We arrive from different places around the world. Many of us are unable to speak. Many of us are unable to get out of bed. Some of us arrive after surgery and others after an urgent ER visit. All of us are hooked up to countless monitors, IVs and hold on tightly to the red button that alerts our medical team we require help. We reside in a small, generically designed, brightly lit room with each of us divided from each other by a thin curtain. We refer to one another as “my neighbor”, “my friend next door”, “they” and/ or “the other patient”.
During my first hospitalization and the hundreds of stays that have followed over the last 19 years, I have had the good fortune of meeting and listening to hundreds of patient’s stories. When neither of us could speak and I needed urgent help they would press their emergency call button for me and/ or with a whiteboard write PT HELP and point to me on the other side of the curtain. If they were able to speak, they would shout for assistance. Every time I have been hospitalized, I reciprocate in the same manner and instantly a bond is created between two strangers that is relied upon and treasured. Most recently, during another unexpected visit to the ER and subsequent admission into the hospital, I meet Robbie. Fortunately, I was mobile and only attached to my IV pole with three antibiotic IV bags, monitors and was able to speak.
My neighbor was wheeled into the room after surgery. She was also able to speak. Behind the curtain, she began sharing with me her HNC story, stories about her family and life’s journey. Her laughter, kindness, and humor were captivating. She asked if she could see me and say hello in person. I got out of my bed and wheeled over my IV pole and pushed back the thin, light yellow curtain that divided our room. She was smiling, bandages covering her recent surgical wounds, wearing her hospital gown and a fabulously stylish crimson red pixie hair cut covered in blankets sitting up in bed.
I stood holding onto my IV Pole with my hair disheveled, leopard print pajama pants, a worn-in cozy T-shirt, and hospital socks.
Smiling I said, “Hi, I’m Alyssa.”
“Hello! I’m Robbie! What are you doing here?! You’re young!”
“Haha. Hello Robbie! I’m 40.”
“Honey, I’m 77 and just had my cancerous thyroid removed. I’m craving a vanilla malt.”
Just as Robbie said she was hungry our nurses came in to check on us and began laughing. Well look at you two. Instant friends it seems. It’s time to check vitals and you need to place your order for dinner.
I inquired, “Do you want me to order you a milkshake Robbie!?”
“Alyssa, that would be great!” She replied.
The nurses drew the curtain and each of us had our checkup. Our meals arrived and Robbie asked if I wanted to watch “America’s Got Talent” with her.
I ordered her another vanilla milkshake and ordered myself a mango, pineapple, banana smoothie. I drew the curtain back open, and we both sat in our own beds, chatting away, watching our own TVs while enjoying the same show.
Robbie said, “Alyssa you are the daughter I always wanted and never had.”
“Robbie that is so kind of you to say. I feel like we are kids having a sleepover party!”
She laughed and said, “Yes! What fun!”
Without realizing it was late. We spent the evening chatting and laughing. We were both tired after a long day. I got up to close the curtain and said, “Good night.” Just like that, two strangers became instant friends and we have continued to stay in touch.
A few tips for HNC patients sharing a room while in the hospital:
- It’s always appreciated if another needs help and isn’t receiving it to push the call button on their behalf. Several times the kindness of the other patients has helped me in crucial moments.
- Be courteous. Remember no one wants to be in the hospital and everyone is not feeling well. Turn down your cell phone ringer. Keep your TV volume at a respectful level. If you wake up early or stay up late use the dim light over your bed rather than the fluorescent bright lights that could light up an airport runway. Speak in a quiet tone.
- Be kind and respectful to your medical staff. They are there to help you and you need them.
- Visitors. Please do not bring flowers because of germs, call ahead to confirm ideal visiting time, and use the hallway restroom. In advance understand that you might be asked to leave the room from time to time for the medical team to evaluate or conduct exams in the “semiprivate” room.
- Patient and visitor, listen and openly communicate with your medical team. It is essential to detail your symptoms and needs to optimize care and expedite the healing process.
Being ill is not easy. Sharing a room with another patient is not ideal. However, if you are fortunate enough as me to share a room with someone like Robbie, enjoy the conviviality of the time together!