Disease and trauma do not take a holiday. Many of us have loved ones in the hospital for all kinds of reasons. We want to do what we can for them, our brothers, sisters, friends, parents, children, who find themselves in strange surroundings during this supposedly most joyous of times.
Fifteen years ago, a few weeks before Christmas, I was suddenly admitted to Women and Children’s Hospital.
I was five months pregnant with my daughter and I was very sick. With my history of kidney disease and scleroderma, I chose a maternal-fetus specialist to be my OB-GYN. Trained in situations like mine, where the mother has chronic illness which makes the pregnancy high risk, I had every faith in Dr. Margaret McDonnell. My first pregnancy had gone off without so much as a cold. This time Margaret said,
“You have to be ready for this baby to come early.”
What was she saying?!
“Margaret, you’re scaring me.”
“We’ll keep you in the hospital. The longer the baby stays in you the better.”
The doctors didn’t know what was causing the problem. It could be my kidneys shutting down or preeclampsia, a condition that is dangerous if not treated. If caught in time it clears up once the baby is born.
All we could do was wait and hope our baby would just settle down and stay put.
I was ordered to complete bed rest. After over two weeks of not being allowed to get up even to pee, I was scared, depressed and a little crazy. My two year old son wasn’t allowed on the floor. I missed him with a pain I can’t describe.
And it was Christmas time.
Friends and family helped my husband and I keep it together. My daughter was born a few days after Christmas. She was one pound, thirteen ounces, able to breathe on her own and beautiful. The doctors assured us she was strong.
Two days later my symptoms cleared up and I was discharged. My daughter thrived. She came home three months later barely four pounds.
Hospitals and the medical staff are sensitive to the holidays but they have their jobs to do and can’t be expected to provide holiday cheer. Family and friends can make a huge difference, however, so I collected ten suggestions for those of you who may have a loved one in the hospital this season:
1. Be aware of what is medically permitted for your loved one. Depending on his/her condition, plants, flowers, non-hospital foods even visitors, may not be allowed.
2. Offer your services. Does your loved one worry about childcare? Christmas cards or gifts that need mailing? Housekeeping? A bit of last minute shopping? Pets that need watching? Offer a specific task if they can’t think of anything. After I knew my son was cared for, I worried about my family being alone for the holidays. A close friend asked me what she could do and I said, if she could have John and my son over for Christmas Eve dinner I would rest easier.
3. Ask when to visit and for how long. Be sensitive to their energy levels. You can ask staff but don’t forget to ask your friend. Some people prefer one visitor at a time while others may want more at once. For me, individual, short visits were best because of my state of mind, but I loved it when they came back the next day.
4. Help decorate the hospital room. One friend brought a tiny Christmas tree. I still remember that little thing, it meant so much to me. My husband brought photos of our son. I ripped out pictures from art magazines of old masters and asked that they be taped to the walls. I had a rotating gallery that changed every day. You can bring in garlands, cards from home, flowers, of course (poinsettias!), a favorite pillow or throw for the one chair in the room…
5. Bring some favorite clothes from home. A sweater, shawl, slippers, socks, anything to get out of hospital issue. Depending on the situation, your loved one may be allowed to wear comfy pajamas or sweats, even street clothes. Today they have socks and robes made out of that wonderful soft, fuzzy, light material that is so cozy it’s a sin.
6. Music, DVDs & Books. There is only so much daytime TV a person can watch and not go insane. Back when I was waiting for my daughter to be born there were no iPods. My husband brought a mini-tape recorder with a set of cassette tapes, mostly classical music, to help me relax. I love holiday music and all the traditional Christmas movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Some hospitals will rent out DVD players and have lending libraries of DVDs and books. Ask what movies or books your loved one prefers. I totally shocked my family once when they caught me watching ‘Die Hard’ instead of PBS. At the time seeing people (other than me) blow up was a comfort, don’t ask me to explain it.
7. Phone calls. If you are far away you can still “visit.” Just remember that the person in the hospital may be a bit self-absorbed. Talking about your life may be a welcome distraction but giving your loved one permission to be sad and cry about their situation could be the most thoughtful gift.
8. Bring the comfort of food. Ask hospital staff if regular food may be brought in. If it is OK, a nice Christmas meal would be most welcome. Hospital cooks take the holiday off too, so the meal that comes on the tray is going to be even less wonderful than usual. Apart from being discharged, a sampling of cookies and special savory treats could be the next best thing.
9. Aromatherapy. You can’t light a candle but essential oils and scents are usually OK. Lavender and vanilla are relaxing, while berry and evergreen smells Christmas-sy.
10. Remind your friend the greatest gift of all is getting well. Help them ease the guilt which can be crushing. Reassure them that their family is doing fine. No one cares that they couldn’t get gifts or cook or do for others as they usually do. Tell them they will get better and will enjoy these activities when they are healthy again.
Photo courtesy of Ava Babili via Flickr