Joanne Palmer: Hospital for Dummies

Life in the 'Boat


Joanne Palmer

Joanne Palmer's Life in the 'Boat column appears Wednesdays in the Steamboat Today. Email her at

Find more columns by Palmer here.

Hospitals are scary, expensive and confusing. Visiting one is like landing in a foreign country without a guidebook. I can't help you with the expensive or scary parts. However, I recently spent several days in the ICU at the bedside of my 85-year-old mother. Let me share what I learned in an attempt to alleviate some of the confusion.

Hemlines Equal Hierarchy

If your doctor looks like a penguin, that's a good thing. At a major metropolitan hospital or teaching hospital the longer the coat, the higher the rank. Pay attention to whatever coat-wearing person enters your room. A short white coat means the person is a medical student. A longer white coat means intern or resident. A long grey coat means the person is an attending or a full-fledged doctor.

Corresponding jackets with slogans need to be issued for the patients' family members. Some ideas:

"I am the health care proxy."

"My niece is an HMO advocate."

"My sister works for CNN."

"I am the sane one."

"I'm rich and can donate a wing to the hospital."

Doc Speak

If you're not sure you're speaking with an actual doctor listen for this phrase, "We're going to wait and see what happens." They love to say this. They beam when they say this. Sometimes they follow it up with, "Medicine is not an exact science."

For doctors, problems don't appear - they present. That same problem doesn't get better; it's resolved. They don't stab you with a needle but, rather, start a line. Doctors may speak several sentences you won't understand. Channel Barbara Walters. Pepper them with questions until you understand the procedure or diagnosis.

Doc Walk

To prepare for interactions with doctors watch old videos of Michael Jackson break-dancing. Doctors have. As soon as they enter the room, they start to slide right back out. Carry handcuffs and Velcro. Don't hesitate to use them!

ICU Psychosis

The ICU is a confusing place full of squeaks, squawks and, after 10 p.m., snores. Because it's so disorienting patients sometimes experience temporary psychosis. My mother enjoyed flying around on the ceiling and talking to a host of imaginary friends. I am particularly proud of the fact she dialed 9-1-1 and asked them to come take her home.

Her only moment of clarity seemed to be about my hair. After a record-breaking sixty-hour stretch without sleep, she said, "I like your hair better up than down." I knew she was on the way back.

To prevent ICU psychosis, do your best to get the patient a room with a window so they can distinguish between day and night. Talk about the day of the week and the time of day. Bring a family photo, a favorite blanket or object from home to help them feel more comfortable in this strange environment.

Grey's Anatomy

You wish! Trust me, it's not going to be like Grey's Anatomy. I didn't see any Dr. McSteamys or McDreamys.

Hospital Equipment

Hospital trays and beds have more moves than a bucking bronco. They are impossible for mere mortals to operate. Let the people who work there handle them. Just ring that little bell for assistance.

Bread Crumbs

Leave a trail of bread crumbs to find your way back to the car. My mother's hospital organized their parking lot by school with piped-in music of college football fight songs. I am not kidding. For example, Level 3 was Northwestern. Level 3 signs were painted in the school color of purple. When the elevator doors opened, the fight song, "Go You Northwestern!" greeted me loudly. There were six levels: Michigan, Notre Dame and I forget the rest. That's why you have to carry bread crumbs.

The Best Medicine

Laughter is the best medicine. Try to find the humor. If not, hum a few college football fight songs while you wait for the doctor to come in.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.