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Nurses share 9 ways to help when someone is hospitalized

Hospital bedBY AMBER SMITH

A friend or relative is hospitalized. Maybe for a few days, maybe a few weeks. You want to help. What‘s the best way?

We tapped the corps of nurses who care for patients throughout Upstate University Hospital to share some of the most memorable gifts they‘ve seen. Not everything will work for all patients, of course, but we hope these suggestions give you some ideas.

1. Be present.

Nurse Mary Kampf says the best gift is a simple one: “Just being there.

“It‘s frightening to be ill and not have someone there with you to help with decisions and understanding of what is going on medically.” Kampf works in clinical documentation.

Nurse Marilyn O‘Connor from radiology adds that companionship can be important. But, she advises, “Know when to leave. Recognize when the patient needs to rest.”

For patients who are mentally alert but require lengthy rest and recovery, intensive care unit nurse Owen Flynn says phone calls or visits can help provide mental stimulation. “Humans are naturally social creatures,” he says. “This gives the patient encouragement to get better and a feeling of normal social interactions that they were used to having outside the hospital.”

Nurse John Seller was a patient, himself. “The best gift I ever received was a surprise visit from my sister who made a special trip from the other side of the country.”

2. Be personal.

Several nurses suggested photographs of friends, family and pets. Compile a selection in a tiny album. Or, print a few favorites to stick on the wall. They can provide inspiration to work hard at getting better. At the same time, photographs help hospital staff see the patient outside of the patient role.

family photo“Pictures of family with the patient are great reminders of their loved ones who support them, along with encouragement for them to get better when they see how healthy they were before,” says pediatric nurse Stephanie Cooney.

“It‘s helpful for patients to see a reminder of who they are and what they are fighting for,” adds nurse Mary Walsh, from the intensive care unit.

Nurse Annette Sutherland, from the emergency department, points out that personal photos also serve as a way for nurses to initiate conversations with the patient about his or her life.

 3. Be creative. (But first, run your ideas past your loved one‘s nurse.)

“I once had a patient who was celebrating her 70th wedding anniversary in the hospital,” recalls nurse Jacqui Aldinger, a clinical training specialist. “Her husband brought in a corsage, music player, takeout food – including the chocolate chip cookies she always used to make for him -- and a battery-lit candle so they could enjoy a candle-lit dinner. It was beautiful.”

Nurse Emma Lestrange from family medicine has seen visitors who sing or play guitar for a patient. ‘This was heartwarming, and it meant a lot to the people who were ill,” she says. “Something like  this could really brighten someone‘s day.”

Intensive care unit nurse Jennifer Kozlowski agrees, recalling a man recovering from a traumatic injury who was a big fan of Italian culture and classical music. For his birthday, friends sent a traveling violinist to his hospital room.

4. Be inspiring.

Some of the most enjoyable gifts nurse Heidi See has seen are bags or boxes filled with small thoughtful or funny gifts that were wrapped individually and opened on different days. “I have also seen the same kind of thing done with notes instead of gifts,” she says. See works with bone marrow transplant patients.

gift boxNurse Michelle Archer from the medical intensive care unit favors photo boards or collages.

“One of the more unique presentations given to a convalescing patient that I have seen was a series of drawings with accompanying jokes, from the students of a school custodian – because he would always provide jokes for the children. His wall was full of them,” recalls nurse Sherod Harris, from intensive care.

Nurse manager Kyle Choquette has seen rooms decorated with encouraging quotes. He also recommends a small stuffed animal to represent a beloved dog or cat, for a patient with a lengthy hospital stay.

A drawing by a young relative or neighbor can also be enjoyable.

5. Be mindful.

Nurses caution against cluttering up a room that‘s designed to help sick people heal, but sometimes there are exceptions.

Nurse Caitlyn Nye, from nursing recruitment, recalls a patient during the Christmas season who was a fan of  “A Christmas Story.” His family surprised him with a replica of the movie's leg-shaped lamp.

Nurse Ann Macwan, who takes care of heart patients, says some patients will appreciate lava lamps, Himalayan salt lamps (which look like glowing rocks) or essential-oil diffusers – as long as they are small and don‘t compete with medical care space.

6. Be thoughtful.

A hand or foot massage, manicure or pedicure, can be soothing, says nurse Arlene Heer. Human touch can be meaningful.

blowing bubbles“One woman, days away from going to heaven, so wanted her hair washed,” recalls Heer. “I found another nurse free for the 30-minute task, and we used a plastic bag to help wash her hair at the end of the bed. She passed away with a big smile on her face.”

Nurse Mary Kampf remembers the small bottle of bubbles someone brought to her son when he was a patient in the hospital. She also remembers staying next to him in the intensive care unit for three days. “A nurse brought me a cup of coffee. I will never forget that. The simple things mean so much.”

A home-cooked meal or favorite snack can be a treat, as long as your loved one has no dietary restrictions. Sometimes a tall milkshake hits the spot, says nurse Michelle Henry, from gastroenterology.

7. Be supportive.

Nurse Scott Jessie, from emergency services, suggests offering to provide child care or transportation for family members.

Catching up on the patient's laundry, mowing the lawn, picking up mail, watering plants or fetching groceries are all tasks that might be helpful, says nurse Heidi See.

“I often remind my patients that they have people who want to help them but have no idea what they need done,” she says. “I tell them that by allowing someone else to help, they are not only getting something done that they need, but they are allowing the other person to feel that they have contributed something of value and made them feel less helpless.”

Nurse Nancy Thompson says such gifts are great because they allow the patient to focus on recovery. Purchase a housecleaning gift certificate. Prepare casserole meals that can be frozen and eaten when he or she returns home. Offer to help a child with homework.

8. Be generous.

clock“The best gifts are ones that encourage self-care of the families,” says nurse Sarah Seargent, who works in the hyperbaric unit. An example: Set a time to sit with the patient, so parents/loved ones can take a break for a shower or to get a cup of coffee.

Nurse Lynne Jones from orthopedics calls it the gift of time. “This is an easy and very giving gift,” she says. “It can be any amount of time, time to sit and talk, time to help with meals, cleaning or whatever they may need. Ask what they need.”

9. Be practical.

bloodPay for television service while the person is hospitalized. Or pick up the cost of a parking pass for their family. Gift cards for the coffee shop or nearby restaurants may also be appreciated.

A gift that may be particularly meaningful to a critically injured patient is for friends and family to “pay it forward” by making donations of blood or blood products, suggests nurse Michael Bennett, from radiology.

If you want to bring something to the hospital when you visit, operating room nurse Amy O‘Rourke advises against anything scented or flavored, and she says shawls are a better gift than sweaters. “Patients can‘t tolerate scents or flavors when they are already nauseous. And, a shawl has no sleeves, for ease with intravenous or other medical lines.”

Good gifts for patients

Lip balm

Drawing of a blanketTissues in a colorful box

Unscented lotion

Baby powder

Detangling hairbrush

Breath strips

Scrunchies or hair ties


Paperback books

cardsColored pencils and coloring books

Stuffed animal

Playing cards



Sleep mask

Ear plugs

coloring bookNeck pillow

Robe, shawl or bed jacket

Cozy blanket

Water bottle

“Get well” cards

Upstate Health Fall 2017 coverThis article appears in the fall 2017 issue of Upstate Health magazine.