It took 23 years, but I finally landed in the hospital as an adult.
The occasion was a burst appendix, which led to an excruciating journey through the labyrinth of ER protocols and tests before I was admitted to surgery, and woke up in a hospital bed under fluorescent lights, far from the zen gray sanctuary of my home, with its organic jersey sheets, kitchen stocked with my favorite health foods, and kitty that curls up at my feet.
I was completely unprepared for this. All I had in my possession were the sweats I trudged into the ER in, my wallet, and my cell phone. I was also logistically unprepared, which contributed to pain, frustration, and a slower healing process than I otherwise would have had.
For a place focused on health, the hospital I stayed in (and most hospitals) are achingly behind the times when it comes to holistic health measures. And I'm not even talking about acupuncture or reiki. I'm talking about the proven-beyond-a-doubt link between our food and our health, air quality and our health, even just visual stimulation and our health. So a hospital can make someone who is hyper educated about microbiomes, inflammation, and the mind-body connection feel like it's working against her.
I know you might be tempted to say, "Well, I'm healthy, so I'll just read this later." Don't! That was my mistake, one I want to save you from. Instead, read this now, perform step 1 as soon as you're able, and save the rest someplace easy for when it happens. Because it will, even if you're an organic, raw, vegan triathlon athlete. Because triathletes can get hit by a car when training on their bike!
Pick out a hospital now.
How I wished I had done this. I had vaguely thought to do this many times, but never did. So when the urgent care clinic doctor felt my abdomen and told me she thought I might have appendicitis and called me an ambulance, I had nothing to say when the two EMT's asked me where to go. "What do you recommend?" I asked, too crumpled in pain to venture inside Google for answers. "I don't know," one said.
"Well, does one have shorter wait times?"
"We just started our day, so I don't know."
"Where do you live?"
"We could take you to Woodhull. It's near you."
This was a massive mistake. Woodhull is a dilapidated hospital located in a low income area near my apartment, who seems to have been left behind by the medical establishment at large. What follows is graphic. Skip down to the paragraph starting with Squeamish readers start here if you just want to take my word that choosing the right hospital is paramount.
When we got there, they checked me in, and I used the bathroom while I waited in the ambulance check-in room. Then they led me to the ER, and had me sit in a chair. My pain was bad, but manageable at this point. But within five minutes, a new wave of excruciating pain ripped through my bowels and pushed my off my chair onto the floor. I looked up beseechingly at the receptionists, willing them to see me, until five minutes later one finally called out, "Aden!" and I weakly raised my hand. "Help," I said. "Pain."
"What are you doing on the floor?" she snapped. "It's dirty! We have a bed for you here." She indicated a stretcher, and watched me drag myself over and haul myself onto it, then pushed me into a back curtained corner and left me.
I rocked in pain for 10 minutes. (All time estimates that may be obscured by fog that descended around pain) then decided that they could well forget about me, so I started calling out. "Help me. I need a doctor. Please. Someone. Please. Please." A woman entered with a clipboard. "Hello, I'm the chaplain. What is your religion?"
"I don't have a religion," I growled. "I need a fucking doctor."
"Fine. I was just asking," she said, and swished out of the curtained room. Finally, a physician's assistant came over, and casually drawled some questions. "Who told you you needed a CT scan?" he demanded when I asked for one.
"The urgent care doctor," I said. "She thinks it's appendicitis."
He ordered a blood test, and said I needed to pee in a cup. I dragged myself out of bed and to the bathroom, but nothing was coming out. So I hauled my trembling body back to the bed. The physician's assistant came back, and was disappointed in me that I couldn't produce pee. Without it, they couldn't do anything. I needed to prove I wasn't pregnant, even though I had my last period a week before and I have an IUD and I'm child-free by choice. But none of that mattered. He left. I vomited. This was around 11:40 am, because that's when I called Illich, who was on his way from work, and sobbed, "They are ignoring me!"
A kind nurse came and gave me a bed pan, and ran the faucet to help me. But no dice. I beseeched the PA to help me, to do something. But he was unmoved. Illich arrived, and engaged in this battle for me for two more rounds, until a catheter was finally suggested as an alternative. The nurse who administered it rolled her eyes at me when I asked questions about how long it would take for the test to come back. It was if I was merely a dramatic and demanding client at the DMV, instead of a human writhing, her legs shaking, speaking in tongues of pain, alternately sobbing and vomiting while trying to dutifully answer questions to the doctor who finally arrived to assess me. He did not touch my abdomen as the urgent care clinic doctor had done.
I wonder if they needed me to prove I wasn't an addict.
Finally I received morphine, and the pain became tolerable. This must have been two and a half hours after I arrived. A CT scan was ordered, and I was rolled into the X-ray unit around 3:30 pm. But the blood test wouldn't come back for another hour and a half – four hours after my blood was taken – so I half dozed holding Illich's hand, dreaming that I was collecting pure white shirts for when I finally arrived and disembarked from this ship of pain. The technicians said they kept calling, but it wouldn't arrive. Finally I got the scan, which confirmed that something had ruptured, but maybe it was actually my ovary. Not as likely as my kidney, but this conveniently gave the physician's assistant an excuse to brush away my concerns about immediately getting surgery. "Why is the surgical team taking so long? When will they get here?" I asked.
"No idea. Soon," he said.
"If my kidney is burst..." I started.
"IF your kidney is burst," he countered.
"...then it is life threatening and I need surgery," I said.
"But it might not be your kidney," he said.
"Why is this so hard?" I sobbed. "Why won't you help me?" My sister, who has also had horrendous hospital experiences, was calling the hospital patient services team, which is supposed to escalate these situations, but the attitude she got was, Yeah, we know she's here, we all know, thanks.
The surgical team arrived an hour later, and the head surgeon did an abdomen exam. He was almost sure it was my appendix. I rolled into surgery after 7 pm, more than 7 hours after my appendix had burst.
Squeamish readers start reading here. There are other ways in which this hospital isn't great. The nurses in the post-op unit have been tremendously caring, but the hospital facilities are aging. The paint is peeling. The windows are dirty. The heavy doors aren't automatic, so that patients struggle to get them open, and once one swung closed and punched me in the backside. I have no natural light in my room except for a small window behind my bed, which actually opens into a doctor's office. When I turned around the first morning I was here, there was a doctor seated at his desk looking at me!
I'm not alone in my experience, as these other reviews suggest. My one friend said he waited seven hours in Woodhull's ER to be told he didn't have a broken foot, when it turns out he did. In this harrowing Atlantic story, the Brooklyn Hospital Center was even worse for a woman with a more painful and more dangerous condition. But women! We're so dramatic, right?
I don't think all hospitals are so callous to their patients. Not all of them assume you are an addict looking for a fix, or an entitled bitch who is impinging on them with her over-dramatization of pain. Some of them will work creatively to get you the care you need, even if they are busy. And some are beautifully designed to maximise your views of healing nature and sunlight.
The trick is to know now which of the best hospitals take your insurance, so you know where to go when something bad happens to you. You can look up ratings in your area via US News Reports, Health Grove, and Consumer Reports. You can also look up wait times via ProPublica. (I found the column specifying time spent waiting until receiving pain medication for a broken bone especially helpful.) And also compare prices, to see if it's a particularly expensive hospital. Because even if it is covered by your insurance, you'll still have to pay some of that bill. (Though it is negotiable! Know that!)
Once you have a short list that are in reasonable driving distance to the neighborhoods you spend most of your time in (a short wait time is no good if it's far away, and vice versa), check to make sure they take your insurance.
When I compared national rankings, distance from my neighborhood, wait times to get pain meds, and price for an appendectomy (though Bellevue didn't have one, and Lenox had the highest listed price at $60,000) and verified it against my insurer, I came up with NYU, Mt. Sinai, Lenox Hill, and Bellevue, in that order. Committing these to memory.
Pack these things:
So, let's say you have scheduled a surgery. Or you're out of the ER and in a room, and would like your family member or friend to pack appropriate things for your recuperation. Pull up this list!
- Silk or cotton pajamas. A gown (hospital issued or your own) is cute until you accidentally flash your visitors and anyone who walks by as you're struggling to move around in your bed. (It's hard to be graceful after surgery.) Loose, drawstring pants are the way to go. And quality cotton or silk will ensure you stay at a comfortable temperature.
- Comfy undies and bra.
- Sweatshirt. If you want to get out of bed, you'll want this.
- Lip balm. This was so incredibly crucial, especially at the beginning of my stay. I would reach for it once an hour.
- Slippers. The hospital will issue you grippy socks, but if you walk around in these, then you'll bring back into your bed everything you've swiffered up from the floor. Put some slippers on!
- Earplugs. Hospitals do not care about letting you sleep. You might have a roommate with visitors. Nurses and doctors will stand outside your room and call out to each other. You'll close the door and they'll open it to take your vitals and leave it open again. Just get earplugs.
- Eye mask. Ditto. The lights in hospitals are fluorescent and you have little control over whether they are on or off in your room.
- Try: Earthen Warrior
- Your toiletries.
- Festival kit from Yuni. When I got this kit this summer, I had no idea it would be so useful so long after the last festival! I asked Illich to grab my toiletry bag for me, and as luck would have it, I was still together with my festival kit from a camping wedding we had gone to a couple weekends before. This thing made me feel like myself! It has hand lotion, shower sheets, no rinse body cleansing foam, aromatic mist, and muscle recovery gel (which is so helpful two days after surgery, when you feel like you've been hit by a truck). You'll feel fresh and sweet, even if you can't take a shower and sweated through your sheets the night before.
- Get it: Unfortunately, it's not on sale right now during the winter, but you can buy the travel kit and add in the muscle recovery gel and shower sheets.
- Probiotics. If you're on antibiotics, they're going to clear your gut out of all the good bacteria, and your digestive system will feel awful by the end of your stay. Ward that off by taking probiotics immediately. Take one a day on an empty stomach, two hours after your last antibiotic during the largest space between antibiotic administration. (Perhaps before going to sleep?)
- Try: Klaire Labs Ther-Biotic Complete. My friend who has spent the last two years battling illness is a pro at rebuilding her gut bacteria, and recommended these. You can also pick up some probiotics at your health store from the refrigerated section. Make sure it has a lot of CFUs, different strands. Then put it in a tray or bucket of ice next to your hospital bed.
- A long phone charger. That will easily reach all the way to your bed.
- Earbuds. One of my friends was super sweet and brought me a mini bluetooth speaker as a gift, but I could only use it for one day, because I usually had a roommate and didn't want to be obnoxious. I suggest earbuds instead.
- Try: House of Marley
- Reusable metal cup. If you're loathe to use plastic, I suggest bringing your own tin cup that you can accidentally knock off the table without breaking. You'll be refilling it often with water, and it will be easier to handle then a water bottle.
- Air purifier. I don't have an air purifier at home because I don't have allergies, and our renovated apartment is completely free of any off-gassing materials or paints, or toxic cleaners. But for the hospital? YES, PLEASE.
- Try: Airfree. It silently destroys mold, allergens, dust mites, bacteria, viruses, pollens, pet dander, tobacco, ozone and other organic pollutants, with no filters to replace.
- Linen spray. I don't want to encourage you to be rude and spray essentials oils all over your room, if your roommate happens to be sensitive to smells. But a linen spray will freshen up your sheets and help you sleep.
- Try: The Savvy Heart, or make your own spray with water, tea tree oil, and lavender oil.
Plans your friends' visits strategically.
Your beautiful-inside-and-out friends will rally to your side when they find out you're in the hospital. You might be tempted to say, "Sure! Come visit whenever you want! I'll be here all day." But my hospital had a two-person limit, so I ended up having to coordinate. And on the second day after my surgery, when I had three rounds of visitors in a row, I was beyond exhausted and crashed. So I suggest handing out the address and visiting hours to the people in your life that you love the most. (And who you won't be embarrassed if you have to run to the bathroom, or if they see your hairy armpits.)
Also, take them up on their offers to bring you stuff. Hospital food is atrocious. Not just in taste, but in nutrition. I mean, why on earth serve a sick patient spaghetti and meatballs? And why milk with every meal? Rely on your friends and family to keep you well fed.
You can also suggest to them little gifts that will improve your stay.
- Kombucha, kimchi, and yogurt. To rebuild your good gut microbes if you're on antibiotics.
- Fresh fruit and veggie crudités.
- Organic crackers.
- Succulents and flowers. Flowers are beautiful. And plants are great because you can take them home instead of throwing them out. Succulents are best, because they require little care, so you don't have to water them while you're in the hospital! This will be especially helpful if your hospital doesn't have a healing garden – studies prove that looking at greenery can speed the healing process.
- Coloring books and coloring pencils. My friend brought me a coloring book, and it was a deliciously mindless and calming way to pass the time.
- Magazines and books.
Take a break from being a green warrior.
You know how they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first in case of an emergency, then help others? Well, this is an emergency. You're going to see a lot of wasteful stuff in the hospital. They're going to insist on bringing in trays of terrible food, then slide them into the trash in front of you when you don't eat them. Mounds of plastic will pile up with each visit from the nurse. There is no recycling. Nothing is organic. Your own friends might make some missteps in the kind of gifts they bring you that make you cringe a little.
Deep breaths, it's OK. Right now you need to focus on healing yourself. That's what this post is for, not to help the environment necessarily, but to help you be comfortable and get out of the hospital faster!
So don't grumble about the waste. Don't lecture about the toxic mini shampoo and soap you're issued. Don't hoard recyclables, waiting for the opportunity to haul them all home to recycle them. Use the damn trash can. Rest and save your energy for when you get out of the hospital. Then you can go back to being a champion for the earth.
Until then, I hope you feel better!