Navigating the rough, often scary seas of a hospital stay

After helping a friend who underwent major surgery, Paul Schoenfeld reflects on ways to cope for patients and their loved ones.

Asking for and accepting help can be difficult. But, to my pleasant surprise, my good friend Bill accepted my offer to come help him and his wife during his recovery from major surgery. His wife Sally told him to say yes. I arrived in Boston the night before his operation. Bill was particularly concerned about his wife. He was more worried about her than himself. That’s my friend Bill.

He had his surgery on a Tuesday. At the admission desk, the receptionist gave us a pager, like the ones that restaurants give out, to let us know when Bill’s “table” was ready. Several hours later, he was wheeled into the operating room. His surgery, removal of his colon, was a four-plus hour operation and he was in the recovery room most of the night.

His wife and I said good night to him in the recovery room before we headed back home. It’s very stressful for family when a relative is having surgery, especially a major operation. There is both fear and hope. Fear that things will go badly and hope that the surgery will result in better health and that recovery will go smoothly. These two opposite emotions find their way into much of the hospital stay.

For most adults, the hospital landscape of surgery, recovery and home care is a journey to a foreign land, unless you’ve traveled there before. Staff come in and out of your room at all hours. Getting out of bed for the first time takes huge effort. Gowned patients shuffle down the long hallway for their first post-surgical stroll, tethered to IV poles on wheels. Family members sit around their loved ones’ beds, trying not to be frightened by clear plastic tubes snaking into the patient’s veins.

For the next three days, I camped out in Bill’s hospital room. He had a morphine pump, which enabled him to push a button and have pain killers injected into his IV line. He didn’t understand the concept of staying ahead of his pain; he thought he should only press the button when he was in a lot of hurt. So, for about 45 minutes on day one he was in great distress. I helped him breathe through it, until the drugs kicked in.

The nurses and nurses’ aides are the real heroes to the bedridden and their family members. Robin was his nurse the first day. He was calm, centered and capable. But probably as important as his skill, was his ability to connect with Bill. This connection and warmth inspire hope and brings comfort.

The next day, two perky young women were his nurses. Their positive energy brought us calm and consolation. His entire colon was removed, and now he has an ostomy (an opening) in his abdomen where wastes from the small intestine will empty into a plastic bag. The nurses helped him navigate through all the steps required to empty, clean and change these bags. The nurses were composed, unhurried and supportive.

I was impressed with Bill’s matter-of-fact acceptance of this radical change in both his body image and function. Some people, the nurse explained, can have a tidal wave-like reaction to this radical transformation.

I spent many hours a day with my friend, giving his wife time off to run errands, and helping the nurses (picking up trash, helping Bill get out of bed, stand and walk). They are so busy, and they appreciate whatever help friends and family can provide.

Here are some tips on how to navigate through these rough seas.

• When you need help, don’t be reluctant to ring for the nurse — but be patient. The nurses are very busy taking care of several patients. They’ll respond, but maybe not as quickly as you would like. Be patient, and don’t keep ringing. Give them a chance to finish up with what they are doing.

• Limit visitors and telephone calls. The first couple of days are exhausting for recovering patients, stressful and challenging. Most surgical patients are not up to entertaining visitors and answering many telephone calls.

• Family members need support when their relative is in the operating room. My main role was to help distract Bill’s wife during the 4½ hour surgery. It’s an anxious time for family — this is a good time to come and spend time with family members.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at healthwellness-library.html.

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