27 March 2023

By Sam Alexandra Rose

Our Patient and Public Involvement Manager Sam blogs regularly for Bowel Research UK, sharing her experiences of bowel cancer and Lynch Syndrome.


If you’ve ever had to stay overnight in hospital, you’ll agree it isn’t a very pleasant experience. It’s impossible to sleep properly, full of unusual noises and often during the night someone will want to prod your body parts and ask you questions. All told, a hospital stay can end up a lonely and upsetting experience. However, while there are aspects you can’t change, there are many things you can do to make your stay more bearable.

My advice is based on my experience of planned hospital stays that occurred due to various elective abdominal surgeries in 2018 and 2010. Other people’s experiences may differ depending on personal circumstances and those within the NHS or individual hospitals at the time.


1. Bring something warm, cosy and comforting

In 2018 I went shopping for new nightwear to bring to the hospital, looking for something warm and comfortable. However, somewhere along the line I forgot my own brief and was wooed by a gorgeous strappy yellow nightie and matching kimono, both of which were made of silky material. I thought they looked great, so that’s what I bought for my post-hysterectomy hospital stay.

Unfortunately, I bought them online and when they arrived I realised I should have gotten a larger size – but it was too late and the nightie was too yellow and pretty to send back. The problem was that after surgery I really didn’t care whether I looked good (and I probably looked terrible regardless of clothing) and I found myself a bit chilly in the thin kimono, not to mention a little restricted by the small size. I resorted to wearing a hoodie in bed, which, while cosy was somewhat annoying due to the bulky hood.

The moral of the story is to bring something you can wrap up in, like a fluffy dressing gown, jumper, cardigan, warm pyjamas and so on. While I don’t remember hospitals being particularly cold, there is a comfort factor in wearing something snuggly.


2. Avoid tight waistbands

Sticking with the comfort theme, if you’re having abdominal surgery, I would advise avoiding uncomfortable waistbands if you can. A nightie is a great option instead of pyjama bottoms as there’s no elastic to worry about and if you have a catheter, drains and so on, it provides easy access to your medical “accessories”.


3. Bring a drink you like

Water and hot drinks are about all there is to choose from on a ward, so if you would prefer something else, consider bringing some cordial to add to your water. If you’re partial to fizzy drinks like me, be aware that you may need to avoid those depending on your surgery, so stick with the flat stuff. Robinson’s do those tiny, extra-concentrated juice pods, so you don’t need to bring a big bottle that takes up precious table space.


4. Bedside space is limited

Speaking of space, there really isn’t much of it around your bed. You’ll have a table, but you’ll need some of that space when dinner arrives. You’ll also have the travel bag or backpack you brought with you, but overall there isn’t much room to put stuff, and I remember having very little energy to go rooting around looking for things I needed.


5. Bring aids for a better night’s sleep

Two things you most definitely need are an eye mask and earplugs. It’s not easy to sleep in hospital – by the end of my last ten-day stay, I was desperate to get back to my own bed and finally get some decent sleep because I just couldn’t get comfortable. Part of the problem is light and noise, so an eye mask and earplugs can go quite a long way towards helping. It’s still not easy to get rest but at least you’re giving yourself a fighting chance, and it’s better to have them and not use them than to regret not bringing them.


6. Bring some entertainment

Again, you don’t want to bring too much stuff with you, but a little entertainment is a good idea. Don’t forget your phone and charger, as well as headphones if you want to listen to music, and a tablet if you want to watch movies or TV on a slightly bigger screen. Other options are magazines and puzzle books. However, don’t be surprised if you simply don’t have the energy for it, depending on the surgery or treatment you had and how you’re feeling. After my Whipple surgery, I didn’t have the energy to look at anything I’d brought with me and spent the majority of the time either sleeping, people-watching, or staring into the middle distance.


7. Be mindful of your mindset

I know this blog didn’t start with super positive vibes, and maybe other people have had better experiences of hospital stays. Hospitals affect people in different ways, and some may be more bothered by it than others. It’s not easy to simply change your mindset, but if you do find yourself feeling low, it could help to acknowledge that and try to find any positives you can, remembering nothing lasts forever and you will hopefully be home soon.

It’s also a good idea to avoid comparing yourself to others – advice I could have used during my previous stays. I wondered why other people seemed jollier, were recovering faster, were more talkative and so on. Of course, it was because they’d had completely different surgeries to me! It sounds obvious now but it wasn’t obvious when I was chastising myself for not being more cheerful. Even if someone has had exactly the same operation as you, everyone’s body is different and we react and recover in our own ways. So be mindful and cut yourself some slack.

If you’re about to go into hospital soon, I hope these ideas help and wish you the very best for your stay.