Any hospital stay can be a revelation. When it’s totally unexpected, the experience can be even more fraught with surprises. I speak from personal experience and have some advice based on it.
Last year, I had pain severe enough to require a middle-of-the-night visit to the ER. It turned out to be kidney stones — stones that felt like boulders and required an invasive procedure (a ureteroscopy) to view, measure and then zap them into dust. Star Wars inside my body while I was out cold.
The procedure was performed at a great hospital. I had a great specialist. It all went well.
Even so, as I was recovering, I realized just how important it is to be prepared for a medical emergency that requires hospitalization. What if the searing pain was a symptom of something far more serious — something that rendered me unconscious or otherwise incapacitated, such as what follows a stroke? What about an injury while I was out bike riding or a car accident?
With hindsight, I realized we all need to do five things during and after a hospital stay that I never would have thought about before my kidney stone adventure:
1. When you’re in the hospital, have someone who is smart, professional and assertive stay with you to serve as an advocate. Loving you is not the primary qualification for a partner in these circumstances. This person has to be smart enough to understand what’s really going on, cool enough to stabilize the emotional level instead of increasing it, astute enough to make sure you have a realistic level of ongoing attention and still have the energy and desire to do for you the small things that you temporarily cannot do for yourself.
Physicians, especially specialists ... are usually on tight schedules and can pay only limited attention to you.
He or she needs to be someone whose capabilities and interest in your health are absolutely solid and who has the confidence and pluck to keep asking questions of medical professionals, even if they’re rushed, brusque or difficult.
This assumes, of course, that you have been proactive by creating and providing a medical power of attorney and an advance care directive to both your personal physician and your hospital for their records. If you have not done so, don’t wait. Doing it when you are sick is way too late. You can download the forms you need; be sure to get the forms appropriate for your state.
2. Be a good patient (but don’t expect to be at your best). If you are lying in a wheeled bed, in pain, with a port somewhere in your arm connected to bottles of fluid, and feeling a bit out of control, you are unlikely to be your usual centered, reasonable self. So be a good patient and rely on a trusted partner (see above).
3. Thoroughly examine the diagnosis and recommended treatment before you buy into it. Difficult as this can be, it’s very important that you and your partner understand what is happening to your body and what the treatment options are. Then you can work together with medical professionals in making the best choice for your return to health.
4. Rely on nurses. They know what’s really going on. Physicians, especially specialists, are incredibly busy. They’ll see you during rounds, but are usually on tight schedules and can pay only limited attention to you. Who checks on you regularly, tracks your vital signs (and explains what they mean), clears up what you don’t understand, makes practical suggestions, and has seen it all before? Your nurses.
5. Once released, write a letter to hospital administrators about the person(s) who gave you the best care you received. Thanking your medical professionals personally is good manners. But if you really want to reward your caregivers, nurses, therapists and doctors, do so in writing to their superior. That kind of recognition doesn’t happen often enough in the busy world of hospital medicine.
Hospital stays aren’t much fun, but they can be bearable. Knowing what to expect can certainly help. And these tips can’t hurt — which is a good thing, since you’ll have enough of that anyway.