Imagine you are sitting in a hospital waiting room before a scheduled procedure, waiting to hear your name called by the receptionist. You haven't had anything to eat or drink for more than 12 hours and you are tired, a little anxious and sick of the "hurry up and wait" experience of a hospital. Someone comes into the waiting room, sits down next to you and begins to eat a burrito. You didn't realize just how hungry you were until the smell of that burrito hit you. That smell is like a sucker punch to the gut. When this happened to my husband the word he used to describe this individual was "asshat".
No one wants to be that person, the one who comes off as thoughtless and rude. This is especially true when one is around someone who is coping with major medical issues. We hope to be the supportive, helpful and kind person. Yet these types of mistakes happen all the time, even by people with great manners and kind hearts.
It happens for many different reasons. Stress, worry and nervousness can sometimes cloud ones judgment and sometimes we just don't think about how our words or actions may impact the patient. After all, we're human and mistakes are going to happen; here are some tips on how to avoid being that inconsiderate person when visiting a patient in the hospital or while they are recovering at home.
First, be conscious of the five senses of the patient. Many times when people are sick they are especially sensitive to smells, sounds, and light. It's best to avoid having food or drink with you unless it has been made clear in advance that it is welcome. It's also a good idea to avoid wearing lots of cologne or perfume. When I drive clients to the hospital for surgery or tests that require fasting I make sure I've finished my coffee and put the empty mug in my trunk before they get in my car so the smell of the coffee won't bother them. When you are in the patient's room don't assume it's ok to turn on a light or open the blinds, the patient may be sensitive to light. Be aware of the volume of your voice when talking to a patient; your normal inside voice may be harsh on the patient's ears. Pay attention to their body language and adjust your volume up or down accordingly.
It is a good policy to always ask the patient before doing things that may not normally require permission. When someone is sick even small changes in their environment can cause discomfort. If you usually would give the patient a hug when saying hello, ask them if a hug is OK before grabbing them. Ask if you can sit down, the patient may prefer to have you stand so they can see or hear you more easily or prefer you sit in a particular place in the room that makes eye contact easier for them. Don't just turn down the volume on the TV or move their tray table out of the way so that you can see them. The patient may need something on that tray table to be within easy reach.
If you are walking with a patient or someone with physical impairment make sure you keep pace with them. Walking ahead or going faster will almost always make the person feel uncomfortable. It's helpful if you look ahead in the path for possible issues that could be a problem for the patient, such as a tripping hazard or a change in grade and then adjust your gait to allow them to deal with it. Open doors and offer to carry things for the patient. Remember that what may seem like a very short distance to you can feel like miles to the patient. When possible take the shortest route to any destination and think ahead for ways to limit the distance for them. If you are driving them somewhere offer to drop them off at the door and park the car and meet them inside. Think of ways you can shorten the distance they walk such as backing you car into a parking space so that the passenger door is closer to the entrance.
Depending on the patient's condition you may find that when you first see them it's startling. This can be true in cases where the patient has suffered a bad injury or their condition has caused a major change in their appearance. If you have a strong reaction when seeing the patient it can make them very uncomfortable. If you are visiting the patient and believe that there is any chance their appearance might startle you I suggest you contact the patient's caretaker before your visit and ask what to expect. This is also an opportune time to ask about other issues the patient is experiencing that might impact your visit. You can ask the caretaker for tips on what you can do or not do that might make the patient feel more comfortable during the visit. Having a conversation with someone who knows the patient's current status before you visit can help set your expectations and give you directions so that the visit goes smoothly and is more enjoyable for both you and the patient.
It's also important to remember not to overcorrect your behavior. If you are too afraid of offending or doing something wrong during your visit you might end up feeling awkward and uncomfortable. For example it is possible to ask the patient too many times what they would like or not like you to do. Try not to treat the patient like a child or as if they were made of glass. To strike the right balance, be aware of the physical issues but also be yourself. It's ok to make light hearted comments or to acknowledge that you are worried about the patient or the the hospital setting kind of bothers you. While you should use caution in expressing your discomfort or worries it also helps to simply acknowledge those feelings so that your conversation can be more natural and easy. If you normally tell jokes and make silly comments and then suddenly act very serious and reserved that will make the patient feel worse. Try to be yourself; that will comfort the patient more than anything. The trick is to be yourself with a bit more awareness of the patient's physical condition and limitations. If you keep your focus on that balance and enjoy your visit it can be a positive experience for both of you.