Monday, June 4, 2012

How to Do a Hospital Visit

I do have a post in progress on attachment, a concept at the heart of Buddhism - or to be exact, detachment (from our desires and delusions) is what we vow to awaken to.  But today I had a post from faithful reader Karen that I am going to respond to instead.  Here are pieces of it:
Jeanne, I'm sorry I'm out of the loop, and don't know what's "up" with your back.......I hope you do write a post on how to do a hospital visit. I cringe away from them too often I think......Have you read "On Vit, On Parle" by Victor Hugo? I think of that poem so often as it brilliantly sums up all the big and little things we do everyday and ends with "Puis, le vast et profond silence de la mort."
I am glad to say I do know today that my thoracic spine (mid-back) does not have a compression fracture or tumor; nothing to worry about, then.  I see that doctor Wednesday to explore options for decreasing the pain.  His usual options are physical therapy, exercise.  Meanwhile I'm reading about how rats are cured with vibration therapy to the spine, things like that that my insurance probably won't pay for.  As for now, my relief is incredible. I am very attached to this body, in fact, that's what I was going to write about.

Last week I did not pay a hospital visit to my friend Tina, who had let the hospital know she did not want visitors, and had not called me when she went in. I imagine she is too tired and sick (COPD, heart) to want to entertain anyone.  So I put together a basket of foolish things, including a pretty little book of haiku with paintings that even a very sick person could lift.  And a rather fun card that didn't say "Get well" or any sentimentalism.  Tina is not a sentimental person.

I have had the unwelcome privilege of countless hospitalizations these last years.  I probably could count them if I sat down with Tom and tried, but who cares.  Here's what I learned from a patient's point of view.

1.  Please don't expect me to entertain you.  Don't sit down in silence in my room looking tired and bored. I can't rest while people are doing that.
2.  Don't come empty-handed.  A good thing to bring is something light to read, a tabloid, a Reader's Digest, I don't care.  Maybe I don't have the daily newspaper.  It doesn't matter if you bring the right thing; it's the thought that counts.
3.  Don't worry about my diet.  The hospital is already imposing grim dietary regulations on me.  Bring me chocolate.  Fritos would be acceptable too.
4.  Or bring a flower, best if it's from your garden, in a little throwaway vase. Or a little cucumber facial cream.
5.  Stand by the bed where I can see you without effort and entertain me with light anecdotes about the news, what the kids did, whatever you and I talk about, thrift-store sales, whatever.
6.  Ten to fifteen minutes of this is probably enough.  But maybe I'm animated and want to talk a lot, or have you walk me in the halls, be willing to do that.  It is rather insulting to be visited briskly by someone who has an appointment for cocktails at six and is just crossing you off their list.
7.  Feel free to lightly hold my feet or massage them.  I mean, if I know you that well.  If I know you that well you could bring a little fleece throw or something for a gift.  Hospitals are always cold.
8.  If I am conscious, talk to me, not my spouse, friend, whoever else is there.  At least in part.

So, the idea is, just pay attention to the fact that I'm sick and probably tired and scared. It is wonderful that you visited at all.  All you have to do is the three things that characterize Zen:

And while you're paying attention, notice if I say the TV remote doesn't work, or the nurses never answer the call (does it work?) or I can't get another pillow.  Maybe there's a little something you could do.

You will, of course, feel obliged to ask me how I am doing.  I may very well not have much of an answer besides, "I'm bored, they won't let me sleep, I hope to go home."  Or I might want to ramble on about my MRI.  In general, it really is the thought that counts.  When people visit, it makes us feel like we still have a place in the world, like maybe when we die it will matter.  And as to your own anxiety making a visit like this, well, there must be people who are so used to it (ministers, maybe) that they don't get a little chill when something reminds them of mortality.  As the guys say, suck it up.

And that takes me back to the Victor Hugo poem Karen mentioned. Here is a link to it in French, with English translation between the lines.  It is a very beautiful summation of this crazy life, and the final peace of death. Which may not necessarily be the dark.


  1. thank you so much for writing this. i have spent time in the hospital for physical reasons and for mental health reasons, and it makes such a difference when someone comes by for a visit. for me, when i was hospitalized for my bipolar, it was almost more important to have friends come by, because i felt so alone. a few flowers from the garden, a walk, and a chat about your family, the weather (i'm canadian!!), and maybe a book on loan from your bookshelf were so comforting. last time i was in hospital my friend's daughters drew get well cards for me and i treasured them. it reminded me why i wanted to get better. sorry for the long entry, i just really could relate to this post, c.

    1. When I had long psychiatric hospitalizions, even my family did not visit me. Everyone else had someone in their life who loved them enough to grit their teeth and visit, despite the general fear of insanity.

      I think people worry about what they are going to say. But it doesn't matter. It's the fact that they cared enough to visit, bringing with them the fresh air of the healthy world.

  2. For those of us still with relatively young families and not so practiced with such visitations this is really helpful. It's like the outline of a book theres so much pith here. Thank you.
    You're right, it is so cold, a throw is a great idea. And noisy, and they keep waking you up for things...hospitals are almost the worst place to get any rest.

    1. One doctor has speculated that "hospital insanity," a known phenomenon, is the result of never being allowed to get into deep sleep.

      It's interesting for me to think this subject could be a little book. Here in America the demographic is certainly headed toward lots of elderly (baby boomers), which will mean lots of sickness and hospitalizations. Thanks for the idea.

  3. Having spent a long in ICU, and hospital...The one thing that brought the fastest recovery was music. My brother spent his birthday money and bought a cd player and CD'S. My sister massaged my feet poking out of the leg compression machine, which was probably the most significant touch I can recall. I was in a coma for ten days.
    I also hated how there was no good art or photographs in the rooms with which to gaze at, and I spent many hours connecting the holes in ceiling tiles, since I count not count. Bring a lovely photograph of nature.
    Like this:

  4. I read this with great interest Jeanne, as someone who has always been afraid of facing the really hard, emotional things in life.

    Still...I have no answers on what kind of visit I should have had with my uncle who died recently. He was my Mom's brother, but a virtual stranger to me as I only saw him once or twice a year, and never really chatted with him anyway. The idea of a hospital visit with someone who was doomed was a real puzzle to me. I was completely at a loss.

    I like all your recommendations though, and will remember them.

    p.s. I'm relieved your back pain doesn't involve a freaking tumor. What about acupuncture??

    1. I remember a hospital visit to my father-in-law when I was in my twenties. He was dying of a heart infection (that would be curable now), conscious but weak. I just sat beside him while others took a break. Suddenly he cried out to me, "Am I going to die?" I regretted for many years that I went into a cheerful, reassuring mode and said, "Oh, of course not." Something like that. I think he tried to talk to me because I was not his kid, but an outsider. Well, I can forgive my ignorant younger self for wanting to run away from that. And I learned from it. Our ministers just sit or stand and listen when they visit you. They don't deliver any wisdom, cheery or otherwise.

      These days I wouldn't feel like I had to answer that in words. I would just hold his hand. Or might say, "It's hard." But acknowledge his feeling. These are the most difficult conversations, and I think the trick is to breathe into your heart.
      Thank you for writing, Karen.