08/16/2012 01:37 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2012

5 Essentials for Making Your Hospital Stay Bearable and Your Frustrations in Check


Boomers will discover quickly that the days of Marcus Welby, M.D., and Young Dr. Kildare are long gone when they go to the hospital in the 21st Century.

As with all things related to change, the new normal in hospitalization is not necessarily bad; it's just very different from the days of our childhood or young adulthood, when we had to be hospitalized for illness or childbirth.

Recently I discovered a few realities we'll all need to consider if our blood pressure and temperament are to remain inside the lines when we are hospitalized. One caveat: I am talking now about fairly large hospitals in medium to big cities, and particularly in research hospitals. If you live in a village or small town, these realities may not apply to you. At any rate, here are five things you may want to think about as you enter the gates to treatment.

You may not see your personal physician again until you are released. Most of us grew up with a family physician who, if we were hospitalized, came to visit on rounds every morning before he went to the office, and again at night before he went home. (I use the masculine pronoun because in boomer town, men were doctors and women were nurses. Thankfully, this is no longer true. We have evolved).

This can come as a shock. "Where's my doctor? I want to talk to him!" may be your first thought. You will be advised quickly that your doctor has turned your care over to the hospital physicians. The next time you may expect to see your personal physician is on your release from the hospital, in your post-hospitalization visit.

This sudden loss of your personal physician can be emotionally unsettling or highly aggravating, depending on your personality. But you can't change a thing, so take a deep breath and go along with it. It's the way it works now.

You will have a team of doctors with one in the lead. Depending on your health issues, you will have a specialist to treat your heart, another for your kidneys, another for your arthritis and so on. Typically you will see each specialist, trailed by a small pack of serious interns and residents, at your bedside for a short chat, emphasis on short. You may begin to think that they have a train to catch because they seem to be in a big hurry to move along. Here's what you may want to remember:

· They will update you on your condition, sticking to their area of expertise. Don't bother to ask the kidney specialist about your gout. They will immediately let you know that they will answer no questions about anything but your kidneys. Take a deep breath and accept the reality.

· They will refer you to the "team leader," one of the doctors of the two, three, four or more who are on your case. The leader can be your best friend, if you can corral him/her for a meaningful discussion of your conditions.

· All of these specialists seem to have a bazillion patients and they don't know you from Adam, so don't expect a personal relationship. They'll just stick to the facts, m'am, and you'll have to get over thinking it will be anything else.

You will need an advocate. Typically you will be under the influence of drugs during your stay and your mental acuity will not be up to snuff. Be sure you have someone who will be with you during doctor rounds so they may hear clearly what is being said.

You should have someone who can monitor what is going on with you, observe your situation and push that button after the beeper sounds when your fluids are done, among other things. If your advocate can stay overnight, it is a good idea.

Write it down. You may get confused, forgetful and just won't remember the exact things said by each specialist. Arrange for someone, particularly in the critical days, to write down the main points of what each doctor tells you every day. The bullet-list of main ideas will be the best thing you can do to remember what is being done, how your condition is languishing or improving in comparison with the day before and what details point to your success.

You will hate the food. Typically you will not have a good appetite when you're ill. Added to your lacklustre appetite will be the effect of drugs and antibiotics you'll be taking. And yet you'll be encourage to eat so that you stay strong.

On a recent hospital visit I was very concerned with a friend's six pound weight loss since being admitted to the critical care unit. He was responding to treatment and although his appetite was nil, he agreed he would try to eat again. Then lunch came with a plate of city-fried chicken with white gravy and cold canned mixed vegetables. A highly seasoned cup of chicken vegetable soup accompanied the meal, and the smell of the soup was so strong that it turned him off immediately. It seems to me that a simple, clear chicken broth would have helped to entice his dead taste buds at that point as his stomach became accustomed, gently, to receiving food again.

Honestly? I don't know why hospital food has to be so awful. But it is. Typically friends and relations run to the nearest deli or restaurant to get you food when you're stuck in the hospital. That's just fine for a time or two, but it seems to me the importance of diet requires us to think seriously about what you should/want to eat as you fight to regain your health.

Since maintaining or gaining weight is so important to your recovery, I'd arrange for someone to head up a food brigade to bring in food you like to eat.

For a real treat, wrap fruit Popsicles or Creamsicles (have you ever known anyone who didn't tell you they love Creamsicles?) in cold bricks or a thermal carrier with ice, and bring them in around lunchtime or dinnertime. The cold treat will be a big hit.

All in all, your stay in the hospital will be what you make it. With a little preparation, you can improve your stay. You still may get cranky, angry, and you may feel abused by those whose job it is to help you get well.

Perhaps we should remember that we grew up in a smaller world, with the idea that Marcus Welby would get up in the middle of the night and race to the hospital when his patient went into cardiac arrest.

Those days are gone. In their place we have creative, innovative and arguably the most amazing treatments available to us today to cure our ills. In comparison, most of Dr. Welby's patients died in their hospital beds.

Martha Nelson is an award-winning journalist and a former educator, nonprofit executive, chef, and musician. Her first novel, Black Chokeberry, was published in April 2012 and is available everywhere including from her website,