Abstract This study was designed to explore the lived experience of patients after elective surgery when they were being cared for in a surgical intensive care unit (ICU) in the immediate post-operative period. A phenomenological approach using unstructured interviews was employed and 10 ICU nurses and 10 patients were recruited for the study. Thematic data analysis was used. Most of the nurses believed that patients had memories of their ICU stay. Two clear categories emerged from the nurses’ responses: ‘perceptions of the feelings experienced by the patients’ and ‘perceptions of what patients experienced as support’. The nurses expressed that patients had feelings related to anxiety, pain and tiredness and they were frightened by the environment and the unknown. The nurses provided support to the patients by pre-operative visits, continuous and repeated explanation, encouraging family visits and ensuring adequate pain relief and sleep. All the patients could remember at least some of what happened during their stay in ICU. The 2 main categories which emerged from patients’ responses were ‘feelings experienced’ and ‘needs during the stay’. The patients recalled the feeling of anxiety about the reason for admission and a feeling of being safe in ICU. Six patients suffered from moderate to severe pain during movement and procedures and 2 patients complained of sleeping problems. They appreciated the preoperative visit and preferred the open unit design and flexible visiting hours. The four sub-categories: pain, sleep, pre-operative visits and family visits are discussed in detail and are reviewed in the light of other studies to compare the results. Ideas for nursing interventions to help overcome these problems are outlined and recommendations for future research are presented.