Thankfully for most of us, staying in a hospital is an unusual experience. So when our sick child is admitted to stay overnight, it can be a nerve-wracking affair.
“He’s fine. It’s just a common cold,” said the ER doctor.
I wasn’t convinced. After three weeks of a lingering cold with little improvement, my son’s temperature had skyrocketed to 106.4°F. I was alarmed. He sounded hoarse, and all he could do was cough and cry. I described all these symptoms to the doctor and carefully asked, “Are you quite sure?”
“His throat does look red, but that’s normal with a cold,” the doctor repeated.
“Thank you, doctor,” I said, trying to keep my cool. “Only, I’d feel so much better if you took a throat swab – just for my reassurance and peace of mind. I’m really worried it was strep.”
Whether it was a desire to get rid of me quicker or a genuine concern over my doubts, the doctor did take a swab. Unfortunately, I turned out to be right – it was strep. Straightaway my two-year-old was admitted to the hospital with dehydration caused from a streptococcus infection. He would require a continuous saline infusion over a five day antibiotic treatment and close monitoring due to his young age. Thanks to a good medical staff and my own assertiveness in insisting on a swab, which caught the situation early, my son was soon speeding on the road to recovery.
Although I wouldn’t recommend a hospital stay for anyone, knowing how to cope with one, should the need arise, is vital for a comfortable experience. A hospital stay with your precious little ones can be unsettling, traumatic and fraught with challenges. It is distressing to see their suffering. You feel helpless to make them better.
All you want to do is magically take the pain away, but all you can do is comfort them, and place your trust in the medical heroes. How can you ensure you are in the best possible position to look after your child?
“Parents play an important role in their child’s hospitalization,” says Marie-France Haineault, Child Life Services Co-ordinator at Montreal Children’s Hospital. “You know your child like no one else. You represent security and become the voice of your child. You are advocating for his or her wellbeing and you become part of the healthcare team.”
Marie-France says the goal is to normalize the hospital experience through educational and recreational activities. “Separation from primary caregivers, loss of control, interruptions of normal life experiences and being subject to painful medical procedures are some stress factors. They can be overcome by opportunities for mastery and self-expression, as well as therapeutic interventions geared to the emotional needs and developmental age of children.”
First, prepare for the unexpected by keeping local hospital information handy. Soumya Sankaran has had a couple of four- to six-hour stints in the ER with her child. She is familiar with urgency of escalating medical issues. “Know hospitals in your area and their fields of expertise,” she says. “Keep their addresses and phone numbers handy. You may be driving to the hospital on your own instead of calling an ambulance, so having knowledge of the best hospitals in the vicinity helps you stay calm.”
If your child gets sick, start taking notes when symptoms begin (see list below). “When you get to hospital, attendants will ask questions to determine how urgently they need to attend to your child, starting with the symptoms and the sequence of events. Be prepared to tell your story three or four times, because your child may be seen by multiple people: attendants, student assistants, doctors, specialists,” says Soumya.
Don’t jump to conclusions either. Chest twinges? Must be a heart attack! Headache? Must be a brain tumour! Tummy pain? Colon cancer! An overactive imagination is your worst enemy. It is normal to be anxious when your child is ill, but worrying yourself into hysteria isn’t going to help.
Julie Atkinson, Child Life Specialist at Markham Stouffville Hospital, advises parents to be informed about their child’s condition, treatment and outcomes. “Ask doctors any questions you have and don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand if anything is unclear.”
Learn the facts. This will not only take away fear of the unknown, but also help you raise pertinent questions. However, don’t go overboard in scouring the Internet. A lot of online information can be half-baked and alarmist, and make you react out of proportion. Have faith in your doctors. They have experience and insight.
Ask if there is a pre-admission program for children coming in for a planned stay or surgery.
“Several hospitals provide tours that give information to families in child-friendly terms,” says Julie. “They explain what they need to know when coming to the hospital. This helps prepare the child and family so they know what is going to happen during their hospital experience.”
Julie says family care is also important. “Parents must remember to eat, drink, and take a break, and keep siblings in their routine but also informed of what is happening. Some hospitals have volunteers to help so you can take a break.
“Talk to your child about what is happening in terms they would understand. Your doctor or Child Life Specialist may be able to help. Take your child to the library before hospital admission to collect books and videos. Librarians may recommend some, or hospitals may have a list of recommendations on their website.”
Marie-France agrees. “Understanding your child’s diagnosis will help to clear up misconceptions. Reinforce it is not their fault that they are in hospital. Be honest. Don’t tell them that it won’t be long or that you will be going home soon, etc. Anything can happen, and the child may be very disappointed. It is okay to say you don’t have all the answers and will do your best to find the answer."
Julie recommends parents keep a journal to record what tests are being done. But don’t get overly caught up in the details, it’s important to play with your child, too. “Children learn and express emotions through play, and you will be surprised to see what you can learn while observing your child playing. It will normalize the situation and will help distract your child during the hospitalization. Encourage contact with siblings, family and peers. Try to get school homework to the hospital. That will help keep continuity during his stay in the hospital.”
“Many hospitals have a playroom, so if your child is well enough to engage in play, Child Life Specialists can help coordinate time in the playroom or arrange to have some toys brought into your room.”
Chantal LeBlanc, Professional Practice Chief and Coordinator of Child Life Services at IWK Health Centre in Halifax, says, “Share what is important to you and your child including your cultural, spiritual, religious beliefs. Partner with your healthcare team to set goals or discuss needs during hospitalization: be a part of the plan of care.”
Be assertive and persuasive, rather than confrontational and defensive. Medical staff are human; they have different temperaments, and may be dealing with a variety of critical issues on any given day. So be patient and considerate with your questions and concerns. Don’t bully or browbeat. Marie-France says, “Be realistic and don’t have expectations on the length of the hospitalization and waiting times for test results. As much as everybody puts special effort into making the experience as positive as possible, a hospital is a busy and stressful place and parents need to understand there are emergency situations and other constraints that might postpone some tests or procedures.”
At the same time, if you are convinced about something not being right, don’t shy away from speaking out politely. State the reasons why you feel that way and offer alternatives acceptable to you and them. You know your child best: how he or she may behave in a certain situation. Listen to your gut feeling. If you’re a pleasant parent to deal with, the medical team will naturally be more willing to interact and co-operate with you. When in doubt – whether about the severity of a symptom or the quality of care – seek an independent second opinion.
“Ask questions, even if you know you’ve asked them before but have forgotten the answer or perhaps the answer was not clear and needs to be explained differently,” says Chantal. “Ask for support when you need information or strategies to make the experience less difficult. Make sure you feel informed (understand the medical procedures when consenting to them) and let someone know if you have concerns about care.”
Parents of infants or young children also need to remain alert. Once your child begins to get better, he or she will get more active and it will be hard to keep him or her still on the bed within the confines of the hospital room. Long cords and tubes can get entangled in arms and legs or around delicate necks as the child tosses and turns in sleep. So pay attention to the dangers of pulling, breaking, bending, or strangulation.
A hospital stay when your child is sick or injured can be a challenging time. With preparation and patience, you will hopefully get through this tough period on to happier days.
Devyani Borade is a freelance writer living abroad, who strives to keep her two kids out of the hospital and ER as much as possible.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April/May 2016.