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8 things you can do to help your patients’ families

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Tell me if this sounds familiar.

I’m sitting outside our children’s hospital waiting for a relative. The woman next to me is smoking her cigarette with an intensity that screams “patient’s mother,” and her orange wristband is a clear giveaway.

I’m open about my son’s heart defects and surgeries, but I don’t assume others share my openness. So, I gently opened a door for the woman to talk if she wanted to. We were in the same club, after all, and had the bracelets to prove it.

She proceeded to bear her soul to me.

Her teen daughter was airlifted after a car accident and suffered severe brain trauma. The mother rode in the helicopter and had no change of underwear, had little cash and was down to her last few cigarettes. She wanted to go to a Walmart, but feared she couldn’t afford a cab.
I asked her if she’d spoken with a social worker yet. She said no.

She was at her child’s side for 48 hours. She hardly used the toilet, hadn’t slept outside of the bedside chair and this cigarette was her one reprieve. I told her to ask her nurse to page a social worker, that there were vouchers for cab fare, cafeteria meals and things like that. I told her to use the specific term “social worker.”

Television hasn’t engendered trust in “social workers.” The average person has no idea that hospitals staff them to help in crises. Then again, the average person doesn’t know the protocols of being airlifted with a critically ill child. Under extreme circumstances, families are not filtered through the standard admissions process. If no one asks if they want emotional or financial support services, they cannot say yes—they don’t know to ask.

Is there more that nurses can do?
As a nurse, you can help guide a struggling family through the hospital ropes…but it’s hard to know what you can and should offer if you’ve never been on the other side of the critical care bed before. If you’re a new nurse, or recently have moved from a less intense setting to the ICU, these tips can help you better help your patients’ families.

8 things you can do to help your patient’s family:

  • Put yourself in their chairs. What would you need and would you know where to find it?
  • Show and tell them where to get free coffee or water, if available.
  • Explain shift change before shift change. Getting kicked out without warning is stressful for parents or spouses.
  • Learn the resources available to families in your hospital so you offer them in an appropriate context.
  • Ask if they want a social worker to talk to them about vouchers or services. Many, especially first-timers, won’t ask you or are reluctant to take “charity.” Keep asking.
  • Offer to contact child life, family counseling, a chaplain or social worker (and make sure the resource actually shows up). The family’s stress isn’t helping your patient.
  • Encourage them to take a walk and use a volunteer or friend to fill their seat. If sitting for long periods is bad for airline travelers and office workers, it is no less bad for families sitting bedside.
  • Visit a parent/family room or the Ronald McDonald House (or similar) at least once in your career. Knowing you’ve bothered to see things from their side of the bed will increase a family’s trust in you.

Amanda Rose Adams is a child health advocate. Her first book, Heart Warriors: A Family Faces Congenital Heart Disease (Behler Publications, 2012), recounts the journey the Adamses took from expecting parents to Heart Warriors. Adams founded two nonprofit organizations to both educate parents about rare congenital heart defects and raise critical research dollars. She is currently a member of Baby’s First Test 2013 Consumer Advocacy Task Force. Adams has written for scrubsmag.com and the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Bioethics. She holds a master’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.

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