By R. F. Smith, Jr.

Visiting friends in the hospital is a serious matter, because we can either help or hurt, depending on our sensitivity to their needs.

The purpose of a hospital visit is to affirm to the patient your care, concern and prayer support. And to remind him, “You are not alone and you are important.”

In preparation for your visit, dress appropriately. For instance, don’t go in your evening dress or tux which says, “Thought I’d stop off on my way to the big party (which you’d be going to if not laid up.)”

Be careful about taking odors into the room. Strong-smelling perfume, tobacco odors and the like are not only offensive to many patients, but often make them sicker.

Be wise about what you take into the room. Candy (which the patient cannot eat) and big fruit baskets (that are off-limits) may do more harm than good to the patient. Don’t take your own emotional germs into the room. For instance, if you’ve just come from a funeral or some sad situation, make sure not to infect the patient with the emotional germs you are carrying. Cleanse thoroughly by changing emotional gears.

Knock on the door before entering, even if the door is open. Don’t ever go through a closed door. Get a nurse to check out the situation before entering. And don’t wake the patient. Leave a simple note.

Sit or stand in a proper place so the patient will be comfortable looking at you. If another person is in the room, avoid conversation that excludes the patient. This is not a social visit. Treat the person as a patient, even though she is a close friend or family member.

Never ask, “How are you?” That’s the doctor’s question. Rather, ask, “How are things going?” This gives the patient the privilege to go in any direction.

If the patient is sad, don’t try to cheer him up. You are not there to “cheer ’em up.” You are there to listen. Let the patient talk about whatever is on his mind. Feel with the person. Patients have intense emotions—anger, guilt, fear—to mention a few.

Support the person’s choice of a physician, even if you think he or she is a quack. Let the patient criticize without agreeing or disagreeing or arguing. People confined to a hospital generate all sorts of negatives about the hospital, especially the food and lack of attention. Just listen and nod understanding.

Don’t over-emphasize the surgery the patient faces, but don’t underemphasize it either. All surgery is major for the person facing it. And certainly don’t remind the patient that your Uncle Joe had that same disease and died.

The length of your visit is important and depends on several factors, such as the patient’s body language—Restless? Bored? Hurting?

If the patient’s meal comes, leave. Food is important, but food made cold by a visitor’s over-stay is inexcusable.

The number of people in a room determines how long you stay. If the doctor arrives, offer to leave.

A 10-minute visit is usually long enough. Five minutes may be better.

As you leave, assure the patient of your continued support. Then leave, but don’t stand outside the door and talk with a family member or medical personnel. The patient hears only mumbles, and draws all sorts of negative conclusions.

A hospital visit is not a drop-in social event. It can be a time that makes you part of the healing team.  Take it seriously.