How to Care For a Patient on a Ventilator

An invaluable innovation of modern medicine, the medical ventilator assists patients who are experiencing trouble breathing for any number of reasons. In the short term, a healthcare provider might implement a ventilator to assist a patient with injuries that prohibit proper inhalation or exhalation, to rid a patient's respiratory system of harmful gases like carbon dioxide, or to ensure continued breathing while temporarily incapacitated, such as while under general anesthesia.

For chronic cases, doctors fit patients with a tracheotomy cannula to provide a more permanent point of connection for long-term ventilator use. While the ventilator provides critical mechanical support for the patient, its proper function requires a certain amount of attention and care from someone knowledgeable with its operation.

Maintain Communication

For a patient on a ventilator, communicating represents one of the most frustrating aspects of treatment. Already saddled with the considerable problem of being unable to breathe on his or her own, the inability to talk leaves the patient feeling powerless and frustrated. In addition to being incapable of expressing such basic issues as pain levels or anxiety, it is easy for the patient to become socially isolated. To make sure that the patient is able to make basic requests concerning his or her well-being, as well as keep in touch with friends or family members, give him or her a dry erase board or other similar reusable writing medium. This should facilitate quick and effective care as well as put the patient to ease knowing he or she can communicate.

While the use of a ventilator might be a regular sight in medical circles, to the general public this situation can be distressing. Take the time to educate both the patient and any relevant parties on the function of the ventilator and the role it plays in the treatment process.

In addition to communicating with the patient, staying in constant contact with the rest of his or her care team is imperative. This ensures consistency in his or her treatment, and removes the burden of the patient having to resort to potentially exhausting means to repeat his or her condition or concerns to every healthcare professional involved.

Familiarize Yourself with the Ventilator

With models ranging in design from the small portable ventilator to large bedside units, it is important to familiarize yourself with the particular ins and outs of the specific ventilator in use before attempting to tend to a patient. Locate key elements, such as the bag-valve mask and the suction equipment, and be sure to know how to use them properly. Learn the different alarms, both in terms of what they mean and what actions you should perform in case they are activated, as well as how to read the displays and check them against the acceptable levels for ventilator settings such as respiratory rate, tidal volume, fraction of inspired oxygen, and peak inspiratory pressure.

Depending on whether the patient in question has received a tracheotomy, routine maintenance may be required. If necessary, employ the ventilator's suction equipment to preserve an uninhibited airway for the patient.

Safeguard Against Infection

When dealing with patients relying on a ventilator, there is a good chance that their compromised position extends to the function of their immune system. With the body already struggling to recuperate from the ailment affecting the respiratory system, additional complications such as pneumonia pose an even more heightened threat than usual. In order to prevent any extraneous worsening of the patient's condition, it is important for the caretaker to maintain a strict regimen designed to ward off typical disease-causing factors. The use of sterile gloves and a surgical mask helps to prevent the spread of pathogens from the caretaker to the patient. Caretakers should use these even if they show no outward signs of infection, as the patient's weakened immune system might not be able to fend off the same viruses or bacteria as a healthy person's. Patients with a tracheotomy should have the surrounding area cleaned with hydrogen peroxide and cotton swabs regularly, and have their gauze pads replaced as necessary.

Owing to the intrusive nature of some ventilators, it may fall to the caretaker to maintain the patient's oral hygiene. If so, use a soft brush on the patient's teeth, gums, and tongue twice a day.