December 14, 2023

Healing over the holidays: A nurse’s guide to spending the holidays at the hospital

There’s no place like the hospital for the holidays. And we don’t mean that in a good way. But here are some ways to make it better.

Close up of bauble and little pine hanging on the Christmas tree with other decorative toys. Can be used for background. Bokeh lights.

The holiday season should be a time for families to come together, even when illness lands a loved one in the hospital. Though nothing can replace the love of family, health care professionals and the rest of the hospital staff can help to make the best of a bad situation. Knowing how to support both sick loved ones and their caregivers can go a long way to keeping the holidays as bright as possible.

When a loved one is hospitalized, the first question for most is, “What should I do?” As it turns out, your first instinct is probably the best. Research shows that there are important healing benefits to simply being present and interacting with hospital patients. Even if the patient is not interactive, talking to them, showing them pictures, or having video calls with other family members are good ways to make your loved one feel a family connection during their hospital stay.

Moreover, this also helps to reorient the patient and prevent complications such as ICU delirium. Wes Ely, MD, professor of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Critical Illness, Brain Dysfunction, and Survivorship, (CIBS) Center states, “The drugs of choice for delirium are mobilization and family presence.”

Nurses can also act as stand-in family members while patients heal, so full-time family can catch a break.

Ely also emphasizes the importance of “switching the preposition”: approaching patient care in a way that asks “what matters to the patient,” instead of  “what’s the matter with the patient.” Here, family members can be a huge help to the care team. When patients have difficulty speaking for themselves, Ely urges family members to advocate for their loved ones’ preferences when it comes to medical care. Sharing a patient’s spiritual values with their care team is particularly helpful to making a holiday stay in the hospital more bearable.

Nurses are the main providers of this kind of compassionate care. As professional empathizers, nurses routinely go above and beyond for patients and their family members, and they can do even better with families that are team players. Molly Bernard, RN, a bedside nurse in the Medical ICU at VUMC, takes pride in spreading holiday cheer with her patients and their families. “It’s always fun to decorate our patient’s rooms,” Bernard states. “I’ve cut out snowflakes to hang in around the room before or helped hang decorations brought by family members.”

Nurses can also act as stand-in family members while patients heal, so full-time family can catch a break. Supporting them will not only improve the patient’s overall course of treatment, but also give visiting family members time for respite and self-care. Getting enough rest, taking time away from the hospital, and eating well are still important for family members during the holiday season.

Bernard reminisces about wonderful cooperation between families and care teams. “Over Thanksgiving, one of our nurses raised money and made little goodie bags for the patients and families, consisting of pens, little pads of paper, candy, sleep masks and a few self-care items. I thought this was so helpful because it comes in handy for family to have a pen and paper to write down questions or thoughts when the doctors round.”

So, if you find yourself beside a loved one’s hospital bed this holiday season, rest assured that you’re both in good hands. “Nurses have a wealth of knowledge about [their] patients; we need to stop and listen,” Ely says. “Let nurses be leaders over the holidays.”

Courtney Graetzer, RN, is a nurse in the Medical ICU at VUMC