What is an ICU Nurse?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

An ICU nurse is sometimes called a critical care nurse. These are registered nurses (RNs) who may possess additional training, internships or education. They work primarily in intensive care units (ICUs), providing the extensive care required for patients in these units. There may be a lot of hands on work for these nurses, who can also be the first point of contact for family members, helping them to cope with a loved one's serious illness.

ICU nurses help care for and provide medication to critically ill patients.
ICU nurses help care for and provide medication to critically ill patients.

Training to become an ICU nurse is variable. Some people, upon completing RN training, immediately get jobs in this unit of a hospital. Many hospitals require more. They might offer an internship to train in critical care nursing, which could last for several years, or they look for nurses who have already worked on surgical or medical wards for a number of years. Job requirements might exceed these, and the only way some hospitals will hire someone is if they possess certification as a critical care RN or if they have a master’s degree that specializes in critical care. Some nursing schools have this advanced degree.

An ICU nurse may choose to specialize in pediatric care.
An ICU nurse may choose to specialize in pediatric care.

Typically, an ICU nurse specializes in infant/pediatric or adult care, and some may have additional specialization with specific types of medicine like cardiology or oncology. The type of job and area of specialization may determine some of the duties of these RNs. For instance, an ICU nurse working in a neonatal unit might do everything from diaper changes to wound care, cleaning, and dressing.

ICU nurses may help provide critical care to trauma victims in an emergency room.
ICU nurses may help provide critical care to trauma victims in an emergency room.

ICU nurses must be extremely watchful. They evaluate and record monitor readings, making sure to communicate major changes to physicians. They also assess patients regularly to determine if elements like pain control are adequate, and to look for any signs that suggest deterioration of condition. Unlike in other areas of the hospital, the gravity of the patient’s condition allows for less direct nurse/patient communication, meaning the nurse’s assessment is extremely important in helping to determine patient needs.

An ICU nurse may specialize in caring for sick newborns in a neonatal unit.
An ICU nurse may specialize in caring for sick newborns in a neonatal unit.

In addition to this watchfulness, the ICU nurse often must communicate with family. They may update the family about developments, by explaining monitors, tubes, and wires that are on the patient, or they might educate them in protocol in handling or dealing with the patient’s present state. Many of these nurses have a deep compassion for the worries and fears of family members and end up providing them with extraordinary care, but the patient does come first and will always have the strong attention of the nurse.

ICU nurses need to be caring and compassionate.
ICU nurses need to be caring and compassionate.

Depending on the type of ICU, the ICU nurse might care for only one patient or may need to manage the needs of several patients concurrently. As patients begin to recover slightly, they may be transferred to what are called step-down units, and ICU nurses usually are the principal nurses in these areas. Recovery is not always possible in ICUs due to severity of illness, and in addition to extremely strong medical skills, these nurses also must regularly deal with the loss of patients, suggesting need for strong emotional resiliency and maturity.

An ICU nurse may be tasked with ensuring a surgical incision or open wound is dressed properly to reduce the risk of infection.
An ICU nurse may be tasked with ensuring a surgical incision or open wound is dressed properly to reduce the risk of infection.
An ICU nurse may help bandage and dress a person's wounds.
An ICU nurse may help bandage and dress a person's wounds.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

Rundocuri
I agree with you Talentryto. What a great feeling it would be as an ICU nurse to know you helped a very sick person get back to health.
Talentryto

I think that an icu nurse job would be both very challenging and quite rewarding. While you would be responsible for making sure that very sick patients get the care they need, it would also give you a great feeling to see these patients recover from their injuries and illnesses.

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