Hospital Tips: The Small Stuff Can Add Up

by Louise Ladd and Alison Woodman


I wanted to help Alison prepare for her trip to the hospital. As a veteran of six surgeries, I started out with one tip, then another, and another. After her surgery she had a few more suggestions, then we asked a couple of other vets to add their experiences and we pulled it all together. We hope you find these tips useful in making your hospital stay and recovery more comfortable.


If at all possible, schedule your surgery for early in the week. That way you should have the regular staff taking care of you during the major part of your recovery. Once the weekend comes you may find a number of new faces, plus your doctor might be off, his partner covering for him. Normally all will go smoothly but in case of problems, I find it’s better to recover during the weekdays.

Also request the first operation of the day, if possible. Your doctor and the OR team are freshest, and complications won’t delay the start of surgery. The only time I accepted the second appointment of the day I had to wait 4 hours when the patients ahead of me tied up all the operating rooms.

Before the operation:

Stop aspirin/ibuprofen, etc. two weeks prior, to help control bleeding.

Stop vitamin C and E for the same reason.

Ask ahead for the post-op pain prescription so you can have it filled and waiting, to prevent a gap between when you leave the hospital and someone bumbles to the pharmacy.

Delegate a friend to call or email people with news about the operation, visiting info, and when you’ll be released.

Put important papers where they can be found or leave a note as to where they are.

(Note, some of this info is for girls. Guys might have other things they care about. Like bringing their electronic games? I don’t know!)

Do all the personal grooming that requires bending over or reaching, as it will likely be a while before you’re able to this again in comfort. For instance, shave your legs if you do, and have a pedicure if needed

Shampoo your hair as close to departure as possible. There is nothing worse than greasy hair when you can’t wash it. Shortly before surgery have it cut or highlighted etc. because you won’t feel up to dealing with such procedures for some weeks. Some who wear their hair short prefer to have it trimmed extra short, as it means less to deal with during recovery.

If you are a having bowel clean-out, get some Gatorade or Pedialite (NOT red) to drink. It replaces potassium which is lost in the process. Hemorrhoid ointment (better than cream)is useful if delicate areas are irritated.

If you are able to manage it, do any housework or chores that require bending or stretching up, trying to anticipate future needs for a month or two. For instance, take down a few vases from high storage, as you may have flowers to put in them if friends don’t send pre-made arrangements. People don’t realize that arranging flowers in a post-op condition is not as pleasant or easy as it is when you feel well.

In sum, put anything you usually need where you can easily reach it when you get home.

Before you leave for the hospital, put clean sheets on the bed, or arrange for a friend to do so. Nothing beats coming home to your own bed with fresh sheets. Same with towels. Put out your thickest, most luxurious, and forbid anyone else to touch them.

Stock up on essentials, of course. You’ll probably have people to run errands, but some things you want to do for yourself, such as choosing products that you’re particular about. Make sure you have enough on hand so you don’t have someone shopping for you and bringing home a disappointment.

 Suggestions on what to take in your purse and toiletries bag, in totally random order:

  • Notepad and several pens
  • Glasses and case
  • Phone numbers or your address book.
  • Cell phone or phone card. Hospital phones sometimes allow only local calls. Note: cell phones don’t work in certain hospitals.
  • Earplugs
  • Mask for eyes
  • Nail scissors/file
  • Skin cream/lotion
  • Hairbrush/comb
  • Watch (leave all expensive jewelry at home)
  • Small mirror
  • Mini-flashlight
  • Length of string
  • Heavy socks. Feet can get cold walking around in halls. (Hospitals sometimes provide socks, but not all do.)
  • Your own pillow, and maybe your own sheets. (see below)
  • Nightgown, robe and slippers
  • Comfortable clothes that you can easily get into for the return trip. Slip-on shoes, loose-hanging shirt/pants/dress, etc.
  • Small supply of any necessary daily meds. (see below)
  • Your house key, so if a friend takes you home you can get in!
  • A good book
  • Perhaps a little radio that you can tuck in the night table drawer in case you want to listen and not watch TV. CD players may disappear.

Some of these items seem might unnecessary, but the
mirror can help you see around your bed space if you drop something, or check areas you can’t see with the fixed mirrors in bath and bedtable. The string can tie objects to the bed so you can retrieve them, and the flashlight will help you see without waking a roommate.

Usually you can take your own pillow to the hospital with you. If your skin is ultra-sensitive like mine, you might want your own sheets. Sometimes the hospital sheets are lovely and worn and soft; sometimes they feel like sandpaper. Better to have your own softest to put on the bed once you’ve stopped bleeding or otherwise messing up the hospital bedding.

Living in those hospital johnnies makes you feel (and look) more like a patient, not a person. Take a soft, pretty nightgown with short sleeves that don’t interfere with IVs, spring or summer-weight because most hospitals are very warm and dry. (Some hospitals don’t allow them.) Pack a non-bulky robe for walking the halls, and slip-on but secure slippers. A bed jacket is nice, if you have one, or a light sweater or shirt can substitute.

Important: the instant you think of a question for the doctor, write it down immediately on your notepad. Amazing how these important questions slip away when faced with a surprise 6 AM visit. Doctors always seem to arrive when you least expect them, and they don’t stay long, so grab your list of questions and ask them quickly, but don’t settle for incomplete answers. One question I’ve recently added to my list: "Doctor Blank, what questions haven’t I asked that I should be asking?" I try to rewrite my list the night before, placing the most urgent questions first. A friend/caretaker can help with this, if needed.

Take along small doses of any meds you normally use. The hospital staff should have orders to give you the meds you require but if orders get messed up the busy doctor must authorize anything that has been missed. Better to take your own, in case, rather than waiting a day or two for them to get around to arrangements.

I keep my purse or toiletries bag in the bed with me. Tuck it under the covers or use it to plump up a pillow, and that way you always have your notepad and pen, glasses, nail scissors (which can also cut tape, string, paper, etc.)-–your vital needs–where you can reach them without a stretch or fuss.

This is vital! Do not allow anyone to move your nightstand or bedtable with the phone, your cup—whatever important is on it—without putting it back where you can easily reach it. This is the most valuable piece of advice my mother gave me, as a veteran of surgery herself. And she was so right. Six inches or a foot can be a chasm you can’t cross when the phone rings, or you need whatever you’ve stored there. Draculas arrive to suck your blood with needles, nurses fuss over IVs, room cleaners come through, and they all shove the table out of their way, then leave, and you’re stuck. No matter how sleepy you are, ask them (nicely) to replace the table.

Nice is the key word when dealing with nurses, and all the staff. If they like you, you might get better attention. And if you only buzz them when you really need help, they’ll appreciate it. I’m sure you know this, but sometimes it’s hard to apply when dealing with difficult people, or you’re feeling awful. Be polite and you’ll come out ahead. If they see you understand their needs and respect the demands on their time, they might come to you before answering some else’s buzzer. I also try to learn their names, if possible.

One trick I’ve never used, but has been recommended, is to ask people to bring you big tins of cookies or candies to share with the staff. They’re often overworked and don’t have time to eat properly. If they’re hungry, your room will be a magnet.

Try to arrange to have a family member or friend with you as much as possible. They can fetch more ice or juice, open or close the blinds, add or take away blankets, chores that spare the busy staff a lot of small stuff that makes a big difference to you, but is a burden to them. More importantly, if they are trained to be your advocate, they can make sure you get the right meds, on time, and oversee your care in many ways so you can lie back and relax, go with the flow, and not struggle to stay awake and alert when all your body wants is rest and sleep. This is another bit of advice I wish I’d taken. I really needed this sort of help after the last operation, but was so used to being in control I paid a price for it.

Going home:

Sometimes a nurse will help you time your pain medication so you have received a dose that will be in effect during the drive home. If they don’t offer, ask. If you have pre-filled pain meds with you, you can use them instead, or in case (shudder) you have a flat tire on a long drive home. Remember, staying ahead of the pain is far more effective than allowing it to build up, then starting all over again.

If you have a car with good suspension use it, and make sure there are 2-3 soft pillows to help cushion the many bumps you will now discover in the road. Warn whoever collects you to drive smoothly, with no delays. Witness: "The first time my son drove me home in his car, I cannot begin to tell you how bad it was. After the second surgery we used my car and it was a far smoother ride. You feel every tiny bump." And… "My friend picked me up, drove like a maniac, hitting every bump in the road, then stopped for gas because she could save a few pennies, while I waited in agony. All I wanted was to get home!"

We hope you find this helpful. Sometimes it’s the small stuff that can make a big difference.

— Louise Ladd & Alison Woodman