Next week is Scott’s birthday and I suspect he will have a newfound appreciation for the day. I certainly will and here’s why…
As you’ve likely noticed, we’ve been away from the site for over a month and a half. While most people were ringing in the new year enjoying the company of family and friends, I was watching Scott struggle with what we thought was a bad case of indigestion or possibly even food poisoning. The vomiting and pain persisted throughout the night and by morning we both realized he needed to go to the emergency room. After initial evaluations, the ER doctor very frankly said to me, “Let’s be honest. He is very, very sick.” It wasn’t indigestion nor food poisoning, but further testing revealed it to be a serious case of pancreatitis that was most likely caused by a gallstone. With kidney failure a result of the pancreatitis, the local hospital made the decision to transfer him to University of Iowa Hospital. It was only the beginning of Scott’s fight for his life. While that may sound dramatic, there’s 100% truth to it. Pancreatitis is no joke and the ramifications of it on the other organs is awful. I had no idea, but learned a lot over the three-week course of Scott’s treatment onsite at the University Hospital. The most important thing I discovered is that we cannot take a single day for granted.
I’m not going to go into the details of what I learned medically because I don’t want someone to land on this article when they make the mistake of using Dr. Google to learn about the pancreatitis diagnosis of a friend or loved one. I’m not even going to discuss procedures on wearing a mask. Instead, I want to offer some tips on what to do when that person is hospitalized because it really is overwhelming. I hope this article also offers some insight into what you can do when someone you know is faced with a similar crisis.
First, I’m going to start with what you SHOULD NOT do. I’m serious here.
Do NOT Google.
When a family member is sent to the hospital, it’s natural to want to learn as much as you can. What better place to turn than to Google, right? Wrong. Each person’s diagnosis has it’s own set of circumstances. A quick search for the basic underlying description of the diagnosis is one thing, but beyond that just stop.
With that out of the way, let’s focus on 10 things you SHOULD do when a family member is hospitalized.
Find out how to communicate with the medical professionals.
While I’m saying not to Google, that doesn’t mean to stay uninformed. In fact, that’s exactly the opposite of what you should do. From day one, ask how to connect with the doctors and nurses and the best time to call. Contact them regularly for details on progress, test results and emotional state.
Keep a journal of notes regarding the conversations with professionals as well as things you’ve witnessed yourself. I called each morning after rounds so I could be mentally prepared when I was there during visiting hours. The conversations, coupled with my notes, gave me an opportunity to ask about things that I noticed were improving – or not.
Be an advocate for the patient.
The patient won’t be able to do many of the things that need to be done so it’s your job to make sure everything stays on track. Follow up if you think someone has dropped the ball. Whether it’s medical records being sent to your primary care physician or the patient not getting assistance with personal care, speak up. Don’t forget to document that too!
Pack a bag for the patient.
The hospital will provide the basic necessities including food, beverages, robe, socks and hygiene products. But depending on whether the patient is awake or not, you’ll want to have other items on hand for them. Phone, iPad, chargers and cables are the most important. But also consider comfort things like a neck pillow and earbuds. They might not need it right away, but when they do it will be there.
Pack a bag for yourself.
In the age of COVID, visiting hours aren’t what they used to be. Both hospitals had very limited hours which meant I needed to be there in advance so I could walk in the minute I was allowed to do so. Even if you plan to drive there and home each day, keep a backpack in the car with medicine, glasses/contact solution, phone cables/chargers, a change of clothes and even a snack. You probably won’t need them, but you’ll want to have these things available in the event there’s a surgery or something that keeps you from returning home when you planned.
Gather moral support for the patient.
Hospitals often have programs that allow patients to receive emails. Find out if the hospital does then share it with family and friends. Being in the hospital can be a very isolating experience, especially with such limited visiting hours. If you have children, encourage them to make posters for the room. Hospitals have rules regarding flowers and balloons, but posters are allowed. Our girls also made a bunch of Post-it notes and I regularly left those for him to find. Originally, I only put them on the bedside tray, but once he was finally on his feet, I put them on the mirror in the bathroom and on the window by the chair he sat in.
Accept help when offered.
Here’s a tough one because it’s hard to admit you’re vulnerable and need help. People want to help so don’t push them away. I had many people ask how they could help and my answer was usually, “Please pray.” In hindsight, I should have said what I really needed. First and foremost, find someone that would be willing to be your coordinator. When someone offers assistance, connect them with that coordinator who can schedule meal deliveries, help with transportation, aid with pets or handle home issues (such as lawn mowing or snow removal).
Coordinate care for kids and/or pets.
You need to be able to stay focused on your ailing family member. Talk to family or neighbors to ensure that kids and pets are taken care of in your absence.
Write thank-you notes.
Not only is it important to be appreciative of the things people do for you, but it’s also very therapeutic to share how much they truly made a difference. Create a master list that includes the person’s name, what they dropped off or took care of, the date received and a date the thank you was mailed. Don’t try to write them all at once, but work on them gradually when you have a few minutes here or there.
Take care of yourself and remain positive.
It’s imperative that you remain positive both for your own well-being but those of your family. Focus on the improvements, no matter how small. You may find it difficult to sleep and eat, but do your best. You need to keep up your strength because you don’t know how long it will be before things get back to normal.
While Scott has been home for almost a month, we’re far from being done with this. It’s been difficult to get a follow-up appointment back in Iowa City and the local surgeon cannot proceed without a specialist involved. It will continue to be a scary (and painful) time until he completely recovers, but we are taking it one day at a time. I’m thankful that he is regaining some strength and sense of humor and look forward to him being healthy again.
Have you ever been faced with this kind of challenge?