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A Celebration of Life in the ICU

Too many people have their first and only encounter with their mortality in the ICU - its a cold and heartless environment by design.

Photo of Avi Bhar
27 22

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I have had the misfortune of seeing too many people die in the ICU. Some taken by illnesses which were unexpected, while others I could see approaching their end of days months in advance. I consider myself a competent physician but its a losing battle with Mother Nature as all I am trained to do is pump chemicals into a dying vessel, powerless and ignorant of ways to feed the soul.

Unless I face my mortality, how can I ever begin to understand the needs of the people under my care. Yes 'people' and not 'patients'; I am often astonished with myself how differently I view my patient after seeing a photo of their pre-ICU lives.  Its hard to understand it, but medical professionals tend to remember people based on their diseases, clinical condition and image of a sickly body laying in bed. In the darkness of the ICU, how do we bring light and celebration to people? Not only for the person laying in bed, but also for the care team and family members.

I envision an audiovisual kaleidoscope projected on the ceiling of the ICU. A combination of pictures from social media, video uploads and personal messages from loved ones feeding the mind and soul. These pictorial projection can be accompanied by the patients' favorite tunes heard through earphones, to help drown out the monotony and beeps of the ICU. In the not to distant future, virtual and augmented reality experiences can be blended in to help the patient relive experiences with their loved ones.

If the chemicals I prescribe can only do so much, then let the nourished soul heal your mind and body. Goodbye.



Join the conversation:

Photo of Jade

Yes, I agree 100%. Most of us are in Healthcare because we started with the same overall goal: to help people, or to save lives. In order to truly help the people we take care of in the hospital, the first step is to see them as an actual person who was more than a sick patient lying in bed connected to various life support devices. It’s so easy to get caught up in the daily ‘hustle and bustle’ of working in the ICU, it’s so easy to walk in and titrate that drip without thinking about what the patient may have wanted, it so easy to forget the real goals of ICU care and simply ‘go through the motions’. Maybe we do this because it makes it easier for us when we try to remain objective, but this is not fair to the people we take care of or for their survivors.

We need to manage the physical health of our patients, but we cannot forget to evaluate the goals of our care. Most people wouldn’t honestly want to continue to receive life support if they could truly understand what “doing everything” actually entails. And how can they truly understand what “doing everything” actually means unless they’ve worked in the ICU and were able to witness what “everything” means?

If we took the time to celebrate the person’s life and understand their relationships with their family and friends, it would change the way that we approached those difficult conversations about end-of-life decisions. And it would also help the family with their grief and alleviate some of the guilt felt by the decision-makers. The first and most important step is to see our patients as actual people who had intricate lives before they became ill, so I feel a celebration of their life is just as important as taking care of the person’s physiological needs. It’s something we’re not really taught during our training, but that does not mean that we don’t need to do it. Our goals for going into Healthcare were to “help people” and “save lives”, after all, so we should start by honoring that persons life.

Photo of Ken

Hi Avinesh,  I was turned on to your post by one of the IDEO facilitators, as we begin the refinement of an idea I've put forth to address the de-personalization that occurs to people who become patients in the ICU (see ).  I just wanted you to know that we're doing our best to address this, and to make the ICU experience one that better honors the person who's going through our care. 

Photo of Avi

Thanks for reaching out Ken. How's it going so far? If you would like to collaborate, please let me know. Your project is much needed to breath life back into the ICU. 

Photo of Joanna

Avinesh - thanks for the thoughtful post. I look forward to this idea continuing to evolve in the Ideas phase, which just opened today! Have you tried any prototypes yet? Could be as simple as photos/messages on the ceiling & asking a few questions...

Photo of Daniel

VR is a really interesting idea! It could be used not only to improve experience, but also to facilitate education a la ACP Decisions (

Photo of Avi

Agreed. I think every geriatric patient being checked in to a hospital, nursing home or skilled nursing facility could have a VR journey (incorporated w ACP Decisions) with their loved ones regardless of the acuity or severity of illness. Each lost opportunity to explore and connect with their fears/wishes/aspirations, is a failure of our medicalized system. 

Photo of Daniel

Improving the physical space for families and clinicians is also really important. You made a great point that the impact on clinicians of seeing their patients only in a medicalized context. That reinforces narrow thinking about the disease as opposed to holistic thinking about the person with the disease. Thanks for the great contribution - definitely expanded my thinking!

Photo of kay

This is such a lovely and wonderful idea. At first I thought, "Gees... I think seeing my past photos and loved ones, and cherished memories would make me feel more depressed and only make me feel worse" but then the more I thought about it, the more I thought, I would love to celebrate what was my life! What a lovely way to go :) Thanks for your post, it was very considerate.

Photo of Shane

Plus one! Lovely Ainesh. We'd love to see this idea grow when we into the Ideas phase of this challenge in a few weeks. Looking forward to seeing this in the Ideas phase!

Photo of Morgan

Agreed, Shane! A fantastic idea that would bring such meaning into the lives of the dying, their loved ones, and caretakers. 

Photo of Aaron

Great idea, Avinesh! I think we need more ideas on how we can celebrate life WHILE we're alive. Maybe if we would celebrate life and health more, we would appreciate it more and take it more into consideration.

Photo of Avi

Thanks Aaron! So true. It will help both patient and family through a difficult phase by focusing on the beautiful life they had and the people they touched.

Photo of Helen

Yes, indeed !!  I agree with Morgan ~ music is truly healing.  I have witnessed this firsthand with my mom!  

Photo of Avi

Thanks kay ess. It is a lost opportunity to only celebrate life after the person is gone. We truly have to change the conversation around death and dying. Support for the patient should also involve their loved ones as I see too many family members struggle with guilt and pain of losing a loved one. 

Photo of kim

This is a wonderful idea. I wonder how it might have helped my mother in law as she recently died in ICU, as well as those of us who were with her. I'd love to see this expanded on in this project, as well!

Photo of Avi

Thank you Kim. Sorry to hear about the loss of your mother in law. I would love to see more humanity surrounding a patient, rather than silent cold walls and pings of drip machines. 

Photo of Helen

Avinesh - thank you!  So wonderfully inspiring.
"...let the nourished soul heal your mind and body. Goodbye." ~ I became so emotional after reading your post. 
Engaging the senses ~ so utterly vital.

Photo of Avi

Thank you Helen. That means a lot to me. Hope we can all help change the EoL experience. For far too long we've focused on the dry, emotionless aspect of care (and dying). 

Photo of Helen

You are most welcome!
You will tremendously enjoy Alive Inside.
I care for an elderly parent, my mom, a Grace.  She has significant health concerns.   When my mom listens to her favourite Portuguese fado songs, she truly becomes alive!  She even starts to sing. I cherish every single moment I spend with her.

Photo of Morgan

Helen, I was literally just talking about the healing value of fado songs just hours ago! So funny. I was reflecting on a trip I took a few years ago to Lisbon - it was life changing! Music has such incredible value...I'm so glad it has contributed to your mother's well-being. Just remarkable! :) 

Photo of Morgan

Avinesh, this is such a brilliant idea! Thank you so much for contributing this. As a Palliative and Hospice Care Nurse, I could not agree more with you about how astonished I am and how differently I view my patients after seeing photos/videos of their lives pre-illness. It completely changes my perception of who the person is and paints a story of their life - bringing vitality and their essence alive again. It's quite remarkable what these visual images can do for us.

I love the idea of your audiovisual kaleidoscope! Until you patent that, I would encourage any and all family members within a hospital setting to feel inspired by this post - and bring in photographs, images, paintings, music, and whatever else may connect us with that person who is ill..bringing that person and their spirit back to life! 

We encourage that on the Palliative Care Unit at Mount Sinai Hospital and it makes a tremendous difference because it shifts our perspective of that person and ultimately connects us with them in a more intimate way. It humanizes that person in a way that allows us as health care professionals to understand and connect with them on a more personal level. 

Also, important to note - storytelling of one's life by way of visual arts aids significantly in the grieving process of the patient and family. 

Thank you! :)

Photo of Avi

Thanks Morgan. For far too long we have chosen to exclude humanity from our clinical surroundings. We have so many meaningful ways to reach, understand and celebrate our patients. This idea is easy to implement with a wifi-connected laptop and a projector. As a start, just a laptop with a timed PowerPoint presentation will do. Another therapy gaining support is music, so asking family members to bring in an iPod, or any music streaming service with earphones would do. May help with delirium too.  

Photo of Morgan

Avinesh, thank you! These are wonderful ideas. I also love the idea of music therapy. We have iPads in every room on our Palliative Care Unit! We always encourage the patients and their family to play their favorite tunes. Many elderly patients with dementia benefit from music that was meaningful to them in their earlier's quite remarkable to witness how their behavior and mental attitude change as soon as they hear a song associated with a special time in their life. Have you seen the movie Alive Inside? Take care!

Photo of Avi

It's magical how music alleviates dementia more than medications. No, I haven't watched it but I definitely will. Thank you.

Photo of Morgan

It is quite magical! :) I think you'll really enjoy the film!

Photo of Helen

Hi Morgan ~ I have watched Alive Inside!  I fell in love with Henry!  Music is quite magical indeed. 
I am sure Avinesh will truly enjoy watching Alive Inside. 
This community is so wonderful. 

Photo of Morgan

Helen, I absolutely love and adore Henry! I think Alive Inside should be required watching for all human beings! :) It is so inspiring!