BACKGROUND: Critically ill patients have received little attention in the caring literature and yet are a population for whom caring behaviors are particularly important. OBJECTIVES: To describe patients' perceptions of caring exhibited by professional nurses in a critical care unit and to describe the meaning to the patients of these demonstrations of caring. METHODS: We used a phenomenologic approach for this descriptive study, which was conducted on 13 patients hospitalized in a critical care unit for at least 48 hours within 48 hours of their transfer from the unit. We asked them to respond to two open-ended questions and recorded all interviews on audio tapes that were transcribed verbatim. RESULTS: Caring in a critical care unit is attentive, vigilant behavior on the part of the nurse. This vigilance embodies nurturance and incorporates highly skilled, technical practices, as well as basic nursing care and beyond. Caring is a healing process of which lifesaving actions by the nurse are a part. Identifying the characteristics of the individuals involved in this healing process was one way of describing caring. Personal attributes of nurses, family members, and patients themselves are important in the descriptions of the caring process. These attributes are incorporated into the concept of mutuality. CONCLUSIONS: Caring is descriptive of a mutual process in which intentions are joined to form a shared experience. In this mutual process, healing is an outcome that might otherwise be elusive.

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