By Dr. Michael M. Warren

No one enjoys being sick or hospitalized. It isn’t bad enough that you’re in pain or feeling awful; but now you’re in a strange bed, in a strange environment, often sharing a room with a stranger who snores, and the TV doesn’t even carry your favorite channel. Who can blame you for feeling just a bit sorry for yourself?

But wait! What about your family? Not only do they feel somewhat lonely and abandoned but they may feel helpless, too. How can they help? Contribute to your recovery? Do something? Anything?

Family members should talk to your doctor or nurse; they can visit the patient relations department; and by asking the right people the right questions, family members can discover many ways they can help to make your hospital stay more comfortable and less traumatic.

For instance, hospitals generally allow family members to stay overnight. Accommodations might not rival those of a fancy hotel, but they are adequate; and if the patient’s spirits are given a boost, just by knowing a family member is there. However, if the patient doesn’t want such arrangements to be made, this decision also should be honored. Always remember, the patient’s well being must be the primary consideration.

Restrictions on visiting hours should be honored. There has to be time when members of the medical team can be alone with the patient to administer prescribed treatment. Similarly, there could be strict rules regarding visiting hours, if the patient is in intensive care or suffering from a contagious disease. Please do cooperate when faced with such circumstances.

Lift the spirits of your family member by being happy and supportive. Don’t bring your problems (or your bills) to the hospital room. Maintaining a cheerful demeanor is one of the most important and valuable contributions you can make.
Ask your family member’s doctor for explanations. If you understand the illness or operation that your relative is facing, you know how to act and react so that you can maintain a positive attitude. Know the facts, but keep in mind that there is such a thing as patient confidentiality, and the doctor might not be ethically free to divulge everything.

Remember that a distressed family member can have a negative impact on a patient’s potential recovery. If you realize that you are emotionally or physically overwhelmed (and this is nothing to be ashamed of), take a break.

Knowing the “don’ts” also is important. Generally, it is advisable to leave children at home; and resist the temptation to supplement hospital food (unless the doctor says it’s OK to do so). It can be devastating to give chocolate candy to a diabetic or a bottle of beer to a heavily medicated patient. Occasionally, you have to be “cruel to be kind.”

Dr. Michael M. Warren is Ashbel Smith professor of surgery at University of Texas Medical Branch Division of Urology. Write him at