How To Visit Someone In The Hospital

I learned a lot during my month-long stay in the hospital waiting for my Hodgkins diagnosis. I learned that I have “bad veins” thanks to their small size and ability to roll over. I learned that my bladder can hold more than a urine hat. I learned that nurses are the most amazing people ever. And I learned a lot of people have no clue how to visit someone in the hospital.

Well, I am here to help. These are based on my experiences. If I miss something, by all means, add it in the comments below!

Visits from friends and family were the main reason why I was able to keep my spirits so high during my extended stay. However, sometimes they provided a little more stress than ease. And I get the feeling some people didn’t stop by because they didn’t really know how to.

1. Call ahead.

There is something about hospitals that make people think they can just “drop in.” You really shouldn’t. Contrary to popular belief, inpatients don’t sit staring at the wall all day just waiting for someone to come in.

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There are tests, procedures, needles, etc. I liked to get up for walks when my energy was high, and eating times were my favourite alone times. There is also a roommate to consider, who won’t want your entire extended family in the bed next door when they’re being wheeled in on a stretcher from the OR.

Towards the end of my stay, I got better at letting people know when my surgeries were and being specific about no visitors in the couple days that followed. But it was always a shame when someone would pop their head in and I would have to kick them out because the call came up for me to see the doctor. Something that could have been prevented with a phone call, email, or text.

2. Don’t stick around too long.

An hour tops. When you’re sick, it takes a LOT of energy to be “on” so to speak for visitors. Often just one visit was enough to zap my energy for the day. It was a good use of my energy, but draining nonetheless. I found 45 minutes was usually the best length, but be observant. If the person in the hospital bed is getting quieter and their eyes are glazing over, it’s time to make your exit. And please, make it a quick exit. Don’t say you’re going to leave then drag out the goodbyes for 15 minutes. That’s really damn tiring too.

3. Don’t cry.

My best friend Erika cried, god love her. I can tease her about it now, but the person in the bed should not be comforting the person in the visitor’s chair. I know it’s hard to see a loved one sick and hooked up to machines, but it’s even harder for a sick person to see someone cry over them. I hate feeling responsible for another person’s tears, even though I have no control over my being sick. If you’re upset upon entering the room, make an excuse to get out and regain your composure.

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4. Keep the group small.

Three visitors at a time tops. Being around too many human bodies is exhausting. It’s noisy. It bugs the person in the bed next door, and I think it stresses the nurses out.

5. Be useful.

This isn’t necessary, it depends on your relationship with the person you’re visiting. But it’s always nice if someone changes the flower water, fills up water glasses, or tidies up the bed area. Don’t ask, just do it. I hate answering silly questions like “Do you want me to put this over here?” I get asked a million questions a day, and useless ones like that make me want to pull my hair out.

6. Gifts…

…aren’t necessary. But I understand not wanting to show up empty-handed. If you’re going to bring something, make sure it’s useful!

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Some of my favourite gifts included pyjama pants, magazines, unscented creams or soaps, pretty cards to decorate the wall with, and food. Not cookies or treats, but main dishes that I could eat instead of the gross hospital food. Make sure it’s well cooked, easy to digest, and kind of plain. Ask about allergies or medical restrictions if you’re bringing food or something to put on the body. Keep in mind that patients are often hooked up to an IV, which makes clothing difficult.

7. If you’re sick, STAY AWAY.

Even if you’re not, Purell the hell out of your hands before and after.

8. Tell stories.

After I finished filling my friends in on my situation, I wanted to know all the gossip from the outside world. Don’t assume a sick person doesn’t want to hear that stuff, for me it’s a fun escape. Something to talk about besides my illness. With that said, some people don’t have anyone to talk to about their medical situation, so be prepared to get an earful of complaints and jargin too.

9. Go for a walk.

My least active days in the hospital were those that I had the most amount of visitors. Don’t feel like you have to stick to the hospital room. If the person in the hospital is well enough, suggest a walk around the ward, a trip to the cafeteria, or even just hang out in the common rooms.

10. Be there after the hospital.

I’m sure anyone who’s been in the hospital has experienced this. All sorts of people come out of the woodwork when you’re an inpatient, and then drop off once you’re back at home. My best friends are those who’ve stuck by me sick or not sick, in the hospital or hanging out at home. Just because a person is out of the hospital, doesn’t mean they’re better. In fact, life can get a whole lot lonelier once back at home.

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Posted on August 16, 2011, in Cancer and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 42 Comments.

  1. this post is brilliant, it’s a fantastic issue to discuss because so many people really don’t have a clue at all.

    big hugs!!

  2. Such a great post & I think applicable to outside the hospital, as well.

    I hated when people would show up, who I hadn’t seen in years. I suppose it’s a nice thought, but it wasn’t a time I wanted to try & mend issues with people.

    I found it’s nice to have someone keep out those you don’t really want to see, the type of people who will just bring negative energy into your recovery.

  3. I LOVE that you posted this!! I came across the same issues when I was in the hospital for my lymphoma. I absolutely adore my friends, family, and coworkers but everyone seemed to think they could just “drop by” whenever they wanted. Little did they know that literally all day I was being poked and prodded, having CT scans, X-rays, talking to doctors, etc. I stayed there for three weeks and didn’t have more than 10 minutes to myself every single day. It was also really tough being “on” for everyone because sometimes the last thing I wanted to do was chit chat for an hour. It looks like you experienced the same kind of issues, haha.

    Thanks for posting this, I think it’ll be a real eye opener to people! :)

    • Haha, my first night home from the hospital, I shut my bedroom door and instructed everyone to be quiet and stay the hell away. It was glorious :)

      • HAHAHA, that is hilarious and I don’t blame you for doing that! After like week two in the hospital I would let out a big sigh every time a doctor came to my room, I was like “really? can I have just five minutes alone pleaaaaaase?” :)

        I’m so happy to see you are doing ok, it looks like you are doing a lot of fun things with your family, etc :) I must admit – not working was kind of nice on the days I felt ok!

  4. GREAT post Susan!! Hospital visits are (fortunately) not something I’ve had to do often, but I will be keeping all these tips in mind for the next time I do!

  5. Great post!
    You are so right about calling first. I’d also add, please call again if you are going to be late or a no-show. It’s so discouraging to have a nap and spend all your energy anticipating a visit, only to have the visitor show up late so that you’re exhausted or have had to go back to bed before they arrive.
    Here’s another book for your list: “Help me Live: 20 things people with cancer want you to know” by Lori Hope. You might also want to check out her blog and website.

  6. Wow, these are SUCH great tips and so so true. I personally hate hospitals (not that anyone really likes them???) and get anxious when I visit friends or family that are in the hospital, no matter if it’s because they had a baby, or for illness. But crying doesn’t help, does it? Being there, being supportive, talking about what’s going on in life, laughing, sharing, that’s what’s helpful. I love the last one – be there after the hospital. Oh so true. And that statement can be applied anywhere…be there (after the breakup, after the divorce, after the job loss, after whatever it may be). Just BE there. You should submit this article to a publication, I think it is spot on!!

  7. what’s the etiquette on showing up in a costume?

  8. Great post. Helpful too. I’ve been reading your blog for a little while now and I think you’re great. I’m also obsessed with Canada thanks to L.M. Montgomery! I think if we were in the same place or even the same continent we could possibly be friends. So you can imagine my surprise when I was running with my husband in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland on Saturday when I saw you and your sister’s doppelgängers strolling along. You look just as great in real life and you were having a really good chat in the rare Dublin sunshine!!

    Wishing you a continued & speedy recovery and when you’re trips extend beyond your summer cottage you should try Dublin. It suited you!

  9. these are really wonderful tips, and a fantastic post. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Great tips! My best friend has spina bifida and has had a lot of complications through the years. Sadly she is no stranger to hospital stays and I’m not stranger to hospital visits! People really don’t understand that patients need rest! I guess they think if you are laying in bed, it’s rest but it’s really blood pressure and vitals on the hour, bloodwork in the middle of the night, and random testing and doctor visits!

    • Seriously, why to they need to draw blood in the middle of the night? Thankfully, they weren’t stingy with the sleeping pills when I was there :)

  11. Love this list! Needs to be posted on the front door of the hospital!
    And I’d add “Keep your kids at home!”. I have two and I love them, but children bring a whole different kind of energy that is usually STRESSFUL (youshouldseemyfrazzeledhair!)

    • Yes! Babies aren’t bad, but toddlers are a handful. One I can’t deal with when lying in a hospital bed. Plus, they’re full of germs that people in the hospital can’t fight off.

  12. this is a great post!! both my parents work in a hospital and as many times as I have gone to work with them, etc I still feel awkward in a hospital and like I am not really sure what to do. I appreciated hearing your tips!

  13. Great tips!

  14. These are great tips.I think people just don’t know WHAT to do, or what to say. They feel awkward and just avoid it for fear of offending.

  15. Great post! I haven’t had to visit friends/family in the hospital much in my life, but now everyone seems to be having babies, so here is my question:

    How good a friend should you be to ask to come by the hospital? I’ve heard not to show up unannounced, and that you don’t want to mend fences, etc., while in the hospital, but how do you gauge where you stand? Fictional example: longtime co-worker is in the hospital for a lengthy stay due to a car accident (recovery, rehab, etc). We spoke every day at the office, and had the occasional after-work happy hour but I have never met her husband or child. Would you go to the hospital, or just send a card and call once in a while?

    • Good question! It depends on how comfortable you are going, really. If you think you can show up and provide enough conversation and entertainment, even if you’re not “close,” by all means, go! It might provide some well-needed relief. On the other hand, if you’re really just concerned or curious, send a card/phone. Someone in the hospital shouldn’t have to satisfy your own needs, you should only go if you think you can support THEM. Hopefully that makes sense!

  16. I would have taken all these tips, had I been able to visit you. Darnit! These are awesome tips, though, I think a lot of people just feel weird in hospitals and don’t know how to act. The worst was visiting my SIL in the hospital after she’d had a C section delivering peanut :( I had no idea how to act!!

  17. Susan, thank you for sharing this. I learned a lot!

  18. My aunt was in the hospital not too long ago because of her diabetes, and the hospital was nice enough to open up a separate seating room for my family (she is one of seven children) so as shifts could be taken easily to watch her. My mom learned that the best way to get an advantage like this is to follow the rules of the hospital, and if you cooperate well enough and communicate with the doctors as to how your family member is doing, they usually try to accommodate you.

  19. Thank you so much for sharing this, I’ve visited several folks in the hospital and I’ve always wondered what I could do to make my trip better for the person I’m visiting.

  20. great advice. i often feel like i should tell these kinds of things to the visitors. patients have a lot on their plate, and it is hardly helpful when friends and family coming swarming in and turn a hospital into a zoo. im glad you have great people around you. i think about you every single day. every single one.

  21. Hi there, Brie told me about your blog and I can’t wait to dive in and read more. Like you, I’m undergoing chemo and also training. I am 36, have stage III colon cancer (diagnosed in May) and am doing a six month course of chemo, which I am nearly half way through. Running is my escape and is amazingly helpful in managing side effects. Best of luck on your journey and I’m looking forward to getting to know you better :)

  22. This is a great list for people. I know that my Dad didn’t want a ton of visitors and even among close family, he really just wanted the ones he felt very comfortable with. Being “On” as you said is exhausting on any day, but when you’re sick it must be 300 times worse.

  23. This was a great post and it needed to be said :) I’ve been in the hospital numerous times and honestly hated visitors. One of the time was when I had my baby. Just 2 hours after giving birth I had 5 people in the room. The next day 7!!! What are people thinking?

  24. Good list! Another one to add: if you have to pass out, please do it away from any lines or cords or windowsills.

    I have a horrible habit of passing out, especially at hospitals (I have a syndrome…bleh). Anyways, I’ve been lucky that I haven’t caused anyone else any unnecessary discomfort or pain by taking out their stuff, but I have given myself concussions while visiting others and have taken out my own IV line…

    People like me should be banned…..I think.

  25. AWESOME post!!! Not the kind of info you can easy find. I have one to add (as a nurse perspective)…

    Just because you are a friend, nurses can and will not give out any kind of confidential medical information out, either on the phone or in person. In fact, not even to family members, unless the said patient has given permission. I get this at least 15 times a shift, I swear.

    So true about being there for you once you get home. And even bringing yummy home cooked meals for the days you don’t feel like cooking.

    New PJ’s are the BEST :)

  26. Great advice and love the pj’s!

  27. Hey Susan. Good topic, good read. One of my very bestest mates has <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cystic_fibrosis&quot; title="Cystic Fibrosis", compared to most CF's shes very healthy, but maybe once a year she spends a week in Hosp getting what she calls a 'tune up'. They just monitor her lung capacity and do intense physio, few extra drugs.

    But whenever I visit, it's always my duty to break up the hospital routine. I normally bring thai and a beer for her to down, thats how not really sick she is. Sometimes she'll grab her IV pole and we'll go roam the corridors of the hospital. Its a teaching hospital and one night there was a lecture on, with food laid out, we nicked a few canapes.

    Thinking of you during round 3 :)

  28. Such a great post with wonderful advice! After recently visiting my grandpa in the hospital I have a whole new appreciation for nurses, and how inconsiderate visitors can be.

  29. what a great post! there really are points of etiquette for everything in life, but if you haven’t personally been through the experience, it’s hard to know what’s best to do. hospitals do have that “drop by” feeling…maybe we get it from books? movies? anyway, calling and checking first seems so logical but i can see how that would easily be overlooked!

    hope you are feeling superhero-esque today :) xoxo

  30. Wow, these tips were facinating!! Thank you. I have to admit that I am always “scared” to visit someone in the hospital because I don’t really know how to act. Ah. These are so useful :) Thanks.

  31. This is SUCH a helpful post. I’ve shared it a bunch of times and it sprung to mind today when I found out my sister was in the hospital. I came armed with magazines and scrabble and texted first!

    Yours is my favourite blog right now. I feel like I know you and I’m rooting for you every step of the way.

  32. Great post. I am thinking back to visisting my friend in the hospital and I pretty much ignored a bunch of those rules – I definitely stayed for like 2 hrs!!! I did bring pajamas and washed my hands, so at least I got a few right :)
    Hang in there, supergirl.

  33. Nodded my head with each tip on this list! Oh, and you can negotiate your way out of certain tests. I always made sure that each blood test was absolutely needed before I agreed to it. Happy that you’re out of the hospital, although I know that your journey is far from over.

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