How to Stay Sane When Your Child Is Hospitalized

Advice for parents after a devastating diagnosis

Photo: Arnon Prajakteeranon / EyeEm / Getty Images

I hope you never get the news that my husband and I got when an emergency room physician, looking shaken and pale, told us that our child had cancer. I hope you never experience those frantic moments of trying to pack for a hospital stay with no idea how long it will last, or if your child will survive, or if your life as you know it will survive. I hope you never bring your child to the doctor for something you think is routine, only to find yourself in an ambulance being transported to a pediatric ICU many miles away from home.

If someday you do find yourself in a situation similar to the one my family faced back in August 2012, here is some advice to keep you sane. It’s advice I wish I’d had during those first days after my daughter’s diagnosis.

Remember to sleep

You’ll be making some very important decisions and taking in a lot of information over the coming days/weeks/months. It will be virtually impossible to process everything if you are sleep-deprived. I know you’re worried, and all the different scenarios running through your head make it difficult to rest, but sleep is critical for you right now.

If at all possible, share hospital duty with your spouse or someone else close to you so you can go home to sleep. This will enable you to recharge, and if you have other children, you’ll be able to spend much-needed time with them.

There are also many organizations that exist to help families in this situation. (The Ronald McDonald House comes to mind.) Talk to a hospital social worker and see what’s available, then take advantage of it.

Accept all the help you are offered

I understand the feeling of not wanting to burden people. Maybe you’re very private and don’t like sharing too much information about yourself and your children. But this isn’t the time to handle everything on your own.

This situation is much bigger than any qualms you have about accepting help, especially if we’re talking about cancer. When your child is gravely sick or injured, you absolutely need help right this second.

Get the word out to your community — you don’t have to announce it on Facebook, but at least let a key family member or friend become your spokesperson. Let this person manage things like fundraising and food trains.

Believe me, people want to help. They want to give. And the last thing you should be worrying about right now is finances.

Pay attention to everything

Once you are out of the deer-in-headlights/sleep-deprivation stage of your ordeal (I estimate this can take anywhere from five days to three weeks), start taking charge.

Pay attention to everything the doctors, nurses, and specialists say. Take notes. Don’t be afraid to send scans, tests, and pathology out for a second opinion — this is particularly important if whatever is wrong with your child is rare (as was the case with my daughter’s cancer).

There are smart people out there who already have a lot of experience in dealing with whatever your child is going through, even if it’s rare. This may be a strange new world for you, but that’s just because it exploded into your life without warning. Ask questions. Ask them of everyone. Stay alert.

You are your child’s advocate

You are the most important member of your child’s care team. Never forget that! You need to be the hub for all the experts, drawing bits of info from all sources and then pumping it back out to the others. There are people out there who know about this and can talk about it with you. Don’t be afraid to seek them out — call them, email them, send a smoke signal. Do whatever it takes to pick their brilliant minds. Most doctors are fascinated by rare illnesses, which is why they went into this crazy specialty of medicine. They will want to talk about this with you. Use that to your advantage.

Have faith in yourself

You are a smart, competent person who is capable of handling anything that comes your way. I know the environment is not one that you’re used to — there are tubes and wires and medications with strange names being pumped into your child, and it’s overwhelming. But listen to me: You’ve got this!

Above all else, remember, you are not alone. Please reach out, reach out, reach out. There are people who want to help you. They are in this with you. They are here to catch you. They love you.

Now, get some sleep.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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