"We need to tell them that these experiences will seem vivid and real, like they really did occur, it's just our brain playing tricks on us when we were critically ill." Some of the medications doctors now give such patients to calm them, Bienvenu says, can make the situation worse.
Other solutions include reducing the amount of sedation and making sure patients get up out of bed, even when they're critically ill, and walk around. Helping them sleep at night and be awake during the day may also reduce PTSD.
Another potential solution is the use of what Bienvenu called "ICU diaries, which involve nurses and family members writing down, in plain language, what has been happening to the patient while they're in the ICU, and maybe taking pictures of the patient.
"When the patient is feeling better, they can look back and make sense of some of their experiences and memories and see, for example, 'No, I wasn't being raped, but I was tied down, because I was fighting people and tried to remove my tubes.' "
Bienvenu stressed that these patients were extremely sick from the start, and of the 520 mechanically ventilated patients with acute lung injury who were originally observed for this study, 47% of them did not survive their hospitalization.