There are some hospitals that I know really well: the different entrances, where the elevators are, which area has the best coffee. There are halls that I know will be quiet and I can get away with pacing and praying in them. Sometimes I am greeted by doctors, nurses, and chaplains by name. This is because over the years I have spent a lot of time being with people who have been hospitalized.

Over the last couple of years, visiting hospitals was largely prohibited, or if not, made very challenging. When Dion was in acute care last fall, I had to make an appointment for every visit, and was only allowed to stay for one hour at a time. It was rare to be allowed to visit community members of The Dale, even though many found themselves in the Intensive Care Unit. Only occasionally would being a member of the clergy allow me access. Calling the nursing station to get an update and leave a message became the norm.

Fortunately, this is all changing. Which has got me thinking about the things I’ve learned around being a visitor from those I visit. My mother notably taught me a lot, as one who lived in hospital for the last thirteen years of her life. I remember her coming up with a list of do’s and don’ts, all articulated both gently and clearly (very much her way). I notice myself hearing her voice when I arrive at the door of someone’s room, reminding me to announce my presence and ask permission before entering.

When going to a hospital, make sure you know the visiting policy and hours. If possible, connect with the person you are visiting to make a plan. Also, it is important to understand that, even if it has been a journey to get there, it might not be the right time for a visit. There are any number of things that could make it a bad time: nursing care, a doctor finally being able to do a consult, fatigue, visiting with someone else, needing time to discuss something important with a family member. It will matter that you showed up, even if you cannot stay.

It is good to not overstay. If you call ahead of time, ask how long of a visit is helpful. If you are only able to stay for a short time and know that an extended visit might be hoped for, be upfront about that too. Learn to read cues, for instance, is the person you are visiting starting to nod off? Are they pressing the call bell for medical attention? That could signal it is time to go.

Ask what side of the room is best for you to be on. Often a person cannot easily reposition themselves in bed and if you are on the wrong side, it will take up energy to connect well. If you bring flowers, bring something to put them in. I have seen countless bouquets of flowers falling over because the only container available is a disposable urinal- not the best way to admire such a gift. Be aware that flowers might not be the most appropriate gift if there are allergy concerns, either from your friend or their roommate.

Be careful about how you talk about hospitals. Sharing your terrible experience of one or talking about the bad food is not helpful in the moment. Those stories are best kept for a different and more appropriate time. Every person is unique when it comes to topics of conversation. My mom loved hearing what was going on in my life, or talking about art, or sharing about a recipe she saw on television that I might like to try. Sometimes all she needed was for me to listen, or simply be there and not say anything at all. She would also ask for me to tidy her side table, or retrieve something from the closet, or put a new picture on the wall. Once I was seated, I would ask for her direction about what she needed for the visit to be life-giving.

Just this morning I heard from someone who has been hospitalized and needs a visit. I count it a real privilege to be asked, and am so relieved that the hospital will allow me in. I asked if this person needed me to bring anything, and the answer was no, just myself. This reminded yet again of the importance of practicing presence. It isn’t always easy visiting a hospital, and for some it can be downright overwhelming. If you are the one hospitalized, it can feel extremely vulnerable and lonely, whatever the reason you are there. The truth is, we need each other- in good times and bad, in hospital and out.

My daughter Cate, visiting with my mom.

One thought on “Learning to Be a Good Hospital Visitor

  1. Hi Erinn, Thanks for the advice. One never knows when one might be called upon to visit someone or need to be empowered while in hospital.

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