How to Handle the Hospital

Pastors and hospital visits. They go together hand in hand. Shoot, people and hospital visits do. In the past 17 months on the job, I have visited people who had a newborn with RSV, premature babies with multiple issues, a pregnant mother whose body wanted to give birth (many months) earlier than it should, a woman who suffered a stroke, a friend who needed an aortic aneurysm repaired, and a burn victim, as well as a few healthy newborns and mothers.

I understand that everyone wants the pastor to visit them in the hospital. But, quite honestly, the pastor (read: paid staff member) is not always the best person. If people are in ministry with others (small group, service team, etc.), I find it best that those people go. Regardless, I’ve had my share of hospital room and waiting room visits (some good, some not so good, and some hilarious), and I’ve also been the one who has been visited. In it all, I have found a few things helpful to know. So consider this Hospital Life 101.

First, there are all kinds of different types of people who will show up at the hospital when you (or someone you love) is admitted. You may be one (or many) of these:

  • The family member who isn’t too close to you but feels obligated to stick around: I never know what do do with these people. Do you ask them to leave? Do you tell them to go get some coffee?
  • The lurker: This is the person who doesn’t need to be there but is there regardless. They always overstay their welcome, and you usually feel obligated to entertain them. You tell them stories or ask them questions when all you want is to be left alone.
  • The know-it-all: This person likes to tell the doctor or nurse how to do his or her job. I know that you read a book in biology class about the common cold, but I like to let the doctors do their job.
  • The stranger: This is the friend of a friend. Who invited you?
  • The person who is there to “do whatever you need”: We all know that you will do whatever we need while we are in the hospital (I’ve said it myself many times). Everyone who knows we are in the hospital will do whatever we need. So will the nurses. You know what I need you to do? Get my tires rotated, oil changed, and lawn mowed. Oh wait, you don’t want to do that? I’ve learned that “do whatever you need” really gets translated into “bring you a meal.” (The truth is, people say this because they don’t know what else to say. And saying, “I’m praying for you and love you” never sounds good enough.)

So how can we avoid being that person? In my experience a few things help me navigate the awkwardness of the hospital visit.

  • Let the depth of the friendship determine the length of the visit: I sometimes meet a family for the first time at the hospital. That being the case, I don’t show up as a friend (meaning, I don’t show up with any shared experience or prior relationship). I’m a pastor. In that role my goal is to comfort them, pray for them, and leave (five minutes, tops). If I am invited to stay, then I stay (but I never get too comfortable). But if the friendship is deep, the stay is longer. A great friend of mine brought his family of four (now five) to Baton Rouge when Ethan was born. The welcome never wore out.
  • Family first: If you aren’t immediate family, get in the back of the line. Your priorities do not matter. Wait your turn. But if that person has no family around, you may need to be that family for them. So be ready.
  • Ask to do something specific: The phrase “let me know if I can do anything” is kind, but not helpful. It is better to say “I am on the way to the hospital and am right by Chili’s. What can I bring you?” Or “Can I pick your kids up from school?” These kind of specific requests let the patient’s (or family member’s) mind stay where it needs to be and doesn’t require them to think about superfluous stuff.
  • Remember, it’s not about you: Family and friends can get very invested in the hospital stay of someone else. I understand this (and don’t want to stifle it), but you can never make that time about you. People who are at the hospitalhave minds that are racing with a million things. If there is any time to extend grace toward someone, extend it there.
  • If you do bring something, bring something helpful: Our friend brought us Dr. Pepper, gum, and breath mints for Courtney’s stay after delivering Ethan. PERFECT. Disposable, small, and useful. Who needs a billion balloons?
  • Feel: You don’t have to have it all together. Sometimes waiting rooms and hospital rooms are very painful places. When Ethan was in the hospital two babies died. At times like that people don’t need your answers. They need your compassion.
  • Pray: People don’t want to ask for prayer, but they always appreciate it. If you do nothing else, ask if you can pray for them.

Nothing magical, nothing fool-proof…but just some ways you can care for those in need and be of service.