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Haunting the Hospital

In July, I suddenly had to take my wife, The Amazing Karen, to the emergency room. She endured emergency surgery for peritonitis and ended up spending 16 days in hospital before she could be released to my dubious care at home. She’s expected to recover fully. Thanks for asking.

What I want to share with you in this blog is some hard-won knowledge I acquired during that experience. Here are nine things I wish I had known before heading out to the vast, modern hospital. Someday, this knowledge might help you.


Pack a sweater, even during the hottest days of summer. There are many spaces in the hospital that are arctic cold—a real test of your character. If you end up in one of them without a parka, you may find that you need to be hospitalized for frost bite.
Take a cable so you can charge your phone. You don’t think you will be there that long, but you are wrong. Without your phone, you are going to be cut off from the real world and deeply isolated.
Take the largest bag you can carry. You’re going to need a duffle bag or enormous tote. I’ve studied this with care and it became obvious that, at the hospital, the smartest people had the biggest bags. Geniuses had two giant bags. 
Put some snacks in your pocket. Anything you can eat without utensils. You are not always going to be free to scamper to the cafeteria and the cafeteria will be closed in the middle of the night.
Take your own daily medications—whatever you take each day at home. You may not have a chance to get home for a while.
Take some diversions…like ear buds, reading materials, sketchbook, puzzles, or games.
Take a pencil and some paper to write on. People are going to say things you want to remember but your memory will be on the fritz.
Pack a real pillow. It’s much better than using your shoes as a pillow.
Try to make people on the elevator laugh.These somber-looking strangers are probably there to visit some ailing family member. They are tense and may be filled with despair. They need a laugh. We’re all just mortals being mauled by Fate—that’s especially obvious at any hospital. Brighten their day. They will probably welcome even your most feeble jest with warmth and gratitude. Say something funny about the cost of the parking garage. That seems to work.
I wish I had tip number 10, but I’m worn out. Gotta go.

Pittsburgh, August 6, 2018

37 Responses

Michelle Gortner

October 02, 2018

What great advice , I try to follow most of your tips myself. I’ve made plenty of hospital visits myself and many surgeries, the most useful item I could think of bringing was my hair brush. Many surgeries required at least a day stay if not longer, that hair brush was needed right after surgery. We all look better after combing our hair.

Tom Scott

September 09, 2018

I’m an Episcopal priest and a native of Pittsburgh. Glad your wife is mending. Your advice is spot on. Love your work and plan to buy stuff as Christmas presents.


August 23, 2018

Glad to hear “the Amazing Karen” is on the mend. Hospitals are no place to be…it’s always better to sleep in your own bed.


August 15, 2018

Even if you are not the patient, if you tell an aide or nurse that you are cold they will usually bring you a blanket; ours brings ones from the warmer. Our hospital volunteers also knit hats for chemo patients and we have been offered one of those too. Sometimes a hat works as well as a sweater or blanket. Glad your wife is on the mend!

Beth Colsher

August 14, 2018

Glad the amazing Karen and you are home. If this happens again (heaven forbid), bribe the staff with flowers and food. Making yourselves more human than being just another patient can help improve outcomes such as IV care, pain medicine scheduling, even extra education from the staff.

Heidi Fieschko

August 14, 2018

Hey Don and Karen! So bummed to hear about the scary emergency surgery, and frankly Don’s even scarier nursing abilities :-) I hope everyone has cleared those fences and resting comfortably!! Sent a “pink me up” bouquet this AM – yes that’s it’s name – don’t you wish you worked for teleflora bouquet-naming department!

Best wishes to you both – will try to make a trip to Pgh before the snow flies!


Carla Casilli

August 14, 2018

I found your site through a byzantine series of links about kickstarter projects linked on The Pudding. From The Pudding to and onto Pittsburgh in a data visualization of kickstarter projects, then some random scrolling onto a large grey dot that led to Kickstarter and your actual kickstarter page finally to calamityware. Like all internet wanderings, curious.

Needless to say, of course it turns out there’s a connection. I know you and Karen! The Amazing Karen was my typography prof at CMU a million years ago and I still think of her and those classes fondly. I hope that she is well and recovered and I am delighted to hear that you’re both alive and kicking. Please send her my warm regards.

Love this site and wishing you both all the best.

Carla Casilli

August 13, 2018

I found your site through a byzantine series of links about kickstarter projects linked on The Pudding. From The Pudding to and onto Pittsburgh in their data visualization of kickstarter projects, then some random scrolling onto a large grey dot that led to Kickstarter and your actual kickstarter page finally to calamityware. Like all internet wanderings, curious.

Needless to say, of course it turns out I know you and Karen! The Amazing Karen was my typography prof at CMU a million years ago and I still think of her and those classes fondly. I hope that she is well and recovered and I am delighted to hear that you’re both alive and kicking.

Love this site and wishing you both all the best.

Becky Einolf

August 10, 2018

I would add, given that you’ll be carrying a big bag, that it could be useful to bring along any/all of these if there’s room:

- A pair of clean socks
- Clean underwear
- A clean tshirt

This is mostly if there’s a possibility that you may end up spending the night waiting for your loved one’s surgery to be finished, or for test results to come, or whatever. You will feel a lot better if you have the ability to change into clean things after, say, 8 hours of being stuck in a waiting room.

Sarah Anderson

August 10, 2018

Very glad your wife is on the mend. What an ordeal for you both. I have two additional pieces of advice: thank the nurses and cleaning staff frequently. Do whatever you can to make their jobs easier or at least more pleasant. Also: never underestimate the power of a random act of kindness. When my dad was in the hospital and his prognosis poor, I was walking down the hall and a woman – a total stranger – reached out to me and gave me a big hug. She said I just looked like I needed it. She was right. It’s been 10 years since that happened but I have never forgotten her act of kindness and expression of empathy.

Bob Eames

August 10, 2018

Glad to hear The Amazing Karen was released to your dubious care Don and that it inspired another helpful and insightful series of your observations. Thanks for making things better for the rest of us. The hospital is such a bad place to be when you’re not well! I would suggest one other….locate the nearest source of GOOD COFFEE or bring a really good thermos in with your own home brewed or coffee shop favorite. Maybe the geniuses have a thermos and a cooler in their second bag????


August 09, 2018

I’m so glad your wife is better and hope that she only improves under your care. I have a question – what did the geniuses have in the giant tote bags?

Nancy Q

August 09, 2018

Earplugs. For both of you to drown out loud phone conversations by others in the waiting room, or the bed next door in the ER.. No point in arguing with them. They are probably miserable too. And a sleep mask for you. I always take a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle….and something comforting, like a British or Canadian murder mystery. Those Scandinavian ones are too upsetting for the ER, ICU and hospitals of all sorts!
Wishing you all the best…


August 09, 2018

Glad to hear your wife is recovering well. As a former patient I would add:
#10. Make the nurses laugh. They are hard at it for hours on end and not everyone is nice or even appreciative to them. I always try to connect with them and make them laugh.

Doris Zurawka

August 09, 2018

Thank you, Don, for the nine gems of wisdom. The drawings are charming. Glad Karen is feeling better.

Malia Ogoshi

August 09, 2018

I’m sharing your most useful suggestions and perspective— a perfect balance of both. Thank you!

I have a short list of appropriate attire for specific medical tests and procedures. It’s a small comfort to wear your own athletic attire instead of a hospital gown for an MRI procedure/dye test. For the ladies, a top and slacks vs a dress (and vice versa) will save you a modicum of modesty, depending on the procedure.


August 09, 2018

Sorry for the arduous trip for both your wife and you. I have stayed for multiple surgeries with family members and have also found I needed sunglasses because your eyes can’t handle light well after not sleeping much and you definitely need toothpaste and toothbrush, otherwise those snacks are going to haunt your breath. Get better soon!


August 09, 2018

Everything you say is true. I haunted the hospital for two weeks after my partner’s car accident. I would add also to bring slippers and baby wipes because Intensive Care rooms don’t have their own showers.


August 09, 2018

I’m so sorry to hear that she was so sick – I’m very glad to hear she is recovering. All the best to you and your wife!


August 09, 2018

I’m so happy she is on the road to recovery. Keep in mind how happy she must have been to have you there. Having a child go to the doctor for a lump on the face and spending 3 weeks in the nearest trauma center for periorbital cellulitis- twice, was an eye opener. You were absolutely right to add a SWEATER as first on the list. I brought a quilt to work on (I do hand quilting) which fortunately doubles as sweater, pillow & blanket. Maybe you should take up quilting. Or have fewer hospital trips.

Dr C

August 09, 2018

Your blog was in my email this morning and I read it right after my husband got a diagnosis of melanoma. We’ll have to travel in to NYC from CT for his surgery. Thanks for the well timed advice! I’m printing it out and will be using it soon.

Jerolyn Crute

August 09, 2018

Your humorous objects and reading your witty observations has lifted me umpteen times during various family crisis and the events of the world. Thank You!

May your wife have a speedy and longlasting recovery.


August 09, 2018

I use these tips basically anytime I leave the house. And I second Gretl’s 10th—headphones!! Best wishes.


August 09, 2018

I am so glad Karen is ok….that was very serious…as someone else said…..write down the full name of everyone you talk to, time and date….and what they tell you…let them see you are taking notes. ..when possible, note every medication and iv bag. …note who put in iv lines and date and time.. iv site and immediately report and redness or swelling and time and who you report it to…..I am an RN…and we really try to do our best, but every patient and patient’s friend or family member needs to be proactive……..

Jill Davis

August 09, 2018

Best wishes for a fast recovery to both of you.

I have been in the same position as Don many times unfortunately, and these stays are difficult and traumatic for both the patient and the family members.
Snacks and Drinks are key items – both for you and others. Power cords are also a critical item – again spares are handy.
In addition to the sweater I suggest comfortable shoes as everything seems to be miles of hard floor away from where you are.
A folder to keep papers in is nice for extended stays – so everything is kept in one spot and easy to refer to.

My other tidbit of advice to add is: Make note of who and when says what.
Communication in most hospitals seems be poorer than one would expect and this leads to many challenges especially when dealing with multiple departments and/or a patient who can not advocate for themselves.

Best wishes again,

Anne Bellissimo

August 09, 2018

Sorry you and AK had such a harrowing experience, but glad it’s a good prognosis. Your blog post is funny and practical. Thanks for posting.


August 09, 2018

These words apply equally well to all. I was fortunate that my first surgery of 2017 only involved a four day hospital stay, but it was in the winter in New England. Fortunately, the next surgery that required an overnight stay was in April but we did have bad weather then too so we knew to get the surgeon’s approval early in the am, before she started her daily rounds and ops for that day. Wise advice about the bags and cheer in the elevator.

Jan Burke

August 09, 2018

I wish both of you all the best. Just going through dealing with medical crises in our own family. For those who might be in a sibling group dealing with a parent who will have multiple visitors, may I suggest you start a text message group early on for sharing info between yourselves, and a second for those who are not as closely involved in care (friends, other relatives, etc. with whom your parent wants to share information ) It will save you a little time coordinating, keep folks from showing up too soon or en masse, and a limit the time you spend answering individual questions.


August 09, 2018

Sorry to hear the Amazing Karen has been ill but glad to know she’s recovering.

Best of luck to both of you.

Michele Liguori

August 09, 2018

Thank you for the excellent and thoughtful advice. Wishing Karen a speedy recovery!


August 09, 2018

Number Ten: Noise Cancelling Headphones. Really. Tune out! Even when you don’t have them turned on, keep them on your head. Then occasionally snap your fingers rhythmically and hum “dah-doo-ron-ron-ron” which clues bystanders in that you’re not listening. Even if you are. This works great on airplanes and I imagine the same applies to hospitals. I hope Karen continues an uneventful recovery…and keep away from hospitals!

Justin Fisher

August 09, 2018

Sure could have used this advice back in March when my wife, Amanda, went to the ER and then 2 months in intensive care.
Your point about thinking it would be short (but you are wrong) is so right! Fortunately Amanda is back home enjoying real food served on Calamityware plates.


August 09, 2018

These are words of wisdom. For some reason, the Cleveland Clinic emergency room has no pillows. A lumpy purse is a poor substitute. I’ve become a great believer in kind bars as emergency rations (preferably dark chocolate sea salt).

As one who has more often been a patient than partner, these pearls apply equally well. Glad Karen is doing better.

One final note: it never hurts to bring the nurses cupcakes or a cookie tray. These are the folks you want on your side.

Randy Groves

August 09, 2018

I would suggest that you make sure that you know (or have access to) the passwords to online accounts that you may need to log into during your stay (bank, health care, etc.). It came in handy when talking to the police the next day when my car was stolen the night of my wife’s heart surgery …

Rebecca Kolberg

August 09, 2018

You nailed it. The only thing I would add is make sure that you turn off your headlights in the parking garage. Best of luck to Karen in her recovery!

Susan Timisela

August 09, 2018

Hang in there Don and The Amazing Karen!

Sarah Jane Lapp

August 09, 2018

This is a very beautiful and generous post. Sorry to hear you and wife have suffered so…may all bodily things improve henceforth…

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