In a short-term perspective, a high incidence of psychological problems linked to memories from intensive care has been found in survivors of critical illness. Little is known about what kinds of memories patients might carry with them and what it is like to live with memories from intensive care as years go by.
The aim of this study was to explore the meaning of living with memories from intensive care.
A hermeneutic-phenomenological approach. In-depth interviews with ten former intensive care patients 10 years after their admission.
Memories of bodily sensations and memories containing strong emotions were surprisingly well kept. Memories residing in the body at a prereflective level and that could be awakened without being triggered by will or conscious thought comprised an important segment of the memory spectrum. Complaints such as panic attacks and anxiety were strongly linked to these kinds of memories and experienced as flashbacks of frightening experiences that entailed strong emotions. Some informants still strove to understand experiences and reactions. Living with these memories and flashbacks was interpreted as a journey in quest of meaning. Having someone and something to live for implied strength on the journey. The presence of close relatives at the bedside provided strength to go on and someone with whom to share experiences afterwards.
A period of critical illness and intensive care stay for treatment may leave durable traces in the patient's life. Finding meaning of existential and ontological nature seems to be of decisive significance for how people fare in their lives after having lived through intensive care treatment. The identified journey in quest of meaning points to the need for follow-up programmes, and we must acknowledge close relatives as important resources for the patient both at the bedside and in the subsequent process of discovering meaning in lived experience.