Nobody’s at their best while they’re hospitalized. Hospitals aren’t for healthy people! But sometimes, friends and family (or in the worst case, photographers for a local newspaper) want to come and visit you while you’re there. If you don’t care about your looks very much, you won’t need my help, although it’s always nicer to have your visitors say ‘You look great!’ rather than ‘You poor thing!’. But if you’re the sort of person who hates to be seen with dirty uncombed hair, or no makeup on, I’ve got some helpful tips and tricks for surviving a hospital stay in style and comfort.
If you’re just in for a day, the worst a hospital can do to you isn’t too bad; but giving birth to a baby may mean a lot of visitors and photographs. If you expect to be in a hospital bed for a few days or more, it’s a good idea to pack some extra items and prepare ahead of time in order to look and feel as nice as possible. If you end up hospitalized without warning, or that overnight becomes a very long weekend, some of these ideas may help if you can get someone to bring items from home, the gift shop, or a local drug store for you.
Every hospital is different. Privately funded hospitals have all kinds of goodies and services, just like a good hotel would; on the other hand, the last time I went to visit someone at City-County General, they didn’t even have tissues! If you’re at all picky about your personal care items, I suggest you bring your own. If the hospital doesn’t have a big selection in the gift shop, there’s almost always a nearby drug store – ask any of the employees where to go. The nearby drug store may be a better bet for some hard-to-find items which come in handy during or after a hospital stay.
It’s amazing how much you can sweat when all you’re doing is lying in bed getting well. Baby wipes now come in slightly more ‘adult’ scents (or unscented), but the theory is the same, and they’re very handy to have. They come in re-sealable, portable containers. In addition to body wipes, there are wipes intended to replace toilet paper. Even if you aren’t allowed to use a toilet yet, these can be helpful for itching. You can also find single-use packaged wipes – more like the kind you get at a fried chicken restaurant – with witch hazel or astringent on them, which may be nice for your face. A bottle of witch hazel or astringent and some cotton balls works just fine too. Of course, none of these are good for open wounds or recent surgery areas; ask your nurse what’s okay around those.
If they’re taping and re-taping things to you, or using a lot of stick-on monitors, you may get pretty sticky. Neither soap nor alcohol does much against the sticky stuff. To remove adhesive (again, not around wounds), use a little baby oil or any kind of cosmetic oil and a soft cloth. A spare piece of hospital gauze works great for this, or a wash cloth or a cotton ball. Tissues will tear and stick to the adhesives. If you don’t have oil, try moisturizer or hand creams.
Don’t forget to bring along antiperspirant, moisturizer, and any other personal care items you wouldn’t want to be without. You shouldn’t bring perfume or aftershave; it can irritate injuries, not to mention people’s allergies and asthma. Lightly scented products like moisturizer are probably okay, but you don’t want your nurse to run from the room choking because they’re allergic to your scent, or give the person in the next bed a respiratory attack!
Obviously, a comb or brush is a big help. If you dye or perm your hair, make sure you get yourself ‘done’ before your hospital stay. If your hair is long or prone to tangle easily, you may want to braid it or put it up to keep it from snarling. Keep in mind that you’ll have to sleep on whatever you do, and depending on your procedures, you may need to have any metal hairpins or barrettes removed.
The best solution for anyone’s hair is a flattering hat. Just make sure it doesn’t have a brim in the back if you want to be able to lie down while wearing it! A baseball cap for your favorite team, a cute crocheted cloche, a flowered bonnet, or just about anything, as long as it’s comfy. A hat will cover your hair and bring people’s eyes and attention to your face, instead of your hospital gown. This is no time to be boring – the brighter and more cheerful the headgear, the better. If you’ve ever secretly wanted a fake fur hat with kitty ears, or a feathered bonnet, this is the time!
A hat will hide your hair, but after a few days you may really wish you could wash your hair and scalp clean. There is such a thing as “dry shampoo”, and while it isn’t as nice as a good scrub, it’s a lot better than nothing after a week or two. It comes in a spray can, and the drugstore nearest the hospital should carry it, even if your local doesn’t. Another trick is to wipe your scalp with alcohol, astringent or witch hazel to clean up oils.
Nobody ever made a hospital gown that looked good. And depending on why you’re in the hospital, you may not get to wear anything else. But there are a few things to consider. Number one is underwear; you want the kind that won’t itch even if you lie on your butt all day. If the seams bother you, consider wearing it inside-out. Ladies, depending on your condition, you may not be allowed a bra; but a sports bra, elastic comfort bra or front-hook version may be a lot easier to cope with for the trip home.
An oversized T-shirt (easy to find at thrift stores) can be worn over your hospital gown easily, if you cut the back from collar to waist seam. (You can try wearing button-front shirts backwards, but the collar is usually not comfortable.) This gives you a little more warmth, modesty, and even fashion sense than a hospital gown. Pack a few along, and throw them away afterwards. Bright colors and silly sayings on these shirts may cheer you up, and give your visitors something to talk about besides your health.
You may, if you’re lucky, be allowed to wear pants, too! Pajama pants in a soft, comfy material like T-shirt jersey or flannel will be a great idea. Make sure the waistband has some give or is adjustable; even if you aren’t going to have an abdominal incision, you wouldn’t be the first person to swell up or lose a lot of weight while in hospital. A knit skirt may work too, but they do ride up and twist around. None of these will necessarily flatter your figure, but it’s better than flashing your underwear, or no underwear at all, to any visitors.
A few glamorous accessories – a pretty scarf, some costume jewelry – may perk you up as well. Plus that scarf can be draped to hide your bruises, stitches and IV lines. A throw blanket can do the same thing, looks a little more ‘macho’ for the guys, and will keep you warm too. Again, make sure it’s not itchy, and washable, unless you plan to get rid of it afterwards. This is often a good idea just for sanitary reasons.
The Face and Mouth:
Astringent or witch hazel will keep a face pretty clean, even if you can’t get to the sink. If you’re prone to breakouts or oily skin, the stress of the hospital may set you off, so bring some acne ointment along. If it’s dry skin you’re more prone to, bring along moisturizer.
A hand mirror is a very good idea. If nothing else, it’ll help you get that eyelash out of your eye when you aren’t allowed to go to the bathroom mirror.
Depending on what you’re going in for, you may end up with dry mouth or a weird taste in your mouth. However, hospitals are also notorious for saying you can’t eat or even drink anything. Ask your doctor if you can swish your mouth clear without swallowing, either with water or mouthwash. You may also be able to ‘swab’ your mouth and tongue with a wet cotton ball or gauze if your mouth feels awful.
You can usually manage to brush your teeth just fine with a glass of water and your usual toothbrush and toothpaste, although a ‘spit pan’ or a spare glass is handy. Put a towel over your front in case of spills, and wash your face afterwards.
If you shave your face, see if you can manage with an electric razor, which is much easier to clean up after – a baby wipe does a good job of cleaning up stray hair. (Put a towel or something beneath your chin so you don’t fill your bed with itchy stubble.) If an electric just won’t do it, you may be able to manage with shaving cream or gel, a disposable razor, that hand mirror, and a wet washcloth or those baby wipes for cleanup. Let the shaving cream soak in extra long and it may make up for the lack of hot water.
If you want to shave anything else, it’s really a lot of trouble. Ladies may want to wax a few days before going in. You may be able to use a depilatory cream and body wipes, but don’t experiment if you haven’t used one before; this is no time to get an itchy rash!
Don’t forget that hand mirror!
Makeup remover can be found in some handy travel wipes, as well as bottles. Astringent or witch hazel will take off most face makeup, but don’t use it too near the eyes. Lots of brands of facial cleansers now make a portable “all-in-one” pad intended to exfoliate, clean, and moisturize. These either work right out of the package, or may need to be moistened with water, but they’re a great alternative to standing at a sink.
Remember that you’ll be indoors, and adjust your makeup for that unflattering fluorescent light. But if you have a room or bed near a window, you may get natural light as well during part of the day. Avoid dark shades of eye makeup; they may just make you look worse. Stick to colors you know will flatter you no matter what, and aim to brighten rather than darken. But don’t feel obliged to stick to the ‘natural’ look; there’s nothing natural about makeup in a hospital bed. Go with a bright lipstick, or a little shimmer in your eye makeup, to perk up your face.
Don’t use foundation or cover-up on any injuries you think your doctor may need to see. If you fell and bruised your chin, it’s probably okay to put cover-up over the big purple-and-green blotch during visiting hours, but ask just in case. If you expect the stress and lack of sleep in the hospital to give you bags or dark circles, pack concealer accordingly.
This may be a great time to pamper yourself. It doesn’t take a lot of energy or mental clarity to rub in cuticle oil. Do you care if your night nurse sees you covered in cold cream, when she’s already seen you in surgery? You won’t need your hands overnight; cover them in moisturizer and wear cotton gloves, or even hospital rubber gloves, to seal in moisture. Wear your ‘night time’ eye cream all day. Give yourself a manicure! (Ask your doctor before using anything but clear nail polish, or leave the thumbs bare. Sometimes a doctor or nurse will squeeze your thumb nail bed to do a quick check on your blood pressure – but most of the time, if they really want your blood pressure, they’ll use a cuff.)
Of course, the best way to look good is to feel good. People who feel happier about themselves will often heal faster, too! And happy people – or even just people in silly hats – may get more attention from medical personnel than a grumpy or sad patient. Don’t worry about your looks more than your health! But keeping yourself clean and groomed might just shorten your hospital stay – or at least make it more bearable.