Updated 11 May 2015

Heading for hospital?

Here's what to do to make things easy before, during and after your hospital stay.


The guy in the red car had a rather loose interpretation of the concept behind a fourway-stop. And you woke up in the ICU. This article is not for you. (Hope you get better soon – and that there was a witness to the accident.)

This article is for people who know days or weeks in advance that they will be having an appendix removed or a knee replacement operation done.

By nature we tend to be born worriers and in the weeks before an operation most people will spend their time agonising themselves into a standstill about everything that could go wrong. It might be a better idea to use this energy to get organised before your operation in order to smooth over any possible obstacles that are within your control.

Why should you learn the hard way? Sonet Erasmus, senior ICU nursing sister at the Life Rosepark Hospital in Bloemfontein, gives the following tips to patients who are about to check into private hospitals:

Pre-op admin

  • If you’re going into hospital and you’re a medical scheme member, get your paperwork sorted out with your medical scheme before you are admitted. This can usually be done in one phone call. You usually need to get an authorisation number – remember to take it with you when you check in.
  • Find out which hospital group your medical scheme prefers – if any. Going to a hospital group with whom they do a lot of business, could save you money.
  • Remember to take your ID book, medical scheme membership card and other personal details with you when you check in.
  • Alert the hospital prior to admission if you are vegetarian, or require halaal food, or any other special diet.
  • Make sure the doctors and nurses are aware of any allergies you might have to food or medication.

What to take with you

  • Make sure you have at least four pyjama changes. You’re going to be in pyjamas all day and you might feel like changing every morning – that is if there are no accidents in between. Even if a family member is doing your washing, it still takes a while to get it all dry. The cupboards are small – don’t bother with more than one set of clothing. And keep in mind that the pyjamas must be of the type that can easily be put on or taken off – even if you’re wearing a drip. A gown and slippers should also be taken – remember that hospitals have air conditioning and therefore non-see-through summer pyjamas are better.
  • Take toiletries, hand cream, a magazine or two, a book (earphones for the radio and for the TV are usually available from the reception desk), two washcloths (one for your face and one for the rest of you), preferably in dark colours.
  • Organise access to a telephone line when you check in.
  • Make a list of any chronic medication you are taking, and take this with you to hospital. The sister on duty will make a note of these.
  • Don’t take large amounts of money or valuables, such as jewellery with you. If necessary, you can have money or valuables locked up at reception, but why take the chance? Leave bank cards, cheque books and expensive cell phones at home. Many people will be moving in and out of your room and constant vigilance is impossible. Take less than R50 with you – little enough to lose, and more than enough to buy a newspaper or a tin of cool drink. You can always ask family members to bring you more money if you need it.

Once you’re there

  • Check what the visiting hours are and how many visitors each patient may receive. Limit the number of visitors, as it can be very exhausting to be social under these circumstances. Families who hover around actually hamper the medical staff in their duties to look after patients.
  • Be considerate to fellow patients, especially if they are being seen to by the medical staff. Ask your guests to wait outside, if someone’s privacy is invaded by their presence.
  • Remember that while you might be embarrassed by having to use bedpans or portable toilets, the nurses deal with this every day. In a month’s time they will probably not even recognise you.
  • Get one of your visitors to help you to wash your hair, if the nurses do not have time.
  • It is important to follow instructions – they’re there for a reason.
  • Keep your horror stories to yourself. If someone is in the bed next to you for a gall bladder operation, they don’t want to hear about your Aunt Vicky who died on the operating table while having hers removed.
  • Remember that the hospital is a public place, so don’t share your views if they might offend others. Whatever your ideas are on HIV/Aids, cancer, hyperactive children, interracial relations, refrain from sharing them. You cannot assume people will agree with you.
  • Ask your visitors not to bring you heaps of flowers, unless they bring vases as well. Consider taking an inexpensive vase or two with you when you check in. But when it comes to bunches, of flowers, remember that space is limited and certain flowers could also cause allergic reactions.
  • Taking heaps of expensive toys to a children’s ward could be problematic, as fellow patients could break these and cause a war on the ward. Go for the kind of toys that are not designed to outlast a week-long hospital stay.

You and the nursing staff

  • Treat the nursing staff with respect and they will most probably treat you in the same way.
  • Say what you want to be called – Mrs Adams, or Adelaide, or whatever. It makes it easier for everyone.
  • If you are quiet, the staff will accept that you are fine. There is no point in suffering in silence. Ask for pain medication before things get unbearable. Ask only one person, otherwise more than one staff member will request the medication.
  • Ring your bell when it is really necessary, but not for trivialities – remember the nurses do not only have you to look after, unless you are in the ICU.

The home front

  • Pre-cooked, frozen meals might see your family through if they are not great cooks themselves.
  • Make transport arrangements for your children in advance.
  • Organise that someone looks after your pets in your absence.
  • Find out what the financial implications might be of any co-payments you might have to make, and organise how you’re going to pay this in advance. You don’t want to spend your time in hospital worrying about money.
  • Organise temporary accommodation for your family if you come from a rural area. Hospitals might be able to give you information regarding this.

After the operation

  • Find out which services you might need once you have left the hospital, and what is available in the area in which you live. The nursing staff at the hospital should be able to point you in the right direction.
  • If you’re living by yourself and need to be cared for full-time after leaving the hospital, you could either go into post-operative care (a few retirement villages provide this option to the public), or you could hire nursing services. Again the hospital staff, or doctors’ receptionists, are the best source of information on this topic. And remember to shop around – prices and level of care could vary considerably.

And last, but not least, get well soon. And remember, while having an op could be a frightening experience, millions of people have gone through that procedure before and have benefited from it in the long run. So hang in there. This too shall pass.

- (Susan Erasmus)


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