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Pediatric ICU stay can be scary, lonely experience—for parents

MORGANTOWN — When children are admitted to a pediatric intensive care unit, they aren’t the only ones who can find the experience sad, scary and lonely. So can their parents.

A new study led by Brad Phillips — a researcher with the West Virginia University School of Nursing — suggests that being young, being single, having a low income and having limited post-secondary education may make parents more likely to feel lonely or perceive a lack of emotional support when their children are in the PICU.

The findings appear in the International Journal of Nursing Sciences.

“I worked as a PICU nurse for 10 years,” said Phillips, a doctoral student and clinical education assistant professor in the department of family/community health. “We ask parents, ‘Do you need anything?’ And that’s interpreted as, ‘Do you need a water or a coffee?’ If you don’t sit down and have a conversation with them, it’s hard to get to the root of what they really need.”

Between January 2019 and January 2020, Phillips and his colleagues interviewed 80 parents of children admitted to a PICU. The researchers used questionnaires to measure the participants’ depression, anxiety, anger, fear, loneliness and perceived emotional support. They also gathered demographic characteristics about the parents — such as age, marital status and education level — and information about the children’s medical conditions.

Parents who had never been married — or who were separated, divorced or widowed — reported more loneliness and poorer emotional support than those who were married or partnered. Similarly, parents who were 25 years old or younger reported higher loneliness and lower emotional support when compared to older participants.

In addition, parents were more lonely and reported worse emotional support if they hadn’t completed college or if their household income was less than $40,000 a year.

“Sometimes things happen that are really bad, unexpected traumas, and I think especially if you’re a low-resource parent — like a single, young parent with not much money — you’re going to be at a high risk for having a lot of negative emotions around this event that has turned your life upside down,” said Laurie Theeke, a mentor for the study. Theeke is a professor and director of the Ph.D. program at the School of Nursing. Though a nurse practitioner in the department of family medicine, she previously worked for several years in the PICU.

The researchers found fear correlated with depression and anxiety. They also discovered the lower emotional support for parents was linked to more loneliness, anger and symptoms of depression.

Nurses are particularly suited to meet the intricate emotional needs of pediatric patients’ parents. In a 2020 Gallup poll, Americans ranked nurses the No. 1 most ethical and honest profession for the 19th year in a row.

With WVU’s new children’s hospital being constructed, there is an opportunity to ensure that newly identified needs of parents will be met.

“First and foremost, we need to recognize that the current COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the parent experience at hospitals, and the negative emotions identified in this study may actually be heightened for parents at the moment,” Theeke said.

“We could create a questionnaire for nurses to administer to the parent, and then subsequently flag these at-risk parents in the electronic medical record system,” Phillips said.

Phillips and Theeke advocate for structural supports in hospitals and additional services.

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