This is part of an ongoing blog series featuring informational essays and personal stories from members of the Basser Young Leadership Council. This piece was written by Jourdan Cohen, a digital marketer and BRCA1 mutation-carrier. She is the co-chair of the Basser Center Young Leadership Council's social media committee, and has written about her experiences with undergoing a mastectomy for ELLE.com.
I’d like to think that in the past year, I’ve become somewhat of a professional when it comes to navigating hospitals. Since my initial mastectomy, I’ve had several complications, which have led to a total of seven surgeries, three prolonged hospital stays, and dozens of follow-up visits. When I had my mastectomy, I thought I had a good handle on the things I needed to bring with me to the hospital, but I’ve learned a lot since then, and the list below includes some items that I never would have originally considered (even though they seem obvious now!)
- Lip Balm, Moisturizer, and Hand Lotion: Hospitals wreak havoc on your skin. The air is dry, you’re constantly dousing yourself in hand sanitizer, and the medications you’re taking may further dehydrate you. A little kit of travel-sized options, like a heavy duty lip balm and hand lotion my aunt brought me was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.
- Headphones: While it seems like hospitals are a place you’d be encouraged to rest and get lots of sleep, the reality doesn’t always turn out that way. Nurses come in multiple times in the night to check your vitals or sometimes take blood and you can be woken up at 5 am for doctors’ rotations. And there are machines constantly beeping or making weird noises. A great set of noise-cancelling headphones helps to block out the noise and help you make the most of the time between these interruptions.
- Pajamas: Having only ever been in the hospital for short amounts of time prior to my surgery, I never considered that after a day or so, a hospital gown starts getting pretty uncomfortable. Not only do you have to worry about baring your butt to anyone in the room every time you get out of bed, but it’s not particularly warm or soft either. Cozy button down pajamas were the perfect replacement. They were comfortable, warm, and easy to unbutton when doctors wanted to check my incisions or empty my drains.
- Snacks: I come from a family of foodies, so the first thing I told my mom when I was being checked in to the hospital was “bring snacks!” Even the best hospital food starts getting boring really quickly, and the meal times aren’t always totally aligned with your normal schedule, so an arsenal of foods you enjoy (or even just things like sucking candies or gum) helps to break up the Jell-O monotony.
- Distractions: I am a self-confessed workaholic, and I’m happy to be one. So being laid up in the hospital with an infection when I felt mostly fine physically wasn’t going to interfere with my schedule. When I felt up to working (which, it should be noted, I was most definitely not immediately after my surgeries), setting up a remote office for myself and continuing with my day-to-day work was a great distraction. I should say that working remotely from a hospital bed may not be for everyone.
- More Distractions: And for the times when you’re not feeling up to an actual activity, a list of backups is always helpful. I didn’t really feel up for reading very much, but watching Netflix on my computer was a great option.
Pro Tip: The best possible entertainment for the hospital is Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Why? 1. They all talk in a surprisingly soothing (if perhaps boring) monotone and 2. When their voices inevitably put you to sleep and you miss half of an episode, when you wake up again literally nothing of consequence will have happened that you’ll need to catch up on. There’s no plot so you can just fall right back into watching.
- An Extension Cord: For places that rely so heavily on electrically powered equipment, hospital room outlets are at a surprising premium, and they’re usually located in really inconvenient spaces, like behind the bed. My dad brought an extension cord to the hospital on my first stay so I could plug my phone or laptop in to charge. It meant not having to bother someone every time I needed to answer a text or post an Instagram story from bed.
- Someone to Take Notes: When you wake up from surgery, you’ll get a lot of instructions from your doctors and nurses. Everything from how to stay on top of your medication, a schedule for when to empty your drains, or what to look for during the healing process. The problem is, you are heavily medicated, and prescription-strength painkillers are the enemy of remembering details. Assigning someone the job of taking notes, like a friend or family member, ensures that nothing slips through the cracks.
- A Good Luck Charm: Generally speaking, I’m not superstitious. But surgery can bring out some of our strangest beliefs, and so for every operation I’ve had, I’ve insisted that my doctor wear my family’s good luck charm around his neck in the OR. It may seem incredibly silly to some people, but in a situation where I have no control over anything, it’s one thing I can comfortably micro-manage, and that in and of itself brings me peace of mind.
The List Continues
There are also, of course, the more obvious things you should bring:
- your insurance card
- a list of your current medications
- a surgical bra (check to see if your hospital will provide one)
If your hospital stay is outpatient, and you’ll be there for less than 24 hours, you probably don’t need to bring much of anything. But, for the times when I’ve been told by my doctor that I’ll need to head over to the hospital to check myself in thanks to an unexpected complication, and I’ve been standing in the middle of my apartment holding a random assortment of socks and scrambling to figure out what else to pack, the items above have been critical to keeping me comfortable in the middle of all the chaos.