POST 50
11/07/2012 03:51 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2012

Caregiver: How To Turn Even The Crankiest Medical Personnel Into Buddies

Tell me if this has ever happened to you. You’re taking your loved one to the doctor. Or maybe you’re visiting him or her at the hospital or assisted living facility. You’re exhausted, anxious, so vulnerable that a cross look from a stranger in the elevator is enough to bring you to your knees. You arrive and what do you find? A receptionist, nurse or nurse’s aide with a full-on attitude.

For example, during one of my husband Michael’s hospitalizations that was particularly worrisome, I yearned for a compassionate member of his medical team who would say something soothing, hug me, be the human equivalent of a bowl of Cream of Wheat.

Instead, what I got was a nurse whom the rest of the staff had nicknamed Big Linda in order to differentiate her from another nurse named Linda, who was petite. Big Linda wore a scowl that could scare small animals. I was determined to charm her, figuring Michael would get better care.

“How are you today?” I asked when she stormed into Michael’s room to flush his IV line. She had heavy feet to go with the heavy body, so you could always hear her coming.

“Fn.” (I think she said “Fine,” but she mumbled it so I couldn’t exactly tell.)

“Do you like cake?” I said in a burst of spontaneity.

She rolled her eyes. “Why?”

“Just wondering,” I said, remembering that my friend Laurie bakes over 300 little loaf-size chocolate cakes every Christmas and gives them out to doctors, nurses and receptionists, not to mention manicurists, bikini waxers and every other person who performs a service for her. They go over really well, even with the most hard-to-crack sourpusses, and for that alone Laurie should win the Nobel Peace Prize.

I left the hospital that night, stopped at the supermarket, bought a box of Duncan Hines chocolate cake mix and baked a loaf.

The next morning I presented it to Big Linda when she came into Michael’s room to bark that it was time for his medication.

“For you,” I said with outstretched arms, holding the cake tenderly, as if it were a newborn baby.

“What’s that?” she said with her perpetual scowl.

“A chocolate cake,” I said. “To thank you for taking such good care of my husband. Maybe you can have a piece on your lunch break today.”

Big Linda reached out for the cake and smelled it. “Doesn’t have nuts in it, does it?”

That was her response? “No, no nuts.”

And off she went with the cake. Michael and I speculated about why she was so sullen, and just when we were really getting into our analysis, back she came -– this time lugging a huge chair. It was like a Barcalounger only without the reclining part and she had trouble squeezing it through the door. She set it down in front of Michael’s bed and then motioned for me to get up from the visitor’s chair and wedged the Barcalounger into the corner in its place.

“There,” she said. “Use that from now on. It’ll be more comfortable.”

“Oh. Wow. Thank you very –-”

Before I could finish the sentence, she was gone.

I leaned back in my new chair and grinned. Big Linda was human after all.

Should every caregiver bake a chocolate cake for every cantankerous nurse? What do nurses think of caregivers anyway? And how can we be the best advocates for our loved ones? I asked Kelli Jackson, R.N. in the Critical Care Unit at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

Jane: Can you suggest a diplomatic way for caregivers to speak up if we think a nurse is doing something wrong?

Kelli: There’s a chain of command. If you’re not getting what you want from the nurse, talk to the charge nurse, who oversees the floor for that day, then the nurse manager, who manages the floor. And then there’s the nursing supervisor, who manages the hospital on that particular day.

Jane: Don’t you get pissed off if somebody goes over your head?

Kelli: No, but I wish they’d tell me the problem first. It’s frustrating when a patient has a problem and tells the family member but not us. The angry family member calls and says, “My father is hungry.” I say, “Well, the patient hasn’t asked for anything to eat. I can’t read minds.” The patient needs to state his or her needs, and if they’re not met, then it’s justifiable for a family to ask why.

Jane: Are there specific things that caregivers do that drive you nuts?

Kelli: It’s the worst when they say, “Can we have butter for my father?” And you go to the kitchen and you get the butter and then you come back and they say, “Can you get him cranberry juice too?” I go, “Really? I was just in the kitchen where the butter came from.” So here’s a tip: If you’re going to ask a nurse for a variety of things, ask for them all at once so she doesn’t have to make several trips and build up resentment toward you.

Jane: Do you commiserate with other nurses about us caregivers?

Kelli: We do. Some of the wives are a little much. They’ll feed their husband, who’s perfectly capable of feeding himself. Or I’ll be talking to their husband, and they’ll answer every question. Maybe it’s their way of feeling useful. But the husband doesn’t always want them there. He may want a break. That’s something for caregivers to really understand -– that the patient sometimes needs to be left alone. I don’t know how many times patients have whispered to me, “Can you please just tell them to leave for awhile? Make them go to dinner?”

Jane: They really want us to leave?

Kelli: Definitely. It’s important to have people call and visit, but it’s also important for the patients to have quiet time. So here’s another tip: Have one contact person that will talk, text, tweet, email about the patient’s condition so he doesn’t have to tell everyone the same thing over and over again.

Jane: Anything else you think we should know?

Kelli: Touch the patient. Touch is huge. Sometimes family members just stand at the door or sit in the chair reading the newspaper. Don’t forget to touch your loved one.

Excerpt from "You'd Better Not Die Or I'll Kill You: A Caregiver’s Survival Guide to Keeping You in Good Health and Good Spirits," by Jane Heller (Chronicle Books/November 2012).

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