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How to Hospital

There’s No Point in Depriving Yourself When Things Already Suck

By Janet Marshall Watkins

The first time I indulged in bougie self-care at the hospital was when my husband was there a few years ago. Our then 15-year-old daughter had been with us for most of the day, and she couldn’t stomach another lukewarm cafeteria burger. So when a nurse came in to check vital signs, our daughter asked—as if we were at an Asian-fusion joint—“So, how’s the sushi?”

The nurse smiled: “You’d be surprised!”

I’d seen the sushi in the hospital cafeteria many times before, on a shelf in the cooler below the usual array of pre-made sandwiches and yogurts. There was Dannon, there were turkey clubs, and there were trays of suspicious-looking rolls with dabs of wasabi and ginger. I’d picked up those trays quite a few times—picked them up, studied them, then put them back. God knows how long they’d been sitting there, and the last thing I wanted was to eat bad sushi and end up in the hospital myself. 

But after the nurse gave the thumbs-up, my daughter and I entered a new level of hospital self-care. I still rely on a lot of granola bars and M&Ms to get me through hospital visits when family members are there. But more often than not, I also excuse myself from the bedside at some point, head down to the cafeteria and grab some sushi. I take it to a table in the sun-lit atrium, exhale for a moment, and enjoy those surprisingly-good rolls.

Twenty years ago, I would’ve thought it selfish to savor a meal if someone I loved was in the hospital. When I was deep in labor with our now-almost 21-year-old, my husband left the birthing room to scarf down a burrito my stepdaughters had brought for him. It was a crappy Taco Bell burrito, and he hadn’t eaten in hours, but when he returned moments later, I chucked a popsicle at him. How could he eat when I was suffering? In hindsight, I get it. In hindsight, Seinfeld deserves some blame for my harsh judgment.

Remember the old episode where Elaine is at a movie theater concession stand and a manager approaches to say her boyfriend’s been in an accident? Elaine starts to dash to the hospital. But then she pauses, turns back to the concession stand and orders her favorite candy: Jujyfruits. Elaine’s boyfriend ditches her when he finds out, and much of America, when that episode aired, seemed to agree that Jujyfruits represented the quintessential act of Seinfeldian selfishness. But Elaine knew what she was doing, and I now know, too: Hunger and hospitals don’t mix, and when things already suck, there’s no point in depriving yourself.

Hospital visits have taught me many things over the years: What a widowmaker artery is. What happens when you’re septic. What ICU delusion looks like. How often complications occur. But also: The virtue of a good hospital salad. Where to get non-dairy milk for your coffee. How much phone chargers cost in the gift shop, and why you need an extra-long cord. Mostly, what I’ve learned is that advance planning can make things easier, and if you don’t take care of yourself, it’s hard to take care of anybody else. 

Like many families who have loved ones with chronic health problems, we’ve gone through quite a few hospital stays over the years, sometimes planned, too often for emergencies. As a result, I’ve developed a strange set of skills, ones you may have already picked up, too: How to rush to the ER with a well-packed go-bag, how to understand medical-ese, which people are most helpful in a crisis, what happens if you rush out the door and forget about the dog. Essentially, I’ve learned the many love languages of hospitaling. Here are five of them.

CAFFEINE

Steve and I have many unspoken pacts in our marriage and two spoken ones: The first is if I ever intend to divorce him, I should kill him instead. (This was his idea. We won’t need it, I promise.) And the second: Never let the other go without caffeine while in the hospital.

There are times when anesthesia is coming and the patient can’t eat or drink anything other than maybe an ice chip, and I don’t break the big rules. But otherwise, our Leave No Spouse Uncaffeinated Pact is non-negotiable.

Many years ago, I visited him one morning after he’d undergone a relatively minor procedure, and I was startled to see him looking so rough. I thought something had gone wrong until he told me he’d been put on the cardiac diet, which only allows decaf. The remedy for that crisis was to head straight to the hospital Starbucks. But I now know these crises can be averted by bringing a travel mug of black coffee and leaving it on the bedside tray at night.

If you’ve arrived at the hospital in an emergency, with no time to brew coffee, there are alternatives. That happened recently when Steve had emergency surgery late in the evening. The hospital Starbucks had already closed. So had the cafeteria, which sells Seattle’s Best. So had the Au Bon Pain. I did a quick Google search of nearby coffee shops: All closed by that time of night. I didn’t know when he’d be out of surgery, so didn’t want to drive home to brew anything, but I was also tired and didn’t relish the idea of getting up early the next morning to bring him some. 

So, I did the one thing I could think to do: I got a nurse to take pity on me. I asked if there was coffee anywhere on the floor. I said I was SO tired. She said she wasn’t a coffee drinker and wasn’t sure she could make a decent cup, but I assured her I wasn’t picky; if it had caffeine, it’d be great. She made me a big, hot cup. 

I wonder if she noticed I never drank it, and that it was sitting by Steve’s bedside in the morning waiting for him when he woke up, the coffee cold and a little old, but good enough to ward off caffeine-withdrawal misery. Crisis averted, marriage saved.

GO-BAGS

Pregnant women pack elaborate go-bags to make their labor and their newborn’s first days as comfortable as possible

The rest of us need go-bags, too, though nobody talks much about it until they get to the hospital and realize what they need and don’t have. Mine is a backpack with two side-cup holders—one for water, one for coffee. The other essentials: Phone and wallet, phone charger, snacks, a jacket or fleece, glasses and sunglasses, and meds. I always think about bringing a neck pillow but never do. I only bring what fits in one bag so I can keep my hands free to carry Steve’s things.

The patient needs a bag, too, with glasses, a change of clothes, whatever book is on the bedside table (if they’re up for reading), and toiletries (unless you just want to rely on the comically cheap stuff the hospital gives you). Don’t forget the patient’s cell phone, of course—and charger with extra-long-cord since patients have limited mobility if they’re attached to an IV pole/blood pressure cuff/heart monitor/urinary catheter/morphine drip. You get the picture. 

It’s also a good idea to bring along a copy of the patient’s medical history and a typed list of prescriptions. (The hospital insists on dispensing their own drugs, so no point bringing those from home.) Patients get asked over and over about their prescriptions. Better to hand over a list than have to keep repeating it—or try to remember dosages under trying circumstances. 

Steve has a particular outfit he prefers for hospitaling—Minnetonka slippers, soft cotton yoga pants, knit cap, oversized fleece zip-up—and I try to pack accordingly if he hasn’t had time to do it himself. Not much feels good about being in the hospital, and not much fits over or under those open-backed hospital gowns. Nice for your patient to have at least a little something comfortable from home to make it through the ordeal.

SALT

When my aunt was still alive, my mom, aunt and uncle, and all us nieces and nephews took turns at her bedside during repeated and at times extended stays in the hospital and skilled rehab facilities. She had diabetes, and a great many complications from diabetes, and she often seemed to fall and break something. Her only child was an adult with schizophrenia who had his own health issues and who died before she did. So, she relied on us.

Sometimes what she needed was for us to let doctors know she couldn’t handle morphine. What she needed other times was our help breaking a few rules. The hardest of these rules for her, due to doctors’ orders to maintain a strict diet, was that salt was off-limits.

If you’re in the hospital and the doctor puts you on a cardiac or renal diet, you’re going to end up with low-sodium meals—and no salt packets to season them with. Your only flavor options will be pepper, Mrs. Dash’s and maybe Tabasco. My aunt tolerated many indignities during hospital stays, but this was one indignity too far. So, we smuggled in a salt shaker, swiped packets from the cafeteria, or, when we realized she was carrying, fished them out of her purse.

After she died, I went through my aunt’s things and found a whole box full of salt packets. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Enough to stock a McDonald’s. One of my nieces is a nurse, and she recently told us about a recalcitrant patient who kept ordering meals from Door Dash delivered to the hospital because this patient, too, craved certain things. I’d never go that far to get around a doctor’s orders—or burden the overworked nurses, who were asked to go down to the hospital lobby to pick up the illicit meals. But unless it’s a life-or-death matter, I’m a firm believer in the comforting powers of salt and caffeine during uncomfortable times, and I am here to help my beloved travelers on that journey.

DOG CARE

Woe to the person who rushes to the hospital without dealing with the dog.

If yours is untrustworthy like mine, you’ve got to move fast before an ER trip. If an ambulance is coming, it’s helpful to put the dog outside so it doesn’t bolt out the front door when the gurney gets wheeled in, or bark like mad at the EMTs. Just remember to let it back in before you leave.

The moments before I drive to the hospital are like the dog-care Olympics on speed, and I’ve gotten better with practice. I can feed my dog, let him out back, let him back in, drug him (he takes medicine for anxiety!), spread peanut butter on a lick mat (which keeps him from chewing things), and gate off our upstairs in less than the time it takes (last time, anyway) for my husband to be ready to leave. In a bigger rush, the gate, the lick mat and the drugs are my priority. Later, I text our favorite dog walker to feed the dog and let him out.

If you don’t have a dog walker, hopefully your friends/family members have keys to your house—though a keypad lock is a good investment because you can text the code to whoever’s available and ask them to deal with your pet. 

None of this may matter if you have a good dog, I guess. But nobody wants to come home from the hospital of all places to chewed shoes or a poopy carpet—or in our case a few Decembers ago, a total wreck of a Christmas tree with shredded branches and shattered ornaments. 

SELF CARE

Unless you’re at the hospital for some joyous occasion like a baby being born, so much of being there is stressful. That’s why I love our hospital’s sunlit atrium. It has high ceilings, natural light, a Starbucks kiosk, an Au Bon Pain, plus tables near outlets where you can charge your phone. And did I happen to mention the sushi in the cafeteria one floor below?

I sometimes eat my salmon rolls in the atrium, and sometimes I go to the Au bon Pain and get a Mediterranean salad instead. It always feels indulgent, and I’m mindful of how lucky I am to be able to afford a break from my packed snacks and those cheaper cafeteria burgers. The salads feel like nourishment. Fresh vegetables, a robust vinaigrette, delicious kalamata olives—it’s all worth savoring. I nearly always wash it down with water and a Starbucks coffee, and I’m thankful for the barista who pours in a hefty amount of almond milk.

I linger in that atrium sometimes, and not for selfish reasons. I need the rest. The people I visit need it, too. You can wear out patients if you hover around them nonstop. Everybody needs a break.

When I’m in the atrium, I sometimes text friends, and sometimes I make small talk with other visitors. The Science of Well-Being class I took last year says talking to strangers can boost your mood—and theirs as well. Plus there’s a lot of common ground to be found when you’re in a place that reminds you, constantly, that there are few things more important than good health. 

Once when I was there, I chatted briefly with a guy in a clerical collar. I thought maybe he was the hospital chaplain, a line of work I’m curious about since a good friend is heading in that direction. It turned out he was just visiting, but still, I said he must carry a lot of hard emotional weight ministering to people at the hospital. 

“That’s why you don’t carry it all,” he said. “God does.” 

I don’t know about that, but I do know we’re all carrying things and looking for ways to lighten our loads. Sushi. Jujyfruits. Sunlit spaces. Knowing your dog won’t destroy the house while you’re gone. Smuggling salt to your aunt. Honoring your vow to get your husband his morning coffee. 

It’s Hospitaling 101: Whatever gets you through. 

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Janet Marshall Watkins, the co-founder of Pie & Chai, is a non-profit director, mom and former journalist. She walks her dog a lot and volunteers as often as she can at The Table at St. George’s, a market-style pantry that provides fresh, free produce for people in need.