By Sally Franz
Before I got very sick, I was every patient’s worst nightmare. I was a well-meaning, do-gooding, bundle of cheerfulness. I oozed pep and talked nonstop to fill in the awkward spaces when the patient was gasping, puking, or crying. The truth is I disliked sick people and in the tradition of my Germanic family I was thinking, ‘Buck up, partner!’ Out loud I was a walking affirmation calendar sprinkling my chatter with New Age Intentionality pap such as “Think positive thoughts and rise up. You become your words and thoughts." Quite frankly, I was obnoxious. I meant well, but I was exhausting the patient. The worst part was, I really thought I was helping. Now I know differently.
That's because since then I have been “experienced,” to quote Jimi Hendrix. Over seven years ago I had a rare attack of an autoimmune disease, which in 30 minutes left me paralyzed from the chest down and in excruciating pain 24/7/365. That “schooled me." So let me share with you from the patient’s side what not to say or do.
First of all, let’s distinguish between people with, say, a leg or an arm in a cast where one part of them is in pain, but a great deal of them is in fair shape. (This can go for people recuperating from various surgeries as well.) These people usually are up for longer hospital visits from friends. The patients can read and participate in long conversations. They are more injured than chronically ill. People in this group know when they will be going home and back to work. FYI: They are also most likely to milk the patient thing at home ad nauseam.
The next group of people are profusely doped up, have no clue or care as to what day it is, and are in severe pain. This group includes multiple broken bones, neurological problems, spinal damage, burns, transplants, cardiopulmonary, and anything that has its own ward or is named after a person. (Lou Gehrig, for example). These patients generally are best at shorter visits and less conversation.
Basic rules for being an A-ok visitor:
1. Do not rush to hug the patient and thereby dislodge tubes, wires, etc.
2. Do not attempt to sit on the person's bed unless invited, as you may be plopping down on injured parts or urine bags.
3. PLEASE do not pat, rub, or contact any body parts unless invited to do so. It usually doesn’t occur to someone who is sick to say, “Oh, and don’t grab the wire that goes from my reconstructed heart to the bedpost.”
4. Try not to look horrified when you see the patient. Your horror only adds to their hopelessness. Look into the person's eyes. If the face is not recognizable, then find the person you love inside there somehow and address that person.
5. You have selflessly made the trip all the way to see this person. When you come into the room try to keep it all about the patient. I know it is overwhelming and brings up all your "stuff." But ditch the chatter about how sad it makes YOU feel to see them like this. This is not about you.
6. Skip all verbiage that starts with, “I know how you feel.” Ur, um trust me, you do not.
7. If you can’t visit the patient because he or she is in isolation, or you are too sick to be there, then have someone hold up a cell phone to the person's ear and talk about a great memory you have of a fun time together. Keep it short.
8. When I was strung out on morphine, I couldn’t read. Letters stood on a page as unrelated marks as in “it’s Greek to me.” So do not bring the invalid any books to read.
9. Know the person. People brought me stacks of Sudoku books. Really? Adding numbers in my head is painful when I’m well. Yes, I know they only all add up to nine or 10 or some such gibberish. Sudoku is living hell to me. Why not just bring in your favorite recipe for liver and tell me why pineapple-guava juice marinade makes it taste like chicken?
10. Here’s a thought. If you believe in prayer, then pray. You can even say, “I am praying for you.” Here’s what doesn’t help, “I am praying for you… Are you healed yet?” The problem here is if the answer is not, it feels as if it’s the patient’s fault. As the patient I don’t need guilt, shame, or blame. I need comfort. You will know when I am getting better. I will tell you or whop you upside the head.
Sally Franz is a former stand-up comedian, motivational speaker, and radio host. She is a twice-divorced mother of two and a grandmother of three. Sally has a degree in gerontology and several awards for humor writing. She is the author of "Scrambled Leggs: A Snarky Tale of Hospital Hooey," and "The Baby Boomers Guide to Menopause."