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How to Keep Your Loved One Safe in the Hospital

Rachel Pomerance

Bill Aydt was lucky, at first. He was in the final stages of a disease that had thickened his lung tissue beyond repair when a transplant came through. It was February 21, 2005. The same day, he went into surgery and emerged nine hours later with a new lung and a great prognosis; he'd be back to his golf game by the Fourth of July, his pulmonologist said.

A few weeks later, tired of waiting for a nurse to escort him back to bed from the bathroom, Aydt attempted the trek on his own and fell. That marked the start of a devastating recovery that ultimately wasn't. Situated horizontally in bed, fluids pooled in his lungs, leading to pneumonia. Aydt was moved to the ICU, where staying still for so long sent a blood clot to his new lung. He then contracted methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a staph infection requiring heavy antibiotics. That, in turn, made him vulnerable to C. difficile, a potentially fatal bacteria that causes diarrhea and can lead to kidney failure, a ruptured colon and serious damage to the large intestine. Like MRSA, C. difficile infections are commonly acquired in health-care settings and can be difficult to treat with antibiotics.

Aydt didn't survive his hospital stay. He was 71.

Spurred by her father's experience, Karen Curtiss created a guidebook for people to help protect their loved ones from the infections and accidents that can occur in hospitals. The book she wishes she'd had, "Safe & Sound in the Hospital," is written with compassion for the complex demands on both health care workers and those tasked with caring for their loved ones, and calls for a team effort to safeguard patients. The brightly-colored spiral notebook aims to inspire with quotes and pictures as it delivers heavily-detailed information: myriad checklists, stickers to affix critical patient information to hospital gowns, caution signs to post in areas where falls may most likely occur and a pull-out measuring tool to ensure a patient's head and back are properly elevated at a 30-degree angle. Even the enclosed table tents asking hospital staff to kindly wash their hands are illustrated with sweet pictures, like one of a dog bathing in soap suds.

[See Medical Errors Harm Huge Number of Patients.]

In a way, both form and content are tributes to her father, who was an organizational development consultant. "Our family was raised on checklists," says Curtiss, who formerly worked in market research.

Key among her instructions is for patient advocates to assert themselves. "Remember, it's OK to speak up" reads a blue bubble quote that surfaces throughout the book. "There's a real sense of doubt about whether you can or can't or what you should say," she says. So, Curtiss suggests ways to navigate potentially awkward situations.

Take, for example, hand washing. How do you ask hospital workers if they've washed their hands without them getting touchy, so to speak?

[See Don't Get Sick at the Gym: 7 Ways to Prevent Infection.]

"People have to steel themselves, and they have to maybe dive deep for their most polite yet resilient manner," by using humor perhaps or phrases that suggest teamwork, Curtiss says. "Nobody responds to feeling like they're being reprimanded or scolded or treated like a 3 year old, because that's who we typically ask to wash their hands ... It's really tough, and I don't think we can minimize that toughness, but it's for a good cause," she says. "It's for the best cause."

The extent of instruction in Curtiss's guide--from clearing away equipment that could cause a fall to ensuring your loved one moves at least every two hours to prevent bed sores--shows readers how much care patients require and encourages them to see themselves as partners in that enormous effort.

[See How to Handle Extreme Stress.]

"It helps you understand why nurses can't do all that," says Curtiss, who includes in her book a section on "How to Help the Nurses." She suggests, for example, offering to clean surfaces like doorknobs and the toilet handle with alcohol and bleach ("You can't skimp on either one," she says, noting that the latter kills C. difficile).

Curtiss' aim is to protect the patient, support the health-care environment and empower the care partner, whom she'd like to think can realize: "I don't have to sit here and watch TV. I can help."

[See Photos: A Tour of the Best Hospitals 2012-2013.]

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