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When someone in the family is sick.

November 22, 2011

I’ve been talking to some other women with heart disease about my experience of having a relative in the hospital.  Several of them referred to themselves as the “go-to” person for medical matters in the family.  I am that person in my family.  Of course I am an experienced nurse so it seems natural for them to turn to me for advice.  Most of these other women are not health care professionals.  They have become sophisticated navigators of the health care system through their own journeys dealing with chronic illness.

For most people, a trip to the hospital is quite a disorienting experience.  Just finding your way around the place is usually quite challenging.  Then there is the parade of different people coming and going who may or may not introduce themselves: nurses, nurses’ aides, registrars, xray techs, respiratory therapists, doctors, housekeepers, case managers.  Add to that the confusion and chaos of someone in the family being sick, sometimes without a clear cause or solution.  Sometimes family is asked to make important decisions about treatment strategies or placement after the hospital, or expected to care for someone who is still rather ill when they are discharged home.

For someone who is already coping with a chronic condition, having a family member in the hospital can bring them perilously close to the edge.  The long hours sitting in the hospital are exhausting, both physically and emotionally, for even a healthy person.  The added stress of worry for a loved one or difficult family dynamics worsens the strain.  Symptoms that are usually controlled can flare.  Symptoms already out of control can worsen, leading to hospitalization.

It is vitally important for us to save our strength when faced with these situations.  Often other family members depend on us for help understanding all the medical language and procedures.  They turn to us to make decisions because we have been here before. We have to set limits and keep our boundaries in order to preserve our own health.  It is disappointing to others in the family when we have to stay home and rest instead of visiting at the hospital.  Sometimes the stress is just too much.

Because of our chronic health problems, we have to protect ourselves jealously.  A cold picked up from another visitor may make us much sicker than others.  Fatigue that simply inconveniences other people can be crippling.  It is frustrating for me not to be able to be there, but I have to acknowledge my weakness.

As always, I welcome comments.  Please share your experiences.  I’d love to here how others deal with this problem.

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