter, to remove secretions from the breathing tube and the patients airways.
  • Tracheostomy (tray-key-OS-tuh-me) or Trach (TRAKE) — An opening in the neck for placing a breathing tube. This may or may not be in place for a long time.
  • Ventilation (ven-tuh-LAY-shun) — The exchange of air between the lungs and the atmosphere, leading to an exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.
  • Ventilator settings — Readings that show how much oxygen the patient receives, how often the ventilator is “breathing” for the patient, and the depth of each breath.
  • Ventilator — A machine that breathes for the patient.
  • Weaning trials — A process in which the ventilator breathing is slowly cut back to take the patient off the ventilator.
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