Hospital Survival 101: Ask for a Private Room, Wear Your Own Pajamas and Other Secrets From a Pro

If you're a cancer patient, you'll probably have to be in the hospital at some point during your illness. So I'd like to personally welcome you to our club. Some of us have been in the hospital multiple times, and even in an Emergency Room or an ICU more than once. And I can report that these are typically very intense and fear-filled places for any patient.

Once we experience trauma in a certain place, our minds and our bodies associate that place with the trauma, and they work to keep us safe by going on heightened alert when we approach the danger again. Many of us have had major surgeries in a hospital. Surgery is traumatic.Essentially, when we are faced with a major stressor or even something that resembles a past major stressor, our bodies will produce a stress response to protect us. That will send us into one of three modes: Fight, flight or freeze. If we think we can fight off our attacker and win we go into fight mode. This is when you see purse snatchers get beat up by women and their handbags on a sidewalk. No one is taking my Coach bag without a good whoopin' first!

If we're not sure we can win the scuffle, our instincts cause us to run away. Ever see a group of people making their way through a haunted house? Usually some of them duck behind their friends for safety when something scary jumps out. That's the flight response. Finally, if the attack is so overwhelming that we can neither fight nor flee and we fear that there is no hope of survival, our mind and body brace for the trauma by freezing. You've probably heard the victim in a TV crime show say, "I don't know what happened to me. I couldn't move. I just froze." This is the brain's way of protecting itself from harm -- playing dead and removing itself from the overwhelming experience. Some trauma survivors actually report not being able to remember key elements of their experience because their brains became detached in order to survive.

So, any time some of us get close to a hospital, our bodies go on red-alert because of the scary things that have happened to us there in the past. Anxiety, fear and even outright terror are common experiences for cancer patients when they have to go back into the hospital.

But with a little advanced planning, you can take control of the situation. Before you get to the hospital, I want you to decide that you are gonna whoop that purse snatcher before he takes your stuff. Gear up for a respectable fight before you go into the hospital. You're not playing defense this time. You're going on the offense, and you're going to call the shots! Here's your game plan.

Sleep, Baby, Sleep.

Did you know there is no rest in the hospital? Not only are monitoring machines beeping all night long, and the blood pressure cuff squeezing your arm every hour, but people are coming into your room every minute of the day and night. They want to get your blood, take your vitals, give you medicine, clean the floor, change the IV bag, give you a bed bath, hand you papers to sign, weigh you or prep you for some procedure. Then, right when you've finally fallen asleep, in come the doctors for their rounds! Really? Unfortunately, yes. Really. So, take charge of these situations in the following ways:

If you have a roommate, and are planning to be in the hospital more than a day or two, ask for a private room. You'll probably sleep better. Often the hospital staff will tell you your insurance won't cover it, but that's not always the case. Ask again, and start by asking the charge nurse or nurse manager on the floor, especially if the roommate is causing a major disturbance. Most floor nurses don't have the authority to move you but their managers do. And most nurse managers don't want their patients calling the customer service complaint line for the hospital.

One time I had a roommate who had a mental breakdown inside the room on our first night together, right next to me. She was placed on suicide watch and was placed in four-point restraints in her bed. By the time I asked for my own room, the hospital was full and I couldn't be moved. Another time I had a roommate with a very large family who stayed until very late. I was exhausted and annoyed by them. I lost so much sleep that my body's ability to heal and recover was likely compromised. Another time I had a roommate who watched a horror movie in our room. I felt like I was in a horror movie. I wish I had asked for a private room!

The truth is, it is just really hard to sleep away from home. Don't hesitate to ask for a sleeping pill if you need one. Here's some other tips:

1. Request to be put on "sleep enhancement." If your doctor OKs it, this prohibits anyone from entering your room during the night (and for certain hours during the day) unless it's an emergency.

2. Ask if a loved one can stay the night with you for support.

3. Wear earplugs.

4. If you just can't rest and you're feeling alone, call the chaplain. They work at night and would probably be glad to sit up and talk to you.

Be Who You Are

1.Bring pictures of yourself as a normal person before cancer. Put one on your hospital room door, so that everyone who comes in meets you first as an everyday human being before they see you as a patient.

2. Inside your room, display pictures of your family or artwork from your kids.

3. Play your favorite music. It's so good for your soul. I've found that often music can heal things that medicine cannot.

4. Wear your own pajamas. I hate hospital gowns, so I always bring my own pajamas. Nurses might tell you that you can't, but that's likely because it will make their job a little harder when they need to take your vitals. Insist. You're the one in the bed, and you're the one whose life has been turned upside down.

5. Bring a few memories from home. One time my 4-year-old son sent his blankie with me. I felt better right away.

Bring on the Fur

If you're on a floor that allows it, ask the hospital to bring you a therapy dog, if they have one. If you have a dog of your own, by all means arrange for a visit. As long as Fido has his recent shots, most hospitals allow for a visit from the family pet.

And Now, a Few General Reminders

1. Take charge of your own care as much as possible. Ask lots of questions, and have a family member or friend standing by as your advocate as healthcare providers come in and out of your room. You might be slightly doped up and not able to recall all of the things the doctors tell you.

2. Try to remember that while your time in the hospital feels endless, it will not last forever. You will be going home soon and all of this will be behind you.

3. Don't forget to get up and get moving to the full extent that you can. If we lie still for too long, we will likely heal slower and develop secondary problematic conditions. What's more, our spirits tend to fall due to non-activity.

Finally, don't take everything so personally. Most nurses, doctors and technicians are not out to get you or make your life worse. They are not your enemy! They are just people like you and me, showing up for work and doing the best they can.

About the Author: Cindy Finch, LCSW is a clinical therapist, writer and professor who trained at Mayo Clinic. She works closely with those in the margins and is a survivor of an undiagnosed disease that turned out to be cancer while she was pregnant. Treatments for her cancer led to heart, liver and lung failure which she survived. She now lives in Orange County, CA and enjoys her life with her husband Darin and their three children. Along with other young survivors, her story is a part of a new documentary film called Vincible. You can read more about Cindy here.

Copyright Cindy Finch 2019

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