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Twelve Tips for a Successful Hospital Stay

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My recent three-day stay in a somewhat-small-by-LA-standards but rather posh urban hospital took away the up-until-now, 43-year virginity I had to hospital stays. I had no idea what to expect, but now that I’m out, I wanted to share my experience so that perhaps I might be of help to someone else who is facing a hospital stay in the near future and who hasn’t seen been a patient in one since being in the Maternity Ward as a newborn.

I’ll probably leave out many details that will at some point require a sequel to this, but for now, here goes: my Twelve Tips for a Successful Hospital Stay:

I guess the “tip before the first tip” is the obvious one: Stay alive! That said, let’s move on)…

1. Know that nothing happens without “doctor’s orders”. When you’re stuck in the hospital at all hours and you need something, you’re not going to get it, or much else, without your doctor writing it in your chart as an “order”. The nurse on duty on any given 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. shift (or even 8:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.) really has just one job: to follow the orders in your chart. When on my first night in the hospital as anything other than a newborn came, I found myself particularly anxious. The room was a little hot, I had a view out the window of a black-glass skyscraper (read: no view at all), and I was feeling a little claustrophobic. That, and I was in considerable pain due to having had surgery at 6:30 that morning and just could not get comfortable. At home, I had been prescribed Xanax, a sleep aid/tranquilizer, by my doctor to use sparingly but “as needed”. I explained this to the night nurse, and him to give me some then, at about 11:00 p.m., in addition to a sleep aid of their choice, so that I would be sure to sleep through the night like my body needed (and as a respite from the pain). I had been in pain for a number of hours, because the day nurse had neglected to tell me that while strong pain medication was available (Oxycontin) every three hours, it was “policy” that I had to “request” it. Great; here I was waiting for hours wondering when I could have my next pain pill without overdosing and getting rid of the pain permanently (read: death), when I could have had it all along. But back to the Xanax: My nurse said he would be glad to give me some…IF when he called the doctor, the doctor “ordered” it. Fortunately, Nice Nurse promptly returned with my Xanax and sleep aid (Restoril), and I did indeed sleep well until 4:30 a.m. when they woke me up to take my temperature and blood pressure (which is another thing to expect: they do that VERY frequently!). So, if you really want any kind of latitude, convenience, special medication, diet, or special favors, discuss it with your attending physician BEFORE your first day in the hospital, and make sure he/she writes it as an ORDER.

2. When ringing the buzzer for the nurse, as soon as they answer, begin your request with a, “May I please…?” in your most polite tone of voice you can muster. Face it; it’s just human nature that human beings are motivated by two things: moving toward pleasure, or away from pain. If you make contact with your nurse as pleasant as possible, you are positively reinforcing the behavior that they answer the buzzer quickly and come to your room promptly with whatever aid you were requesting in the first place. And when they left, I made a point of calling their attention to me, usually by using their name (remember it!), and smiling while saying, “Thanks, [Name], I really appreciate your [doing said favor].” THAT will make you their “favorite” patient of the shift!

3. Bring extra of your regular prescription medication from home. This is the controversial tip, because a patient is really not “officially” supposed to do that without their doctor’s approval, and technically the only medication you should be taking during a hospital stay are the medications they give you as a shot, in your I.V. tube, or in a little pill cup as they observe you swallowing it. But as someone living with HIV, it is imperative that I do my very best NOT to miss doses of my HIV antiretroviral medication, which I take twice a day, so that I avoid developing viral resistance to the medication. The day I had my surgery, I missed my Noon dose because the above-mentioned (#1), not-too-responsive nurse did not give it to me, despite my having given the hospital a list of my “regular” medications and their dosages the day before I was admitted. I mentioned this to Nice Nurse on duty by evening, and he was a little befuddled (which surprised me, on something as nurse-like as medication issues), but said he would look into it. Long story short, during the three days I was in that hospital, I didn’t get ANY doses of the five “usual” medications I was on, and it wasn’t because they conflicted with any other medications I received; they simply “dropped the ball” on them. Dropped the ball. On giving medication. In a hospital. Antiretrovirals. For an HIV patient. And this was indeed one of the “poshest” hospitals in the city of Los Angeles. A hospital so tall it must have taken a “century” to build (hint, hint).

4. Bring an object that reminds you of home with you. Hospitals can be lonely places, even if you have a partner or spouse or best friend with you most of the time. They can’t be there with you 24/7, and when they are away, even briefly, hospitals can feel isolating. Having an object – it can be anything, but preferably not a valuable that could be stolen easily – that reminds you of home, can help you to feel less alone and more “grounded”. For me, it was my cell phone, where I text-messaged friends whenever I felt up to it. I also watched TV to get a “view” of the world and to “escape” the confines of the rather small room.

5. Be prepared for temperature control. Bring a small battery or electric fan from home (if allowed), or ask for an electric fan in your room, or bring an extra throw or blanket, or ask for an extra one. That way, you can control your temperature yourself with less rings of above-mentioned buzzer. I am usually hot, so I requested and got a pedestal-style fan that blew gently on me constantly during my entire three-day hospital stay – which was very pleasant.

6. Look out for yourself financially by working with your insurance company to get hospital services authorized before your hospital admission. I think one of the scariest things about a hospital stay, besides facing life-threatening health conditions and being cut wide open, are the daunting bills to expect long after you’ve been discharged. You might be able to mitigate how much you ultimately owe if you talk to your insurance company before your hospital admission and request that your procedure be “authorized” or “certified” in coordination with your doctor’s office. There are lots of contracts and agreements and price-negotiation wrangling and such among doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies, and it’s best to let them all duke it out before you’re admitted.

7. Pre-pay yourself for upcoming hospital bills later. If you have some time before your surgery, try to start a “hospital stay savings fund” for a number of weeks or months, so that when the bills come, you already have a little “slush fund” on hand that’s been accumulating to soften the blow.

8. Make a list of calls you need to make to “clear” your schedule for your stay and recovery period at home. Also to make your hospital stay and recovery time at home afterward a bit more restful, before your hospital admission, make a list of all the personal and professional contacts you need to notify that you will be unavailable to deal with them for a while. Arrange for a coworker to “cover” for you on the most important tasks. Clear your calendar, so that you don’t have to worry about the emails and voicemails piling up during your absence, so you can focus on the one and only job you have in a hospital: resting and getting better.

9. Advise potential visitors before your admission about how to reach you or your loved one about how to ask if and when you want visitors. During my hospital stay, I was surprised at myself how glad I was to have some visitors at certain times, and there were other times when I was very grateful that I didn’t have any visitors and could get some much-needed rest. If possible, email or have your partner/spouse or your #1 loved-one assistant email all the people in your life who might visit you in the hospital your instructions on how they should go about planning that. That way, you’re dropping hints that “just dropping by” really isn’t OK without at least checking in somehow (emailing, calling, texting) with you or loved one first.

10. Use “This Is Temporary” as a reassuring mantra. I find positive affirmations are useful for countless situations in life, and this is a big one. Even if your hospital stay could be quite long, no matter what, any inconvenience in the hospital is temporary. This is when the Serenity Prayer from AA really comes in handy: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage (read: patient rights and advocacy!) to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference (which might have to be explained by your doctor or the nurse on duty).

11. Watch comedies on TV; avoid the news or gruesome movies/dramas. TVs in hospital rooms are great things, but remember what author Norman Cousins, supporter of the Psychoneuroimmunology concept, promoted: Laughter is Healing. I watched re-runs of “Saved By the Bell” and I admit it. Seeing hot young actors in 1980’s vibrant colors was amusing in and of itself. Avoid CNN and “bad news”; it’s depressing when you’re trying to recuperate. Give yourself a rose-colored-glasses view of the world in there; the “real world” will wait for you to get out.

12. Program your iPod-style device with your favorite or “uplifting” music. Another good preparation before your admission is to have a music device to have with you for when you get sick (no pun intended) of watching TV. Hearing favorite or particularly uplifting music (an article on that is here) will help you have the courage to heal.

Having a hospital stay kind of confirmed my avoidance of them for the past 43 years, but I realized that they do serve their purpose and we all need them from time to time. It’s not that we can always avoid hospital stays entirely, but we can COPE with them by careful preparation beforehand and using good judgment when we are there. And if you do, your stay will be more pleasant, and it will be over before you know it.

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