The Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Visitors Guide

This information describes what to expect while your loved one is in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). The ICU experience can be overwhelming and stressful and it can be hard to understand what’s going on. The ICU team is here to help you. If you have any questions or if there’s anything we can do to support you, please let us know.

About the ICU

The ICU is on the 11th floor of the main hospital at MSK, which is located at 1275 York Avenue, between East 67th and East 68th Streets. You can take the M elevator to the 11th floor.

Back to top

Admissions Process

After your loved one is brought to the ICU, please wait in the visitors lounge. The ICU receptionist, bedside nurse, or visitor lounge volunteer will escort you into the ICU. The admissions process can take up to 2 hours, depending on the patient’s condition. We ask you to please be patient during this time; we are doing all that we can to attend to your loved one’s needs. As soon as your loved one is able to have visitors, a member of the ICU team will come to the lounge to get you.

Back to top

What You Should Expect in the ICU

When you enter the ICU, you will notice that most patients are surrounded by medical devices and tubing. Each piece of equipment has an alarm that alerts the nurse to changes or movements. The nurses are skilled in understanding these alarms and respond appropriately.

Back to top

About the ICU Team

The ICU team includes many healthcare providers that have a lot of training and experience in critical care (also known as intensive care).

  • The ICU attending is the doctor who makes decisions about the patient’s care. He or she is trained in critical care medicine.
  • ICU fellows are doctors who have completed training in internal medicine or another specialty and are now getting advanced training in critical care.
  • Residents are doctors who have completed their medical school training.
  • Nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PA) have training and experience in critical care.
  • ICU nurses are registered nurses (RNs) who specialize in critical care nursing. They give patients the day-to-day bedside care. The same nurse will care for your loved one daily as much as possible. Our ICU nurses work 3 shifts: 8:00 am to 8:30 pm, noon to 12:30 am, and 8:00 pm to 8:30 am.
  • Social workers help families deal with non-medical emotional and practical issues that come up when a person is very ill.
  • Respiratory therapists are specially trained to care for patients with breathing problems.
  • Dietitians make sure that patients get the right kind of food while they are in the ICU.
  • Physical therapists (PTs) help patients get their physical strength back during and after their illness.
  • Occupational therapists (OTs) help patients care for themselves as much as possible with less pain and fatigue.
  • Patient care technicians (PCTs) help nurses with patients’ bedside care.
  • Clinical nurse specialists (CNS) help patients and families understand complex treatments and assist staff nurses when needed.
  • The nurse leader, along with the charge nurse (nurse in charge of each shift) oversees the delivery of all patient care within the unit. They work closely with the ICU team, patients, and family members. Family members and patients can schedule time with the nurse leader or charge nurse if they have questions or concerns.
  • Medical students observe care throughout the day.
  • Volunteers in the visitors lounge can answer your questions and help you. The volunteers wear blue coats so that you can identify them easily.
Back to top

Visiting Your Loved One

You can visit your loved one every day between the hours of 11:00 am and 7:00 pm. It’s important for patients to have visits from family and friends. However, visits can sometimes be tiring for patients, so please keep track of your time in the patient’s room. Talk with the bedside nurse to come up with a visiting schedule that will not exhaust your loved one.

While in the ICU, please follow these guidelines:

  • Be courteous to other visitors.
  • Limit the time you spend in the visitors lounge. No more than 4 people in one family group should be in the visitors lounge. There is extra space in the main waiting area on the first floor of the hospital.
  • If the nurse asks you to leave, please understand that it is in your loved one’s best interest.
  • ICU quiet time is between 3:00 pm and 4:00 pm every day. This is to allow the ICU patients to rest. During this time, we ask that family and friends go to the visitors lounge.
  • Donate blood if possible, and ask friends and family members to do the same. Call the Blood Donor Room at 212-639-7643 for more information or to make an appointment.

While you’re in the room with your loved one, please follow these guidelines:

  • No more than 2 visitors can be at the patient’s bedside at a time.
  • Reassure your loved one of your support and presence.
  • Touch and hold your loved one’s hands.
  • Talk to your loved one; remind him or her of the date and time.
  • Bring pictures, newspapers, a TV schedule, and a calendar.
  • Respect the privacy of other patients in the ICU.
  • Take home any patient belongings since space is limited.
  • Do not use your cell phone at the patient’s bedside. Instead, please make calls outside the ICU.
Back to top

Preventing Infection

Hand hygiene

Germs are often carried on your hands or on objects that you touch. When germs get into the body, they can cause an infection. All patients are at risk for infection while in the hospital. Hand hygiene is the best way to prevent the spread of germs and infections. It only takes 15 seconds of washing your hands or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer such as Purell® to kill the germs that cause infections.

  • If you’re washing your hands with soap and water, wet your hands, apply soap, rub them together thoroughly for 15 seconds, then rinse. Dry your hands with a disposable towel, and use that same towel to turn off the faucet.
  • If you’re using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (such as Purell®), be sure to cover your hands with it, rubbing them together until they’re dry.

Infection control precautions

  • All patients in the ICU are placed on what is called ICU standard isolation precautions. These precautions help protect your loved ones during their stay.  There is a sign posted on the door of the patient’s room to let you know what type of isolation your loved one will need.
  • All staff and visitors who enter the room must clean their hands either with Purell® hand sanitizer or soap and water and wear a gown and gloves. The gowns and gloves are kept outside the room.
  • When you need to leave your loved one’s room, take off the gown and gloves inside the room. As soon as you leave the room, clean your hands with either Purell® hand sanitizer or soap and water. 
  • Each time you enter the room, you will need to wear a clean gown and gloves.
  • Anyone who has a cold or any signs of illness should not visit the ICU.
  • Please use the hooks outside the room to hang your coats and personal belongings.
  • No fresh flowers or live plants are allowed in the ICU because the water in vases and soil in plants may carry germs that can cause infection in very sick patients.
Back to top

Early Mobility Program

All patients on mechanical ventilators (machines that help patients breathe) are assessed for our Early Mobility Program. In this program the bedside nurse and a group of therapists (physical, occupational, and respiratory) help patients increase the amount of activity they can do each day. This may include doing activities in bed, sitting in a chair, or walking.

Try to engage your loved one so that he or she feels awake and alert during the day; this way he or she can participate in occupational and physical therapy as they are able. This will help to improve their overall health and well being.

Back to top

Patient Updates

The ICU team makes rounds every morning and evening to discuss each patient’s plan of care. The team works with the patient’s primary doctor (oncologist or surgeon) and will also consult with other specialists as needed.

The ICU team can give you a daily progress report during your loved one’s stay either at the ICU bedside, or in the ICU conference room or the consultation room in the visitors lounge.

We encourage you to ask questions. Family meetings can be planned with members of the ICU team, including the attending, NP, PA, nurse, social worker, and a patient representative, if needed.

MSK follows the national standards for security and confidentiality of health information. These are the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) standards. You can read about the MSK privacy policy by going to

Calling for updates

We ask that there be 1 contact person to receive information about your loved one. Information about the patient will be given to that person only. The contact person can call the ICU at 212-639-7555 for updates. He or she should share any updates with the rest of the family or friends as the patient would wish. The contact person should also give the nurse his or her own contact information. That way, the nurse can call if there is a change in the patient’s condition.

If possible, please do not call between 7:30 am and 9:00 am and between 7:30 pm and 9:00 pm. This is the time when the nurses are busy exchanging information with the next shift of nurses and may be unable to take your call.

Back to top

Caring for Yourself

Having a relative or friend in the ICU can be a very stressful experience. It is important that you take care of yourself. Your loved one needs you to be strong and well. The following suggestions may help.

  • Get some rest. Leave the hospital at night after visiting hours and try to sleep at home
  • Eat regularly and drink plenty of liquids to maintain your strength.
  • There is a cart with coffee, tea, and pastries that is brought into the ICU visitors lounge each morning.
  • You are also welcome to enjoy refreshments from the beverage area in the visitors lounge or use the hospital’s cafeteria or gift shop located on the 1st floor.
  • For your well-being, try to spend some time outside the hospital. While your loved one is resting, you may want to go out to eat or take a walk.
  • Maintain contact with family and friends.
  • Relax in the visitors lounge. Please feel free to use the wireless network, the computers or the outlet based USB connectors to charge your phone. 
Back to top

MSK Support Services

Chaplaincy Services

At MSK, our chaplains are available to listen, to help support family members, to pray, to contact community clergy or faith groups, or simply to be a comforting companion and a spiritual presence. Anyone can request spiritual support, regardless of formal religious affiliation. The Mary French Rockefeller All Faith Chapel is located in room M106 near the main lobby of the hospital, and is open 24 hours a day. If you have an emergency, please call the hospital operator at 212-639-2000 and ask for the chaplain on call.

Integrative Medicine Service

Our Integrative Medicine Service offers many therapies to complement traditional medical care. Some of our services include music therapy, mind/body therapies, dance and movement therapy, yoga, and touch therapy. Our services are available to patients, their families and caregivers, and the general public. The Bendheim Integrative Medicine Center is located at 1429 First Avenue, at East 74th Street.

Palliative Medicine Service

Our Palliative Medicine Service is dedicated to relieving pain and improving the quality of life for patients at MSK. Palliative care includes any treatment given to relieve the symptoms caused by cancer. Patients can get palliative care at any point during treatment. Our doctors and nurses specialize in helping patients manage physical symptoms, such as pain, shortness of breath, and nausea, as well as emotional issues, such as sadness, depression, and anxiety. We work with the patient’s primary team, providing an extra layer of support. If you feel that you or your loved one may benefit from the care provided by the Palliative Medicine Service, talk with your doctor.

Patient Representatives

The patient representatives at MSK are here to make sure your rights are respected and your concerns are addressed. They can speak on your behalf, represent your interests, and answer any questions you have about hospital policies and procedures. The patient representatives are available anytime, but are most helpful while a situation is occurring, instead of after the fact.

Social Work

The ICU social workers are based in the visitors lounge. They provide emotional support and guidance to patients and their families and friends.  Some of our services include ongoing programs for patients who are in treatment and their caregivers and in-person and online support groups. The social workers can also help with practical issues such as transportation problems and financial concerns. To speak with an ICU social worker, just walk into their office or ask your doctor or nurse to contact the social worker on your behalf or call the number listed above.

Back to top