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With Fewer Meds, More Movement, Parkland Hospital Fights ‘Delirium’ Among ICU Patients

Courtesy of Parkland Foundation
Patient Marty Vanden walks with the help of physical therapist Cara Tabor and a SICU nurse as part of the ICU liberation study.

Any hospital stay can be traumatic. But 30 to 80 percent of patients in intensive care units go through a period of profound confusion known as ICU delirium that can have long-term negative health effects. 

A team of physicians, nurses and physical therapists at Parkland Hospital are taking part in a national effort to prevent it.

It would have been easier to leave 56-year-old patient Mary Hill in her hospital bed. She has tubes and lines attached to her. She just had two emergency stomach surgeries after going into septic shock, and she can’t move her legs.

Instead, Hill is being supported as she uses her arms to lift her legs, one at a time, and pull them toward the edge of the bed. Cara Tabor, the physical therapist in the surgical intensive care unit at Parkland is gently supporting her.

“I’m sorry, I know this is not pretty,” Hill says. To that, Tabor replies, “It’s not meant to be pretty because you’re doing all the work.”

Hill is doing all the work for a reason. Like every patient in this ICU and 76 other facilities across the country, Hill is on a treatment plan designed to prevent ICU delirium — an intense period of disorientation and confusion that can come with paranoia, even hallucinations and serious long-term effects.

Trauma Surgeon Brian Williams oversees the program at Parkland.

“[Mary Hill] is a perfect example of a patient that we probably would have hurt a couple years ago,” Williams says.

It dramatically reduces the amount of exposure that patients get to these dangerous drugs.

ICU delirium can affect anyone

Not intentionally hurt — hurt by giving too many sedatives, by allowing her to lie in bed all day with the blinds closed, by keeping her snowed in, essentially a coma. That’s been standard ICU protocol since the '90s. Now, Hill has a team of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, pharmacists all closely monitoring her medication, cutting back on sedatives as soon as possible and constantly getting her moving.

“You can see two weeks after being septic and intubated, she’s mobile and talking,” Williams says. “[A] dramatically different outcome than would have happened a few years ago.”

ICU delirium affects people of all ages. It might sound minor, but it means more days in the hospital, higher costs, and a higher chance of dying. And, a third of patients who suffer delirium and make it have cognitive problems that mimic traumatic brain injury or mild Alzheimer's up to a year later.

To put it simply: Critical care doctors have been saving patients lives, but leaving them without the ability to think well, to go back to work or to lead their life as they wanted to before, Dr. Wes Ely says. Ely is professor of critical care at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Associate Director of Aging Research for the VA Tennessee Valley Geriatric Research and Education Clinical Center.

After studying ICU delirium for the past two decades, Ely designed the program Parkland and many other hospitals are following: It’s called ICU liberation, and so far, it’s been a success.

Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
Nurse Kim My (left) and physical therapist Cara Tabor in Parkland's Surgical Intensive Care Unit.

“It dramatically reduces the amount of exposure that patients get to these dangerous drugs,” Ely says. “It gets them out of the bed sooner — plus involving the family so patients get reoriented — and it makes a massive difference to the patient.”

'The old culture was to keep them safe'

A paper just published in the journal Critical Care Medicine shows adopting the ICU liberation program improves survival and reduces the amount of delirium and coma by 15 percent.

That doesn't mean it’s been easy. Parkland nurse Kim My says sedating patients and leaving them in their beds is sometimes the easier option.

“As we start getting them up, getting them unsedated and out and about, it’s a lot more dangerous for them. We’ve got lines and tubes and all these things that could possibly go wrong,” My says.

She’s happy to be a part of a cultural shift in the ICU to work in teams and manage those new risks.

“The old culture was keep them safe,” My says. “Now, the culture seems to me like get them better, get them better faster.”

After 10 long minutes, Mary Hill, now sweating, made it into her wheelchair. Next stop, she says: home.

“I love being here, but I’m ready to go home, I’ve got dogs at home that really miss me.”

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.