What If 'Home for the Holidays' Is Your Local ER?

Shou-Mei Li holds the hand of her husband Hsien-Wen Li, who is an Alzheimer's patient, at their home in San Francisco, in thi
Shou-Mei Li holds the hand of her husband Hsien-Wen Li, who is an Alzheimer's patient, at their home in San Francisco, in this photo taken, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. Dementia is poised to become a defining disease of a rapidly aging population _ and a budget-busting one for Medicare, Medicaid and families. The Obama administration is developing the first national Alzheimer's plan to combine research aimed at fighting dementia with help for caregivers. Around the country, thousands of families are pleading for changes to improve early diagnosis and help keep loved ones at home instead of in nursing homes. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Over the course of my 20-year marriage, my husband Michael has developed an uncanny knack for having medical crises on national holidays -- crises that inevitably require a trip to the emergency room of whatever hospital is within striking distance. Memorial Day, July 4th, Martin Luther King Day, you name it. If his doctors are unavailable, that's when he needs them the most.

I don't mean to suggest that it happens every year and we've been remarkably lucky when it comes to Thanksgiving, knock on wood, but there have been enough of these holiday-at-the-hospital episodes that I've become a veteran.

Take Christmas. That's when Michael has really given our local ER a workout. On several occasions I've tucked him into the passenger seat of my car (affectionately dubbed "the ambulette") so we could join the other hapless patients and their helpmates in the staging area of the hospital known as The Waiting Room. Despite the hospital's valiant attempt to be cheery, the loop of "Jingle Bells" on the sound system and the airing of It's a Wonderful Life on the television, not to mention the fake tree with all the decorations, only make the whole scenario more depressing.

What's a person to do when home and hearth beckon this holiday season but there's a loved one who needs urgent medical care?

First, educate yourself about the hospital's triage system so you'll understand why there's gridlock and when it's likely that your family member will be taken back to an examining room.

Next, assuming that you've given the staff a list of your caregivee's medications along with his or her medical history, try not to overwhelm the examining physician with questions until the workup is complete or you could delay the diagnostic process.

Once your child/spouse/elderly relative has been seen by the staff and you're in for an even longer wait for test results or a room in the hospital, attend to your own needs.

Yes, you're worried. Yes, you're exhausted. And yes, your focus is the well-being of your family member. But your well-being is equally important. The following self-care tips only take a few minutes and they'll help make it a Christmas that doesn't land you in a hospital bed too.

1. Move your body. Give your cell phone number to a receptionist or nurse and go stretch your legs. Walk the halls, get some fresh air, or, if you're feeling enterprising, sprint up and down the hospital stairs. By moving around even the slightest bit, you'll relieve stress. "New research shows that sitting for long periods of time is related to increased death rates," says certified health coach Nancy Kalish. "If you can get up and walk around the block, do it."

2. If you must sit, sit up straight in that chair. Author and fitness instructor Mikki Reilly warns that slouching makes for a sore back, as well as a negative attitude. "Think of your spine as a string of pearls and gently pull all the pearls up," she suggests. "Or think of it as if you're raising your chest up and dropping your shoulders down and back -- while tipping your butt back at the same time."

3. Eat something nutritious. Some people overeat when they're anxious; others can't even think about food. The fact is we need fuel to function at our best -- and I don't mean junk from vending machines. Registered dietician Marci Anderson advises heading to the hospital cafeteria -- to the salad bar or to the hot veggies and lean proteins. "Just watch the portions and steer away from the heavy sauces," she says. Of course if you're quick-thinking, you can bring staples with you -- things that are portable, like an apple or (my personal favorite) a Larabar energy bar.

4. Close your eyes and breathe. No, you don't have to meditate if that's not your thing, although many caregivers swear by it. At the very least, try what clinical psychologist Michael Seabaugh calls "mindfulness meditation." "When your mind goes to 'I wonder if my husband's okay right now,' notice the thought and consciously release it," he says. "And then bring your mind back to the breath. Breathe in, breath out. Notice the thought. Release it. Go back to the breath."

5. Recruit a waiting room buddy or make a new one. Friends do want to be there for you, so reach out and ask someone to sit with you. If nobody's available, reach out to that stranger who's just as sick with worry as you are. I once struck up a conversation with a woman whose husband was also in the ER. We bonded initially over our shared concern for our spouses but quickly moved on to the state of the economy, the books we'd just read, and the public's fascination with the Kardashians. There was an implicit understanding that our friendship was based strictly on our mutual need to kill time, and it did kill time - and allowed us to be better able to handle the road ahead.