A fate worse than death? Long-term outcome of trauma patients admitted to the surgical intensive care unit

J Trauma. 2009 Aug;67(2):341-8; discussion 348-9. doi: 10.1097/TA.0b013e3181a5cc34.


Introduction: Trauma centers successfully save lives of severely injured patients who would have formerly died. However, survivors often have multiple complications and morbidities associated with prolonged intensive care unit (ICU) stays. Because the reintegration of patients into the society to lead an active and a productive life is the ultimate goal of trauma center care, we questioned whether our "success" may condemn these patients to a fate worse than death?

Methods: Charts on all patients > or =18 years with ICU stay > or =10 days, discharged alive between June 1, 2002, and May 31, 2005, were reviewed. Patients with complete spinal cord injuries were excluded. Demographics, Injury Severity Score (ISS), presence of severe traumatic brain injury (TBI; Head Abbreviated Injury Scale [AIS] score = 4 or 5), presence of extremity fractures, need for operative procedures, ventilator days, complications, and discharge disposition were collected. Glasgow Outcome Scale score was calculated on discharge. Patients were contacted by phone to determine general health, work status, and using this data, Glasgow Outcome Scale score and a modified Functional Independence Measure (FIM) score were calculated.

Results: Two hundred and forty-one patients met inclusion criteria. Thirty-three patients died postdischarge from the hospital and 39 were known to be alive from the electronic medical records but were unable to be contacted. Sixty-nine patients could not be tracked down and were ultimately considered as lost to follow-up. The remaining 100 patients who were successfully contacted participated in the study. Eighty-one percent were men with a mean age of 42 years, mean and median ISS of 28. Severe TBI was present in 50 (50%) patients. Mean and median follow-up was 3.3 years from discharge. At the time of follow-up, 92 (92%) patients were living at home, 5 in nursing homes, and 3 in assisted living, a shelter, or halfway house. FIM scores ranged from 6 to 12 with 55% reached a maximal FIM score of 12. One quarter of patients had FIM scores < or =10 and 10% had locomotion scores of < or =2 (very dependent). Seventy percent considered themselves to be less active. Seventy-six patients were either working or in full-time school before their trauma. Of the 24 patients not working preinjury, 12 were > or =55 years of age. At the time of follow-up, 37 patients (49%) were back to work or school. Severe TBI patients (57%, 21 of 37) were less likely to return to work when compared with 38% (12 of 38; p = 0.03) without severe TBI. There was no relationship with age, ISS, presence of any TBI, head AIS, presence of any extremity fracture, extremity AIS, or ventilator days in patients who did or did not return to work.

Conclusions: These data demonstrate that ICU survivors >3 years after severe injury have significant impairments including inability to return to work or regain previous levels of activity and that the goal of reintegrating patients back into the society is not being met. Further studies better defining the limitations and barriers to improved quality of life are necessary. Survival, although important, is no longer a sufficient outcome to measure trauma center success.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Brain Injuries / rehabilitation
  • Brain Injuries / surgery
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Glasgow Outcome Scale
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units*
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Length of Stay*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Quality of Life*
  • Recovery of Function
  • Time
  • Unemployment
  • Wounds and Injuries / rehabilitation*
  • Wounds and Injuries / surgery
  • Young Adult