He's fine. He's really fine. Let's get that out of the way. My husband recently had surgery that required an overnight stay in a major Los Angeles teaching hospital. Here are nine lessons I learned as a patient's wife in those 24 hours.
1. Honey wins more friends -- and lime jello -- than vinegar.
Nurses are busy people. They are running around making sure nobody dies on their watch and when you have a request like "Can my husband get some lime jello instead of orange?" they may not respond as quickly as your cranky patient would like.
Stay calm. Stay polite. While your cranky patient may want his lime jello ASAP, there are others whose needs are greater. Asking nicely, even for the fifth time, will likely receive a more positive reaction. And probably just going down to the cafeteria and buying it yourself is the best idea of all.
Lesson: Some battles just aren't worth fighting. Lime jello is one of them.
2. I meant it when I said he's fine, but ...
While I wouldn't deem any surgery "minor" if it involves anesthesia and a hospital, my husband is really, truly fine. All of our well-meaning friends texted, called, emailed and visited. There were offers of child care and cooked meals. At one point, I was too worn out to respond to anyone else. Both my husband and I are grateful for the support we received. Hospital stays are scary, no matter how minor the problem is that got you there. Knowing that you aren't flying solo truly makes itl better.
Lesson: When someone you know is down for the count, let them know you are in their corner. Small gestures of help matter a great deal. I am beyond grateful to our neighbor for letting the dogs out for me and for everything else.
3. Nurses know what they are doing.
Let's face it, nobody would do all the stuff they do just for a paycheck. These are men and women who want to take care of sick people and their families. They have seen it all and none of it makes them faint or gag or down a fistful of Valium. How can you not admire that?
Doctors may think they are the frontline of hospital care, but it's the nurses who keep the trains running on time. And every one of my husband's nurses did so with genuine concern.
Sure I can complain about the hourly interruptions that occurred all night long or why the nurse didn't seem to share my panic when my diabetic husband's blood sugar shot up. Turns out making hourly checks is how they do things. And the nurse was way ahead of me on the blood sugar thing.
Lesson: Trust the professionals to do their jobs. And especially trust your nurse.
4. Be alert.
Hospitals are staffed by humans and governed by strict policies and regulations. Yet things happen that aren't always readily explicable. My diabetic husband's first post-surgery meal served in the hospital was lasagna. I freaked out. He doesn't eat pasta at home since it causes a spike in his blood sugar. If I know that, why didn't the hospital? "Look! See here where it says in big letters that he is on a diabetic diet??!!" The dietician later explained to me that their diabetic menu evaluates the total day's food intake on a point scale. Since this was his only meal of the day, I think that means they went a little crazy.
Nobody should be alone in the hospital. Every patient needs someone who is clear-headed and awake to ask questions because the hospital caregivers are humans.
Lesson: Humans make mistakes. And diabetics shouldn't be fed pasta. Probably not ice cream either.
5. Hospital time is different from real time.
You may live an hour away, but you still need to be at the hospital two hours before a 7 a.m. surgery. And then you wait. You may have been told the procedure will take 90 minutes. And then there's the recovery room time that leaves you waiting longer. You may be told the doctor is coming right out to see you. And he will, after you wait an hour. During all these periods of waiting, you are afraid to leave your waiting room chair to go to the bathroom or to grab a cup of coffee. You just wait.
Things move at the pace of patient care. You wait for a bed to be assigned. You wait for them to get the room ready. You wait for the doctor to read the EKG, for another to read the lab results. You wait and you wait and you wait.
Lesson: Some things will be out of your control. You can allow this to stress you out. Or you can just skip the coffee, forget going pee, and just wait.
6. Sometimes the best seat in the house is the one next to the electrical outlet.
While my husband was hospitalized, my phone became my connection to my real life -- the life where clunky machines don't constantly bleep and there are no flashing little blue lights that periodically set off alarms. My phone became the channel through which I could escape. I could check on my kids, express worry to friends, seek second opinions from WebMD.
Lesson: Taking mental breaks from stress helps you manage it. If you can't meditate, text.
7. Deep friendships are formed with strangers in hospital waiting rooms.
Everyone in a hospital surgical waiting room has one thing in common: Somebody they love and care about is having an operation. You become friends fast. Not friends who actually exchange names, mind you, but there will be a period where you actually feel so close to these strangers that you want to invite them to Thanksgiving.
As soon as a doctor approaches to deliver a status report, you will drop your nameless new BFF like a hot potato and turn your attention to the doctor. You might even feel a little superior because your doctor came out first. And before you trot off to the recovery room to see your patient, you will turn around beaming and bid farewell to your waiting room friend, saying something like "I hope things are OK." At this point, you barely mean it and just want to get the hell out of there. Your patient is now in recovery, advancing on the chess board toward a restoration of normalcy. And you don't want anyone to bring you back to the emotional place you've been in since they wheeled your patient into the operating room.
Lesson: Don't minimize the bond of a sharing a traumatic experience -- either in the hospital waiting room or in life. But know that mutual trauma experiences make for short-lived relationships.
8. You will make more "stranger-friends" like this for as long as your patient is in the hospital.
I was on a first-name basis with the cafeteria grill guy. He cooked me six consecutive meals and by the second morning, remembered that I only eat egg whites and avoid carbs. His suggestion to lunch on the salad bar was spot on, by the way. "You need more greens," said my stranger-friend who never failed to ask how my husband was doing and assuring me of the fine care the hospital provided.
Then there was my stranger-friend who hunted down a sleeping cot for me and kept coming back to check if I needed more blankets. Another stranger-friend saw that my lips were drying out in the hospital air and brought me a stick of lip balm, intended for patients. Another stranger-friend made sure my husband went home with extra supplies to change his dressings.
I too became a stranger-friend to others. I offered insider advice to another patient's wife about how to get her parking validated and which elevator to avoid because it ran so slowly. I made stranger-friends with the security guard, asking him whether he liked the midnight shift. The hospital is a different place at night, he told me, and it suits him.
Lesson: We sometimes forget that people are inherently kind. When you are terrified that your loved one is ill, your senses about who is nice and who isn't become heightened. I think every GOP presidential candidate needs to spend an overnight in a hospital with a loved one.
9. You will rise to the occasion, even when you don't think so.
On the day that my husband was to be discharged, the nurse explained that he would need my assistance with some medical things -- icky medical things.
"I don't feel confident that I can do this," I pleaded my case, literally begging him to come home with us. "You got this," he told me with complete confidence. He showed me multiple times how to perform my new duties. I kept pleading ineptitude. This was possibly the most patient man I've ever met. He personally walked us to the car and repeatedly assured me how this was going to be fine, that my husband was going to be fine, how he's seen a million situations just like this one and in every case, things were fine. Even as he pried my clenching fingers from his arm, he was reassuring. He told me to just call the floor and ask for him if I got scared or had questions when I got home.
Lesson: I did what needed to be done despite my certainty that I couldn't. I didn't even need to call him. But knowing that I could made all the difference in the world.