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'It's not about you:' Be the friend your friend needs during illness

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I once had a friend say to me, “Where were you?”

She was referring to my absence during her hospitalization and lengthy recovery following brain surgery.  At the time, I had rationalized my decision not to visit her by thinking she was too sick and might not remember me. But her words made me realize that she had needed my friendship more than ever when she was sick. That day, I promised myself that I would never do that to another friend – and I hope you won’t do it either.

None of us wants to spend time in the hospital.  Even after years as an advocate and many nights at the bedside of a sick friend or family member, I sometimes have a hard time walking through the doors.  When that happens, I remember my friend and her admonition, “It’s not about you.”  It helps remind me that if I don’t want to be there as a visitor, my friend or family member really, really doesn’t want to be there as a patient.

If your friend is in the intensive care unit (ICU), chances are good that you won’t be able to get in – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You can always drop off a card or some other memento.  Just remember, flowers are often not allowed in the ICU, so keep your gift small and simple.

One of the excuses I often hear from people is they don’t know the etiquette for visiting someone who is sick.  So here are some rules for paying someone a visit in the hospital:

Knock first

If you wouldn’t normally walk into someone’s bedroom, don’t just barge into a person’s hospital room. Knock softly and listen for a response – or peak around the door to get the lay of the land.

No germs

The hand sanitizer and sink by the door are for you as well as hospital staff. Wash your hands on your way in and out of the room.  And if you might possibly be sick, don’t even thinking about paying a visit.

Let them sleep

If your friend is sleeping, he or she probably needs it.  Don’t charge in and wake them. Check with the nurse to find out if your friend had a bad night or if he or she is likely to wake up soon.  It’s okay to just drop off a note and leave.  That way, your friend will still know you were there and thinking about them.

Allow privacy

If the nurse comes in for a procedure, leave the room.  If your friend needs to use the bathroom, leave the room.

Give caregivers a break

If your friend has someone staying in the room as an advocate, offer to stay while the caretaker takes a short break.

No gift required

It’s nice to bring something when you visit, but it’s not required. Your friendship is more valuable than anything you might bring.  If you must give something, keep it small and easy to transport when it’s time to go home.

Keep it short

Some people enjoy the distraction of a visit while others are too focused on healing or thinking about decisions they need to make to spare any energy for visitors. Regardless, never make the patient try to entertain you – and never outstay your welcome.  My maximum for a drop-in visit is 15 minutes, unless the patient specifically asks me to stay longer.

I absolutely believe the worst thing I can do when my friend is sick is to say or do nothing. The fact that you are there for him or her will mean more than the most eloquent words. Saying something as simple as, “I’m here for you” or “I’m praying for you” will let her know that you care.  And that’s the most important thing you can do.

Michelle King Robson (pronounced robe-son) is one of the nation's leading women's health and wellness advocates. She is the Founder, Chairperson and CEO of EmpowHER, one of the fastest-growing and largest social health companies dedicated exclusively to women's health and wellness.  In 2011 EmpowHER reached more than 60 million women onsite and through syndication expects to reach more than 250 million in 2012.

Michelle King Robson (pronounced robe-son) is one of the nation's leading women's health and wellness advocates. She is the Founder, Chairperson and CEO of EmpowHER, one of the fastest-growing and largest social health companies dedicated exclusively to women's health and wellness.  In 2011 EmpowHER reached more than 60 million women onsite and through syndication expects to reach more than 250 million in 2012.