6 People You Will Meet in an ICU Waiting Room

Christie Patient avatar

by Christie Patient |

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hardest, caregiving, coping, healthcare workers, covid-19

When I recall the times that loved ones were in the hospital for extended periods, I can still feel the energy of the waiting rooms.

ICU waiting rooms have a particular hum about them, a palpable tension created by people in limbo, including those often too stressed to realize they are exhausted and too tired to cope with their stress. They’ll stay within the same 100 feet for days and wonder why they’re so tired.

Sound familiar?

While days of lingering in hospital waiting rooms and corridors might not exist right now thanks to the coronavirus threat, I imagine the hum persists for those who are waiting, wherever they are. 

When my college friend was in the ICU, a rotating cast of about 100 people came to the hospital to support her and one another. Hospital staff allowed only two at a time to visit her, so most of the time we camped out in the large lobby. We moved through the motions in cycles — grieving, praying, sneaking away for food or parking garage beers, reminiscing, hoping, laughing, and crying. 

It was a different story when my mom was in the ICU. The waiting room could only accommodate up to 20 people, and it was almost always full of strangers. Instead of being a comfortable place full of friends, it often just made me more anxious. 

I spent most of my time in my mom’s room anyway, leaving only to use the bathroom, get food or coffee, make a phone call, or if doctors kicked me out for a procedure. The few times I left because I needed a break (or had a breakdown), I steered clear of the waiting room. I didn’t want to be around anyone who wasn’t involved in my situation. Likewise, I didn’t have the mental space to empathize with others who had their own “situations.” 

Over the months that my mom was in the ICU, the waiting room visitors changed as their loved ones moved units, passed away, or went home. Though the same groups weren’t there for long, I observed reoccurring stereotypes that you can find in an intensive care waiting room. I have been each of these people at different times. How about you? 

1. The Pack

This is a close group of 3-6 immediate family members and friends who take turns spending time at the bedside and are never far apart from one another.  

2. The Worrywart

This person is wound up. They want to be in the middle of things to make sure they know exactly what is going on with their loved one. But for some reason, they are cast out to the waiting room. Their loved one might be having a test or a procedure done. Perhaps they were kicked out because they were stressing everyone else out. Or, they recognized their energy and decided to take a break to calm down.  

3. The Camper

This person is here for the long haul. Either they don’t want to go too far away in case their loved one has an emergency, or they can’t find or afford lodging. Whatever the reason, they don’t have accommodations outside the hospital. They have claimed a particular chair or corner of the room and made it their home. They have heaps of backpacks, blankets, food containers, and charging cables sprouting out from the pile. You can sometimes walk in and find them sleeping. You might feel awkward about interrupting, but they are beyond caring about privacy.  

4. The Lamenter

The Lamenter might have received some bad news and is not coping well. This person is having a rough time and has nowhere to go to have a meltdown, other than the waiting room. Emotions overwhelm them, and they probably don’t care about making a scene. But try not to stare. Send out a little prayer for them or offer condolences if you feel it’s appropriate. Step out to give them privacy if you’re the only other person there.  

5. The Distancer

This person needs space, as they are allowing themselves a distraction for a while. They are in the waiting room to get away from the sights and sounds of the ICU. They might be reading a book, listening to music, or watching something on a laptop, or they might be miles down a rabbit hole on their phone.  

6. The Youngster

A few kids usually can be found in the waiting room. They may not understand why they are there or what’s going on. Sometimes they can be total troopers, going through likely their first hospital experience and taking it in stride. Other times, they can be loud and disrespectful. Give those ones grace. 


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Erin Paterson avatar

Erin Paterson

Yup I recognize all 6 of those. I can still hear the sounds of the ICU as well and it has been over ten years.


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