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When Someone You Love is on a Ventilator

This information was designed to help you understand what a ventilator is and how it helps your loved one. If you have any questions, please be sure to ask your doctor, nurse, or respiratory therapist.

What is a ventilator?

A ventilator is a machine that helps a patient to breathe. Patients are usually placed on a ventilator because of a medical problem that makes it hard for them to breathe well on their own. While on the ventilator, the body is able to rest so that it can heal. The ventilator can help with breathing or totally breathe for the patient.

What to Expect

Your loved one may feel frustrated or anxious because he or she can’t talk while on the ventilator. There are several ways to help promote communication. You can speak with the nurses about what might work best for your loved one. Often patients on a ventilator are given medicine that puts them in a coma-like condition so that the ventilator does all the work of breathing.

Eating and Activity

Your loved one will be fed through an IV (intravenous) or feeding tube while on the ventilator. However, some patients without tracheostomy tubes are able to eat by mouth. If your loved one is strong enough, he or she may sit up in a chair while on the ventilator.

How You Can Help

There are many things you can do to comfort your loved one. Try talking to him or her as you normally would or let your loved one know you’re near by touching or holding his or her hand. You may be able to bring items from home, like a pillow or robe. Please check with the nurse first.

Some patients need special instructions for their visitors, such as special visiting times or a time limit to the visit. Please follow these instructions. They are in place to allow the patient care team to give your loved one the care he or she needs.

Alarms, Alerts, and Warnings

Even though there may not be a care team member at the patient’s bedside, there are a number of devices that will alert the staff of any problems or changes. The monitor is a small screen above the patient’s bed. It helps keep track of things like the patient’s heart rhythm and blood pressure. Both the monitor and the ventilator are equipped with alarms. Each of the alarms will alert a staff member if a change has taken place in the patient’s condition. Each sound refers to a different condition.

Often when an alarm sounds, there is no great cause for concern. The problem may correct itself, and this will be monitored from the nurses’ station. Other times, a care team member may come to check the alarm. Our staff of highly trained professionals is capable of handling all alarms.

Coming Off the Ventilator

The ventilator brings oxygen into the lungs and helps get rid of carbon dioxide from the patient’s body. Sometimes a patient may become dependent on a ventilator because of his or her medical problems. This may make it difficult to get the patient off the ventilator. When the patient’s medical problems have improved and he or she is well enough, “weaning” will begin. Weaning is the process of getting the patient off the ventilator.

This is also known as a “weaning trial” or “CPAP trial.” If these trials go well, the patient may be removed from the ventilator. At this point, the breathing tube may be removed from his or her throat (extubation). Trach patients will probably need additional time before the trach tube can be removed.

The Team Effort

The care team is a group of professional and support staff who act as a team to provide personal care to your loved one.

These team members are:

  • Doctors, including lung or pulmonary specialists
  • Registered nurse
  • Respiratory therapist (breathing therapist)

The support staff members are:

  • Social worker
  • Nursing assistant
  • Dietitian
  • Physical therapist
  • Occupational therapist

If you have any questions about the care of your loved one, or if you hear something that you don’t understand, please ask one of these health care professionals.


Following are some terms you may hear:

Alveoli (al-VEE-o-lie) — tiny sac-like air spaces in the lungs where carbon dioxide and oxygen are exchanged

Arterial Blood Gas (ABG) — A sample of blood taken from an arery (usually in the wrist) to measure the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. This is different from the place where blood is usually taken from, which is a vein.

Atelectasis (at-a-LEK-tay-sis) — condition when a portion of the lung collapses, or is compressed, because of blockages in the airway

Bronchi (BRON-key) — large air ways of the lungs

Bronchioles (BRON-key-ols) — smaller airways of the lungs

Bronchodilator (bronk-oh-DY-lay-tor) — a drug that relaxes the smooth muscles in the airways to help make breathing easier

Endotracheal (en-doh-TRAY-kee-ul) tube — a flexible plastic tube that is inserted through the mouth or nose down into the trachea (the large airway from the mouth to the lungs). The endotracheal tube can be connected to a ventilator.

Extubation (ex-too-BAY-shun) — taking the breathing tube out of the windpipe (trachea)

Intubation (in-too-BAY-shun) — putting the breathing tube into the windpipe (trachea)

Pneumonia (nu-MO-nya) — swelling and redness of the lungs caused by an infection

Pulse oximeter (ox-IM-eh-tur) — a probe that is placed on a finger, toe, or earlobe to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood

Respiratory (RES-per-uh-tor-ee) failure — a medical condition where a person cannot get enough oxygen or get rid of enough carbon dioxide by normal breathing This condition may require the help of a ventilator.

Restraints — soft ties used to restrict movement so that your loved one does not pull out important breathing tubes or medicine lines

Suctioning (SUK-shun-ing) — using a small plastic tube, called a suction catheter, to remove secretions from the breathing tube and the patients airways

Tracheostomy (tray-key-OS-tuh-me) or Trach (TRAKE) — an opening in the neck through which a breathing tube is placed. This may or may not be in place for a long time.

Ventilation (ven-tuh-LAY-shun) — the exchange of air between the lungs and the atmosphere, leading to an exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream

Ventilator settings — readings that show how much oxygen is given, how often the ventilator is “breathing” for the patient, and how big each breath is
Ventilator — a machine that breathes for the patient

Weaning trials — a process in which the ventilator breathing is slowly cut back to take the patient off the ventilator

                                                                                                                                          Reviewed 2011

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