7 Tips for Handling a Hospital Stay in a Strange Town

By Gina Larsen, guest blogger

I regularly blog on issues of health care and aging. Many times I interview experts or research topics so I can write helpful articles that advise, guide, and inform. This time, it’s different. I went through a stressful experience and learned many things firsthand.

As part of a planned overnight trip to Lower Michigan to attend a family funeral, I drove my parents down through Chicago on a Tuesday, and we attended a peaceful farewell for a lovely elderly woman who was so looking forward to heaven! On the way home on Wednesday, however, my father had a health crisis in the car as I was driving him and my mother through Indiana. Three days later, we arrived back in Wisconsin after a tumultuous stay in a hospital in Valparaiso. (My precious dad is doing much better now, thank goodness.) I have a “blogger’s view” of the world, so I asked Tammy at Valley VNA if I could share what I learned about traveling with aging parents—or anyone we love:

  1. Travel with prescriptions in their original pharmacy containers. If you want to only bring what you need for the trip, not the entire bottle full of pills, leave the extra ones at home. It is imperative that you travel with your pill bottles (or bubble packs) so you know what you take, the proper dosage, and how and when you take your medication. This means no more little plastic pill sorters! It’s not worth it to “save space” when having your prescription information could save a whole lot of trouble, and maybe even your life.
  2. If you find yourself in a hospital or clinic far from home, reiterate to each of your caregivers that you are from out of town. Each person needs to understand that you are not in need of local follow-up appointments; rather, you will need your medical records printed before you leave so you can share them with your own doctor. When staff know you are from out of town, they will also be more helpful about lodging and meal suggestions for your family, or understanding your need for an efficient discharge given your travel plans. (My family was eager to get an early start on discharge day because we had to get through Chicago before the Friday rush hour.)
  3. You must request a printed copy of your tests and results. Some health care systems will send you home with a CD or disk of your medical records from their facility. This is fine; however, your doctor’s office at home may refuse to insert an unknown disk into their computer system for fear of a computer virus. Our Wisconsin doctors much preferred to scan the paper sheets into their system.
  4. Carry with you contact information for your loved one’s primary care provider (PCP). (First, insist that he or she has a PCP.) With one phone call, you will have access to your loved one’s important medical history and even connect your regular doctor with your current health care providers.
  5. Insist that your loved one is given his or her daily medications while in the hospital. Unfortunately, my own dad’s daily medicines were never ordered by hospital staff, and he went through a traumatic withdrawal that rivaled the health crisis he had just had on the roadside. Your doctor will be able to tell you if and why a daily medication may be inconsistent with your parent’s current plan of care; otherwise, he or she should be taking daily meds. Because you have your medications in their prescription bottles on hand (see #1), you can ensure that each medication is entered and ordered.
  6. Advocate, advocate, advocate! During my stay in Indiana, I was struck with how warm, caring, skilled, and empowered our local Fox Valley hospital nurses are! At home, when I ask a question, I am given an informed answer or an offer to “find out for you, and I’ll be right back.” When I asked a question of my father’s nurses, I was not satisfied with, “I don’t know, and I don’t know when I will find out.” If you need to go stand at the nurse’s station and wait for an answer or a request to be fulfilled, remember to smile while you wait. Be polite always.
  7. Practice good self-care. Take time away from the hospital room for a nap at your hotel. If you are like me, and can’t eat when you are anxious, be sure to stay hydrated. Carry a water bottle with you. Remember that you are in the midst of a crisis, so you have every right to call in reinforcements, including asking others to travel to help you. In our case, my husband took a day off work to come and pick up our teenage son, who was being very brave and compassionate. However, it lifted a burden on me to have him safe at home, away from the trauma he had just witnessed, including his grandpa being loaded into an ambulance.

Health crises are scary no matter where they happen, but being far from home adds another layer of complexity and anxiety. Take small steps to be prepared for an emergency, and they will pay off in big ways. Here’s hoping you will never need them!