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How to Make a Hospital Stay Much More Comfortable — Really!

Tolerate your roommates and love those nurses.

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illustration of hospital room decorated to feel more welcoming and comfortable
Valero Doval
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Before this year, the last time I was in a hospital was for a tonsillectomy at age 4 — and boy, did it sound exciting! I was promised all the ice cream and Jell-O I could eat. Nobody mentioned the part about my throat feeling so viciously sore that I wouldn’t even want ice cream. Nobody mentioned that baseball catcher’s mask of an ether contraption that was pressed over my face while my little legs were flailing.

Let’s just say I wasn’t left with the best impression of hospitals. And my only other hospital experience was … my birth.

But now, thanks to a bout of lymphoma, I’ve been in the hospital twice within the past six months, each time for a week. And there are things I learned to make any hospital stay easier and less stressful.

Bring your own pajamas

I realize that when your health is in dire straits, pajamas may seem like small potatoes. But I believe that feeling as comfortable as possible in an arguably very uncomfortable situation is Big Potatoes. We all know hospital gowns may be practical with their snaps and their opening to the front or back, but they also get totally twisted up, are impossible to figure out and have long ties that inevitably land in the toilet. Your own PJs will not only feel cozier; they’ll have more dignity.

Roommates

Unless you luck out or have a rich uncle who pops for your private room, you will probably be sharing your hospital digs with another person — one who is also not in the best of health. You might not meet each other right away because there will be a long curtain dividing the room.

Even before you get the opportunity to introduce yourself — “Hello, Bed B! I’m Linda in Bed A!” — you will learn a lot about this person. You might hear groans, moans and other far more undignified sounds. There will be visits from doctors and nurses discussing some very private issues and visits from relatives and friends. You will get to hear a lot of family gossip. Not your family’s but still potentially engaging. It was difficult to later refrain from telling my roommate, “I’m sorry your nephew is such a jerk," especially since etiquette demands roommates pretend they are not eavesdropping.

Dining

Unless you’re on a restricted diet with its own menu, you will get to eat the hospital chef’s finest offerings. My chef clearly tried really, really hard. I especially appreciated those Cinco de Mayo Mexican specialties on the menu, and there was other decent cuisine: mango smoothies, spinach paneer. But nothing that shows up in little plastic containers or wrapped in plastic will ever be appealing. Hospital food tastes much better if you don’t look at it. Or go rogue and ask one of your visitors to bring you some deli.

Make friends with your pal

At some point someone will want to infuse, hydrate or medicate you with liquids that will drip from clear plastic bags into an IV in your arm. The bags will be hanging from a tall coat rack-type device called a Patient Pal.

It’s on wheels and whenever you’re hooked up to it, your pal, with its long clear tubing (drip drip drip) won’t even let you go to the bathroom unless you drag it along — that’s how good a pal it is! Often the result is a lot of turning and spinning to get those tubes in position to let you do what you need to do.

If you have the option, ask to get your IV inserted on the arm closest to the bathroom. That way you will not need to drag Patient Pal around the bed or sleep with a tube across your chest. But be warned: Your pal will love to randomly start beeping. The tubing is tangled or an air bubble is messing up the works and you have to buzz for a nurse to de-beep it. My pal particularly enjoyed beeping in the middle of the night. I was delighted when our hookup was over and the two of us finally went our separate ways.

Entertainment

There will be movies offered on your hospital television programming. These were mine:

No Time to Die

Clifford the Big Red Dog

The Addams Family 2

Black Widow

An alternative viewing opportunity was the meditation channel with photos of puppies and flowers. Your strongest desire for entertainment will most likely be sleep. But just in case…

Bring a book.

It’s okay to say no

Don’t feel bad if you tell young Justin from the clinical studies department, “No, I do not want to partake in your stool research.” I feel sorry for anyone having a job requiring them to even ask for such a thing.

But I explained that on behalf of science, three years earlier I did let myself get recruited for such a study, an at-home version. Only to walk into my building’s mail room two days later and discover a big box labeled Linda Yellin Fecal Matter. I told young Jason that as long as I was in the hospital, he could knock himself out and collect whatever I might cook up for him, but when I went home, my fecal matter was going with me.

Never turn down a warm blanket

Even if you’re in a deadly sweat with a fever of 103, never say no to a clean, white warm blanket. It’s heaven.

Nurses

I don’t care what religion you are. Nurses are saints. Saints. Thank them often. They’re the ones with the warm blankets.

Approach the experience with curiosity

You’re about to observe MRI machines; PET scans; CT scans; biopsies; doctors; interns; people sanitizing, transporting, bringing in breakfast trays. Instead of thinking of yourself as someone who’s sick, think of yourself as someone who’s having an experience, an observer of a big kinetic organism, and just from the sheer wonder of it all, you might feel better. Or at least — distracted. It is fascinating!

Leave on a high note

The day I left my second round of hospital duty, rolled out in a wheelchair per protocol, the nurses lined the hallway, clapping and cheering for me. One pointed to a brass bell on the wall for me to ring. It was lovely. Really lovely. I turned to my husband, Randy, and said, “Just how thrilled are they to see me leave?” Then I rang the bell and happily went home.

ABC correspondent Deborah Roberts talks about her husband Al Roker's "very, very critical" health crisis and how she had to advocate for him. Find out more here.

Have any of you ever been in the hospital? Was your stay comfortable? Let us know in the comments below.

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