Visiting family in hospital

February 3, 2011 at 11:23 am 2 comments

by Raj Cheema

Earlier this week, I went to see my grandmother in hospital after a knee operation. I’m not a big fan of hospitals. As a child I found hospitals just as exciting as airports but not any more. I was thinking about why this has changed for me – I think it might be that sense of displacement.

At first, the hospital looked like a huge concrete monster that you’re likely to get lost in. I was trying to imagine how my nan must have felt when she came as a 70 year old woman. I struggled to find my way to the right place – luckily my aunt turned up at the same time and raced through the corridors like the place was her second home.

The operation went successfully but she’s been suffering from some symptoms which the hospital staff are looking into at the moment. If there was ever a moment that made me think about the state of the elderly, the role of healthcare, and the sense of loneliness in these institutions – it was the moment I walked into my nan’s room.

For a patient’s family, I think hospitals are displacing. It hard to make sense of your role within the institution while also being a family member, the customary rules you need to follow for medical reasons, the relationship one is ‘allowed’ to have with staff. My aunt had been coming to visit my nan for a few weeks now. She had been asking the nurses to explain why my nan was suffering from the symptoms and what the hospital was planning to help her – surely, these are natural questions for a concerned family to ask. It’s not that you suspect the staff isn’t doing their jobs properly– as the family you want to be involved so you can help the ‘patient’. And given that my nan can’t speak English – her questions and concerns were understandable. My aunt hadn’t met the doctor or consultant from the ward and had no idea when these people are available so she could check in with them – at their convenience. The nurses kept promising to come back to her – and she waited until the very last minutes during her visiting time – but no nurse turned up to spare a few minutes. Now – as a family – we don’t have a problem raising our voices to be heard. But, when a member of your family is being cared for by same the people you don’t want to offend – it’s a risk you decide not to take.

So, I took it upon myself to go to the nurse and kindly ask about my nan and why her symptoms were persisting. The medical notes made absolutely no sense to us. Instead, the nurse started talking to me about the hygiene rules around plastic gloves etc. Her colleague told me she would come in to the room and speak to us. Well, she didn’t. I got in contact with the hospital the next day, noted the email of the consultant and emailed her to get answers to some basic questions. I felt bad for asking the consultant because I felt like I was wasting her time as she’s probably very busy. All because I wanted to know what was happening with my nan.

For me the NHS is one of the best things about this country – and I’m very proud of its achievements. And I’m sure my experience isn’t the same everywhere. But, that evening, I was thinking for a long time about the functions of hospitals and healthcare. And yesterday, I attended the NHS Sustainable Development event where there was talk about healthcare being good at dealing with illnesses but not preventing them. And that’s exactly what it felt like – they were dealing with the illness and not more than that.

But healthcare is much bigger than that and it touches us in different ways – sometimes I think when you’re working in the world’s third largest bureaucracy – you might forget that. We forget how to engage patients and their families in the process – it didn’t seem like the service took this into consideration. We forget that although it’s an institution – people still want to feel – well, human. Whilst being shouted at down the hallway of the ward, I felt kind of stripped of this – and I think my nan did too.


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alecpatton  |  February 3, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Really powerful post. I’ve had a fair amount of experience with family members in hospital (and been that family member) and one of the most striking oddities about hospitals (especially in medium- to long-term care) is that they both require, and disapprove of, co-production.

    To give an example, when my Dad was sick and under heavy sedation, his levels of sedation could vary dramatically, and when it got too low he’d be in intense discomfort. When this happened, we’d go out and find a nurse – and it could happen at any time of day, so we just made sure there was someone with him around the clock. Hospitals are not set up for families to do this (fortunately, the nurses at this hospital were really cool with it, but they could have chucked us out if they’d decided too). But without us there keeping an eye on him, my dad would have been in a lot of discomfort – because there just weren’t enough staff to keep an eye on everyone, all the time.

    The point about getting information about a patient is a particularly good one – I’ve known lots of people who just won’t ask questions because they don’t want to be a bother, or are intimidated. But it’s one of the most important things you can do to help your loved ones.

  • 2. Claire McEneaney  |  February 4, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Yes, sadly this resonates very strongly with my own experiences as well. When my grandparents have been in hospital, we’ve struggled to get any, nevermind accurate, information about what was going on.

    My Nan in particular was in hospital last year and was being given all kinds of mixed messages, under heavy sedation, which she would then relay to us. When we tried to get clarity, we were met with accusing stares, as if our motives for trying to get information where under scrutiny.

    I think having up to date information about a patient is absolutely key, as Alec says above. I think its key because it helps relieve anxiety and put the patient and family back in control, rather than the professional.


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