Life Support - Communicating With Your Loved One

Medical Author: Maureen Welker, MSN, NPc, CCRN
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

Let us first address the topic of life support. The term "life support" can mean different things to different people. Usually when one speaks to "life support" they are referring to a type of breathing machine, what we call a ventilator. (For example, other means of life support include cardiopulmonary bypass during open heart surgery, kidney dialysis, etc.) A ventilator is a way of administering oxygen to a patient, which is considered a drug. The ventilator is connected to the patient by a network of tubing. The patient will have a tube called an endotracheal tube that is usually placed into the mouth and passed into the large airways of the lungs. One of three types of endotracheal tubes may be used:

  1. orotracheal is located in the mouth,
  2. nasotracheal is located in either the right or left nostril of the nose; and
  3. tracheostomy is an opening into the trachea and is performed by a small surgical incision in the neck area.

The ventilator is used when a patient needs to be completely relaxed and/or requires frequent and higher than normal doses of sedation on a temporary basis. The particular reason for using a ventilator will vary depending upon the medical condition and status of the patient. Some examples of why a patient may need the support of a ventilator include patients who have had extensive surgery, traumatic injuries (such as brain injuries), or severe lung infection or disease.

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