As I mentioned last week, a good friend of mine went into the hospital on Tuesday for major surgery. (You know it’s major when they want you to stay there for five whole days.) Thankfully, his recovery is going well so far, but he knows as well as I do that has as much to do with the medical care he’s received as it does with this fact: When you’re in the hospital, you have to be your own health advocate.
Now, I don’t actually know this from personal experience (knock wood). The only time I’ve ever been technically admitted into a hospital as a patient was when, as a 13-year-old, I sliced my ring finger open with a Swiss Army knife as I was attempting to cut something (maybe a piece of tape?) for my then three-year-old niece. Why the hell didn’t I just use a pair of not-so-sharp scissors? I guess my answer is: I was 13. I remember getting six or seven stitches (haven’t had any since, knock wood again), but I don’t remember any part of my ER visit requiring either myself or whichever guardian was with me at the time to act as my health advocate. (I don’t imagine the hospital staffers would’ve listened to much of anything a sullen tween would’ve had to say, anyway.)
But all that will likely change in a few short weeks, when I will invariably end up in the hospital. To have a baby. My first. And from all the stories I’ve heard from friends and family members about everything that goes on in certain hospital maternity wards, giving birth to your baby is one time when you damn well better make sure that you can be your own health advocate. And hopefully, have a birth partner and/or doula to be your backup/proxy.
Still, I do have some experience in this health advocate arena. Unfortunately, one of my sisters has been in the hospital on numerous occasions throughout her adult life having not-so-fun surgeries thanks to a rare, terminal lung disease called LAM. I was often with her during these hospital stays, because my freelance schedule made me extremely available to stay at her house, help take care of her then-young kids, and act as her de-facto private nurse in the hospital. Luckily, I happened to be there in my sister’s hospital room just six hours after she had undergone major surgery for yet another total lung collapse. She had a chest tube to help her breathe. She was on mega-morphine. She was basically out of commission. Typically, a chest tube doesn’t get removed from a patient until at least 24-48 hours following lung surgery. Just then, a resident I’d never seen before came by on his rounds. He waltzed in without looking at my sister’s chart and boldly announced that he was there to remove her chest tube. WTF??? I remember thinking. I didn’t go to medical school (much to my husband’s dismay), but even I knew that diagnosis was way off. Hell, even my sister, who was completely doped out of her mind, knew it!
Before this nimrod had even finished his sentence, my sister started rocking back and forth and moaning. I took this as a sign that my instincts were correct, and leaped into action on her behalf. I said that my sister had just had surgery, and her chest tube wasn’t due to come out until tomorrow at the earliest. I gave him the name of her surgeon and the exact time of the operation. Then I told him to read her damn chart. He stopped. He read. He blushed. He slunk out of the room. (I had killed his I’m-Jonesing-to-rip-out-a-chest-tube buzz!) Together, my sister and I won that battle. I had been her health advocate when she was unable to be her own, and, luckily, it had worked. But still, I couldn’t stop thinking about what would’ve happened had I not been there. Or some time in the future when I wouldn’t be there, either. I stayed in my sister’s hospital room until they kicked me out.
The sad truth is that no matter how terrific and experienced and dependable your doctor, surgeon, or hospital, everyone needs a health advocate, whether it’s you or someone else you trust.
Earlier this week during our childbirthing class (actually, the social snack time during our childbirthing class), a fellow pregnant woman told me a troubling story about when, during her first trimester, she required emergency exploratory surgery on one of her ovaries. (It had twisted…owww.) In her hospital room following her traumatic and painful experience, an argument ensued about my friend’s IV. One nurse had said that it should’ve been taken out a long time ago; another came around later and said that the IV needed to be started back up again. And my friend’s chart contradicted both nurses, which didn’t help matters much. But my friend knew that her IV was done and that it should be removed ASAP. She lobbied. She argued. Finally, her husband pulled a male version of Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment. The IV came out, and all was well. But if my friend hadn’t been her own health advocate (with her husband as backup), the outcome may not have been as positive.
So, trust your doctors, nurses, and hospital policies. But, baby or no baby, I strongly suggest that you appoint yourself to the position of health advocate. I know I’m sure as hell going to.