For any patient, the period after surgery can be challenging. Not only are there physical changes to adjust to, but there are also emotional considerations. Patients may experience heightened feelings, such as anxiety, or they may be confused about the recovery period and what to expect. This is where nurses play a valuable role. Their experience in caring for and spending time with patients means that they are well-placed to offer education and support after surgery.

In this article, we take a look at the support services that help patients following their surgery, focusing on the valuable role that nurses play. If entering this caring and supportive profession appeals to you, then you will also be interested to know that we’ll explain how to train as an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse. ICU nurses care for patients with life-threatening illnesses, often those who have undergone surgery. We’ll also discuss the vital period after surgery and how education and support can enhance recovery. We’ll also help you understand whether a career in ICU nursing is for you – and if it is, how to access the best training to prepare you for this role.

Patients’ needs after surgery

Patients have a range of needs immediately after their surgery. These include physical needs – for example, they will require help performing basic tasks such as eating and getting out of bed. They are also likely to need emotional support as they start the recovery period. This support can begin before the surgery has taken place.

Education about the procedure, what physical and emotional changes are likely to unfold afterwards, and how to adjust to life after surgery is vital at this stage. If a patient understands what they are about to go through, it can make a huge difference to their recovery. So can emotional support after the procedure. If a patient has a trusted professional on hand to discuss their thoughts and feelings after surgery, it can help to rebuild their confidence and aid them on their journey to recovery.

The post-surgery environment

The right environment, where patients can reap the maximum benefits from post-operative support, also plays a significant part in their recovery. After their procedure, patients may be cared for in a general surgical ward or a specialist one. For example, if they have had surgery on their heart, they will most likely be transferred to a cardiology ward after their operation.

In this specialist environment, they can benefit from targeted facilities and staff who have a high level of training in their field. This means that the staff can respond quickly and appropriately to their patients’ care needs. It also means that they can offer individualized education and support to help a patient through the pre- and post-operative periods.

Other patients may be cared for in an intensive care unit. These are the most seriously ill patients, who may have undergone emergency or complex surgery. After their operation, they will most likely have specific and intense care requirements. These may include:

  • Advanced respiratory support.
  • Support of organ systems.
  • Enhanced monitoring because of existing health conditions or higher risk of deterioration.
  • Treatment for complications following surgery – for example, bleeding or tissue damage.

It’s important to note that patients who are cared for in an ICU may also have specific emotional needs as a result of their experience. They may have had emergency surgery, or a setback or unexpected development during the planned surgery, making their stay in ICU necessary. Patients might have undergone a planned procedure knowing that they would spend time in the ICU afterwards. This is often the case with patients who have had major procedures such as cardiac or transplant surgery. In either scenario, it’s natural for a patient to feel daunted, anxious or even frightened as a result of their stay in an ICU. 

Patients who have received care in an ICU are at risk of developing post-intensive care syndrome (PICS). This is a combination of physical and emotional symptoms that affect this group of patients, often long after they have been discharged from hospital. Symptoms include difficulty with memory or concentration, anxiety, depression, fatigue and insomnia.

The cause is thought to relate to many factors, including the effects of the patient’s original medical condition and also the medication they may have taken while in the ICU. However, with highly trained staff who understand the specific and unique needs of such patients, these effects may be mitigated with targeted education and support.

How nurses support patients’ educational and emotional needs

It’s clear that nurses have an essential role to play in meeting patients’ education and emotional needs before and after surgery, whether they are working in an ICU or a regular post-surgical setting.

Many of the core skills that make up a nurse’s competencies come to the fore when caring for patients after surgery. These include observation and assessment skills. An experienced nurse will recognize signs that a patient may be struggling emotionally following their surgery. They can then assess the situation to understand whether the patient might benefit from sharing their thoughts and feelings. They may be able to help them with strategies for managing their emotions or be able to identify when more specialist counseling is required.

Naturally, a nurse’s communication skills will be used to the full in this situation, particularly if they have completed training on having difficult conversations. They will also have an awareness of cultural and religious sensitivities, incorporating this knowledge into their interactions with patients and their loved ones.

Nurses who have studied at higher levels may also be competent in educational skills. This means that they understand the need to inform and empower patients about the journey they are facing or are soon to undergo.

As part of their role, nurses may provide pre-surgical education to patients on their planned procedures. This will help to prepare them for their procedure and its effects. Or, if the patient has entered an environment such as an ICU unexpectedly, they will provide information and support to explain why and how they arrived there and what to expect next.

Empathy and compassion are two more competencies that are essential to post-surgical education and support. Rather than delivering information and advice in a dispassionate manner, an experienced nurse will tap into their desire to understand their patients’ emotional needs and offer them targeted, individualized support that can really aid their recovery.

It’s the sum of all these skills that makes nurses the perfect candidates to offer education and support to patients facing surgery or in the post-operative period. This may be delivered in hospital, either on a regular ward or an ICU, or in the community when the patient attends follow-up consultations during their recovery. 

Regardless of the setting, the benefits of receiving education and support from competent healthcare professionals such as nurses can make a significant difference to a patient’s recovery.

The benefits of education and support around surgery

Several studies have been carried out in this area, finding many positive impacts on patients. A recent one reviewed the impact of pre-operative education on patients after abdominal surgery found that they experienced less stress and anxiety during their recovery period. In some cases, it reduced the length of stay in hospital, meant fewer adverse events after surgery, and promoted a more positive state of mind in the recovering patient. It also empowered patients to take ownership of their own health and recovery.

In another study that followed patients undergoing thyroid surgery, one group received targeted nursing care. This included guidance on day-to-day living after surgery, and support and education on specific activities such as recovering their voice and swallow function. This group of patients experienced swifter physical recovery from their surgery, relief from negative emotions, and a reduction in complications. It’s clear from these two studies alone that nurse-led education and support, both before and after surgery, have significant benefits for patients and their recovery.

Working as an ICU nurse

As we’ve seen, after complex or major surgery, many patients may spend time in an intensive care unit where they are cared for by specialist nurses. This focused care has a measurable positive impact on patients.

Being able to care for patients in this way offers great appeal to many healthcare professionals. While the working environment in any ICU is dynamic and at times stressful, a career as an ICU nurse can be incredibly rewarding and draws on a wide variety of skills and expertise.

Am I suited to working in an ICU?

If you’re drawn to this exciting area of healthcare, helping patients to make the best recovery after surgery or illness, then it makes sense to consider whether you have the personal attributes required.

The role of an ICU nurse suits individuals who are able to remain calm in highly charged or stressful situations and are great team players. They also need to be confident at communicating with patients and their loved ones, as well as colleagues. Sometimes this will involve having difficult conversations about the severity of a patient’s condition, so compassion and honesty are also called for. 

It will also involve educating and supporting patients who have a planned stay in an ICU coming up or who have found themselves there as a result of an unexpected development in their treatment. Anyone who works in an ICU needs to have plenty of energy and a desire to keep learning about the many facets of their job. They must also attain exceptional communication skills.

What does an ICU nurse do?

The typical duties of an ICU nurse include assessing a patient’s health status and monitoring it closely to detect any changes, which may be rapid or unexpected. Often, they will have one-to-one responsibility for a patient, which means that they will carry out close observations for changes in their condition.

They will need to have a sound grasp of medical equipment, using such devices to gain a deeper understanding of their patient’s health status. ICU nurses must also administer medications and carry out a range of care activities to help their patients’ recovery. At times, they will need to respond quickly to life-or-death situations, keeping a cool and professional demeanor while doing so.

Another important part of an ICU nurse’s role is to communicate clearly with other healthcare staff, as well as with patients and their families. They must do this with tact and compassion when a patient’s condition deteriorates or takes an unexpected turn.

As mentioned, another significant part of an ICU nurse’s role is to offer education about what a patient can expect while being cared for in the unit. They will also offer emotional and moral support as their journey unfolds, providing a listening ear to any worries or concerns, and knowing where to signpost patients for more specialized counseling.

How to train as an ICU nurse

As you can see, the role of an ICU nurse is a demanding and challenging one – yet it also offers many rewards as you experience seeing patients regain their health and confidence after surgery or illness. If this career appeals to you, then it’s good to know that there’s a defined pathway to get you there.

The steps to become an ICU nurse start with completing an accredited nursing program. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another subject, then the ABSN online program offered by Holy Family University could be a fitting choice. The coursework is delivered 100% online, making it a convenient way to study and access learning materials. What’s more, students receive help finding clinical placements to help them practice their new skills, and they will also complete a one-week residency on campus to consolidate this experience.

Once you’ve graduated from either a traditional or accelerated degree program, you will need to prepare for the nursing licensure exam, known as the NCLEX. Passing this milestone will enable you to start practicing as a registered nurse (RN). At this point, a budding ICU nurse can start working in a critical or intensive care setting to gain valuable hands-on experience. You may also wish to work toward critical care RN status to validate your expertise in this area. This will help you to build your career in intensive care, enabling you to apply for more senior positions and deepen your understanding of this fascinating area.

A career in nursing is within reach

Helping patients recover from surgery is one of the most rewarding aspects of any nurse’s role. Through education and emotional support, nurses can make a significant difference to their patients’ recovery times and contribute to better outcomes. This is true of any setting, whether it’s in the community or in an ever-changing environment such as an ICU.

With coursework delivered online and the chance to practice hands-on care through clinical placements and a residency, an Accelerated BSN degree could offer a good combination of theory and practical experience.