When you head for a planned overnight stay in hospital, you are helpfully given a list of things to bring; a dressing gown, some clean pants, your toothbrush and you’ll be covered for most eventualities.
Stay longer than a few nights though and this list becomes woefully inadequate. Do you need to pack your entire bathroom cabinet? Will two pairs of pyjamas be enough? How much can you really fit into your hospital bedside cabinet?
My unexpected five week stay in an NHS orthopaedic ward taught me the 10 things that you really need for a long hospital stay.
Nights on a ward are not peaceful. Patients can become confused and scared, cries of pain magnify and nurses complete their regular obs rounds. Harsh strip lighting serves as your wake up call early in the morning.
My orthopaedic ward was a veritable hive of activity when the sun went down and one memorable night saw me awoken by a very confused, very naked old man trying to join me in in my narrow bed.
Any way that you can block out the sights and sounds of the ward will help. Ear plugs and an eye mask can mean the difference of a few solid undisturbed hours and it’s true when they say that everything seems better after a good sleep.
When you are confined to a bed for weeks on end, the days drag interminably, so having ways to alleviate the boredom is essential. Don’t assume you can just watch TV as you will be sharing it with a whole ward full of patients who will most likely opt for watching Bargain Hunt on a loop, that is if there is a TV available at all.
When considering entertainment options, factor in the space required. Your only storage will be a small cabinet, so keeping reams of wool or piles of books is impractical. Additionally storing expensive electrical equipment in an unlocked side table is not advisable.
My injuries left me bed bound for more than a month with only my right arm able to move. Concussion made reading difficult due to blurred vision and an inability to concentrate, but I listened to podcasts and read a little by magnifying the text to its highest setting on a Kindle.
A serious illness or injury robs you of your independence and can leave you feeling vulnerable and powerless. Consultant rounds are short and consultants, like people, come in a wide variety of personality types. I was unlucky to have daily rounds with a consultant who appeared to have no discernable people skills or natural empathy whatsoever, yet I also met other consultants during my stay who were excellent communicators and took the time to ensure that I understood what was happening.
What I needed during the times that I was recovering from repeated general anesthesia or drugged up to the eyeballs on intravenous pain relief was someone to advocate for me. Having another person present during consultant rounds is invaluable to help ask the right questions and push for more information. Remember, PALS is there for you within the hospital and when we reached out to them, they were quick in offering support and advice.
Hospital gowns are a necessary evil when prepping for an operation, but wearing them long term is depersonalising (not to mention the breezy bottom problem).
When I came out of trauma care and could start wearing my own clothes, dressing me was a two person operation and required careful planning. My imperfect solution was huge fluffy socks that could fit over the end of my leg cast to warm my constantly cold toes and cutting one leg out of pyjama bottoms so the nurses could fit them over the bulky plaster and knee brace. When picking hospital clothes, choose loose fitting clothes in jersey fabrics, avoiding zips, buttons and anything that will be uncomfortable to sleep on. Ensure that sleeves and legs can be rolled up easily without having to be removed for injections or other procedures and that the clothes can work around drips, catheters, shunts or casts.
In recent years a company called Inga Wellbeing have specialised in providing comfortable clothes that can be worn around medical equipment, if this had been available during my stay in hospital, I would have ordered their entire range.
Hospitals can be lonely and frightening places to be. Nurses are overworked and don’t have the time to spend one-on-one with patients. I watched a lively and chatty elderly man be admitted to a bed near to mine; over the course of the next month, he did not have a single visitor and very little warm, human contact and became withdrawn, belligerent and deeply unhappy.
Visitors help keep you emotionally stable over a long hospital stay, but it is so important that your visitors demand little from you in return. There were some days when I couldn’t have a conversation or even stay awake when visitors arrived, but just knowing that they were there gave me comfort. I am forever indebted to my oldest friend, who sat with me every morning for a month even when I could barely talk or acknowledge her presence. Just knowing she was going to be there at 9 every morning, helped me get through some terrible nights.
This one is hard to manage, but makes the world of difference. Sucking an ice cube can alleviate the hideous thirst of being nil by mouth all day waiting for your turn in an operating theatre and alleviates post-anaesthesia nausea. Ice also makes the jug of room temperature water that you are expected to drink daily more palatable. Unfortunately, there are no ice machines or freezers on wards, so you will be dependent upon the kindness and well-timed arrival of your visitors for this one.
There is nothing glamorous about hospital. Bed baths never make you feel really clean, using bed pans is a literal hit-and-miss affair and basic things that you take for granted in daily life like taking a shower or washing your hair become major exercises in planning and personnel. I was unable to shower or wash my hair for my entire stay. By the end of week one, my hair was so disgusting, that I started to covet a Joan Collins style turban in order to hide it from view and by week five, I was considering chopping it all off.
Anything that you think will make you feel less hideous; a nice hand moisturiser, someone to help you brush your hair or a luxurious face cream. Whatever it is, however frivolous it may be, go for it. This is not about vanity, it is about self-esteem.
In my experience, hospital food is awful. If your dream menu is school dinners from the 1970’s, you will be well catered for, otherwise it is uniformly stodgy, unappetising and unpalatable. The hospital I stayed in served faggots every Tuesday. I have never known anyone to eat a faggot in my entire life and after tasting them, I can see why. Get visitors to build you a mini larder of things that might be able to tempt you when the sight of your evening faggots turns your stomach. Crackers and biscuits are perfect, but remember your side table is tiny, so plan accordingly.
There are many ways that a long hospital stay can thrown your mental health off kilter. Pain, fear, a lack of privacy or feelings of isolation can all contribute to depression and anxiety. Do NOT feel ashamed or embarrassed to reach out to someone if you are feeling overwhelmed. There will be counsellors and psychiatric staff who can come and talk to you within the hospital or perhaps just an open, honest chat with a friend is all you need. This is not a sign of weakness, even people with the most robust mental health can suffer when unexpected illness or injury strikes.
The most demoralising, disempowering aspect of my long hospital stay was a lack of clear information. We simply did not know how long I was going to be hospitalised for and no-one seemed willing or able to give me a estimated timescale. When the best part of a month had gone by, the lack of an end date began to be one of the most upsetting aspects to contend with. Not knowing if hours or weeks of my treatment were still remaining, I found it very challenging to get through the days. My discharge when it happened, was turned around so quickly that we had less than 12 hours to prepare the house for my return in a wheelchair. If I had had a rough discharge date in mind, I could have mentally steeled myself for the remaining time in hospital and my family could have prepared themselves for the challenge of caring for me themselves.
Without a doubt the NHS is excellent at providing frontline trauma care. I cannot fault the actions of any of the hospital staff within the first few days following my accident. That I still have a leg is testament to their incredible skills. However, the NHS is underfunded and some aspects of long term care are inevitably inadequate.
I was lucky that I had family and friends to support me and make up for the shortfalls, but many people, especially the elderly, do not have this luxury. If you know an elderly or vulnerable person who has been hospitalised, please make the time to visit them and perhaps take them some biscuits too.