Christine A Howard

Surviving an Extended Hospital Stay With Your Family

We have become veterans of the long hospital stay.  I know that some of you are veterans as well.  I also know that somewhere out there is a mom or dad, and this is their first time.  It can be scary not knowing how to navigate through a long hospital stay.  If you find yourself in this boat, I can offer you some tips on how to manage through.  Having these things in place will make your stay just a little bit easier. 

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Prepare Your Family Ahead Of Time

Most extended hospital stays have some advanced warning.  When they do, use the time prior to the stay to get organized and be prepared.  Here are some things to think about as you get prepared for the stay.

Child Care/ Pet Sitting

If you will have a long hospital visit, it may be a good idea to leave your children at home if possible.  Even children’s hospitals frown on lots of people staying with the patient.  Usually they like to see just one parent stay in the room with the patient.  There are numerous reasons to leave the kids at home, but if you do need to take them with there are ways to prepare for that too.

Dog Kennel

Pet sitting can be difficult to come by, so having a person lined up as soon as possible is a good idea.  Most kennels require Bordetella vaccine when kenneling your dog. Since this is not a typical vaccination, you will want to check with your vet to see if your dog will require it.

Meals For At Home and On The Go

When you are living out of a hotel room for any length of time, you will want to prepare to bring some food.  Otherwise your stay will become very expensive very quickly.  Later on in this post I cover how to save money on hotel stays by bringing your own food.

Lunch Bag

When you return home with your child there will most likely be a recovery period.  The last thing you will want to think about is grocery shopping and meal planning.  I recommend having meals prepared ahead of time waiting for you in the freezer.  This will take one thing off of your plate so that you can spend more time focused on your loved one.

Insurance Coverage

As most special needs families fully understand, insurance does not always like to pay for things that your doctor thinks are beneficial.  Make sure to check with your insurance prior to the stay so that you are not surprised.  Quite often a prior authorization is required, and sometimes even paperwork from the doctor.  It would be awful to have to postpone the medical service because the insurance did not get the right form or document.

One thing that we have started doing when we know there will be a long hospital stay followed by a long recovery, is a respite trip.

FMLA and Time Off From Work

When you have to be off from work for awhile, you may want to check with your employer as to how this will work.  For some employees, time off for the care of a loved one due to medical issues is guaranteed under FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act).  However, your employer does not need to pay you during your absence if it is not within their policy to do so.  When taking FMLA time-off, you will need paperwork from a physician, and this can take some time.  You will want to make sure your time off is taken care of well in advance so there are no surprises.

Home Medical Supplies For Post Hospital Stay

If your child is having major surgery or will be recovering from a major illness, home medical supplies may be necessary.  Please don’t make our rookie mistake and wait until your child is in the hospital before preparing the necessary supplies.  Insurance companies like to require prior authorizations for medical equipment, so this could delay their arrival.  If you wait until the last minute, home medical supplies may be temporarily out of the item you need.  Having this taken care of before your stay is so much less stressful.  If you are unsure if your child will require home medical services after the stay, make sure to schedule an appointment with the doctor to discuss this.

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Family Respite

One thing that we have started doing when we know there will be a long hospital stay followed by a long recovery, is a respite trip.  Usually this is just an extended weekend to a nearby location.  For us, the destinations are Madison, Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Dells or the Mall of America.  By doing this, we get to have some family fun time prior to the stressful time we have coming ahead.  This way we can reminisce over the fun time we just had while our family is in crisis mode.  It truly helps all of us get through the stress of a hospital stay and recovery when we can let off some steam just prior.

If this cost is out of the question, try a family staycation instead.  Watch movies, order pizza, visit a local day trip attraction, or anything else that will relieve some of the stress facing the family.  The important thing to remember is to have fun, try not to think about the upcoming hospital stay, and relax as a family.  Trust me, you are going to thank yourself later if you do this, and so will your family.

The Right Hotel Can Make All the Difference

We doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.   Since we live an hour and twenty minutes away, staying there usually makes much more sense than driving back and forth.  Through our journeys to and from Mayo Clinic we have discovered that not all hotels are handicap accessible.  I was truly amazed by this, but it is unfortunately true.  Because of this discovery, I always check.

Some hotel ammenities that are important to have for a long hospital stay include the following:

Mini Fridge and Microwave

It is amazing the meals that can be made with just a mini fridge and a microwave.  These are essential for both convenience and for the pocketbook.  Adding a little bit to your room fee can save a lot more in the food bill.

Mini fridge
Photo taken from the Kahler Apache Hotel

While the microwaves are usually quite small in hotel rooms, it is truly amazing what you can do with them.  We have been known to cook entire meals.  It just takes some planning and a little bit of patience.  As the name suggests, the mini fridge is also quite small.  I recommend bringing a cooler to keep drinks cold, and keep the fridge free for the essentials.

Complimentary Breakfast

The words complimentary breakfast brings up vastly different meanings depending upon the hotel.  We have had some hotels that claim a granola bar and coffee is a breakfast.  My family begs to differ.  When you are spending long days in the clinic or hospital, you need a bit more than that.

When searching for the right hotel, we always check into exactly what is offered with the breakfast.  Typically we choose hotels that have a limited buffet-style breakfast.  Usually these breakfasts include a make-your-own-waffle bar, and some offer other hot foods such as eggs and sausage.

Breakfast

Usually these hotels are a bit more expensive, but the additional cost usually comes out in your favor.  Everyone is going to want breakfast, right?  You could bring your own items, but these are usually not as healthy or as satisfying as the well-rounded hotel breakfasts.  Not to mention this is additional food that you need to find storage for in your hotel room.

To see if adding the extra per night for a hotel with a complimentary hot breakfast is worth it, simply do the math.  Take the cost of eating breakfast out for your whole family, and multiply that by the number of breakfasts you will need.  For our family of six, it typically comes to $30 or $40 per day.  So as long as the difference in hotel price is less than that, we select the hotel with hot breakfast.

Bathroom With a Separate Sink Area

A separate sink area is such a nice convenience.  It allows for one person to be using the bathroom amenities while another person uses the sink and mirror.  Of course this is simply a convenience, so we don’t pay extra for it.  However, if there are two comparable hotels and one has a better floor plan, always choose the better floor plan.  Quite often tests and office visits are bright and early in the morning.  With two people getting ready at the same time, mornings go much faster.

Pool or Other Recreation

This one is for your sanity.  Let’s face it, an extended medical stay is stressful.  Anything that can be done to bring a little bit of self-care is essential to emotional health and being strong for your loved one.  When we travel for medical appointments and procedures, we bring along our children.  They also need some unwind time.

Waterpark at Kahler Hotel
Photo taken from the Kahler Apache Hotel site. This is the hotel we stayed in, and it had a mini-water park. The kids loved it!

Having a hotel with a pool, exercise room or even just a hot tub can make all the difference in your ability to handle the stress that comes with a hospital stay.  Additionally, these amenities can offer some quality time with the other members in the family.  Quite often as special needs parents, our focus is on the child with the medical issue.  Having a recreational activity like a pool can provide a little bit of family respite with your other children.

Free Clinic/ Hospital Transport

It seems that most major hospitals and clinics charge for parking these days.  At the Mayo Clinic it can be as much as $12 for the day to park in one of their ramps.  This can add up fast, so if your hotel has free transportation, this can save some money.  You will want to check on their transportation schedule as sometimes there can be a wait or they may not provide the service at the times you need.

Shuttle Bus

The hotel staff knows their way around, and so they can quite often get you to your destination faster than trying to figure your way around.  The other nice thing about the hotel shuttle service, is that they usually drop you off at the front door.  This is especially nice in inclement weather.

Asking For A Little Help Is Okay

No matter how you slice it, extended hospital stays are expensive.  Even if you have the medical expenses taken care of, insurance does not typically cover the added expenses such as gas, food, lodging, parking, etc.  It is perfectly acceptable to ask for help with this.  Quite often the hospital or clinic can help in these areas.  In fact, Mayo Clinic has a social work team that works very hard to make sure families have what they need.  I am positive that other hospitals and clinics have this too.

Our family has been given parking passes, meal vouchers, and on our last extended stay, help with our hotel bill.  I have even heard of some programs that will pay your mortgage payment if your hospital stay is long enough.  It is well worth checking into, as every little bit helps.

Child Life

Child Life is a program that most major hospital facilities have.  The purpose of Child Life is to provide supports to those dealing with illness or injury and their loved ones.  Child life helps with such things as blood draws and calming kids prior to surgery.  At Mayo Clinic they offer music therapy and free books to take home.  At the  children’s hospital they offer fun surgery hats, pillow cases and stuffed animals that the kids can take home after their stay.  If you think that your child would benefit from their services, ask a nurse to contact them.

Ronald McDonald House

Most people have heard of the Ronald McDonald House.  They run the free housing for parents with children who need extended care.  This is a wonderful program that quite often is too full for families to use.  Because of this, Ronald McDonald House has started a program to help families with their hotel fees.  On our recent stay, Ronald McDonald House was full, and we were put on the waiting list.  In the meantime they offered discounts at several local hotels including ours.  It took our bill from $109 per night down to $64 per night.  This was a huge blessing to our family.  If you don’t know how to get in touch with the Ronald McDonald House, ask a social worker, and they can direct you.

Having a hotel with a pool, exercise room or even just a hot tub can make all the difference in your ability to handle the stress that comes with a hospital stay.

Avoid Cafeteria Food If You Can

Cafeteria food is expensive, and so is fast food.  Avoid these at all costs.  If you have accommodations that include a mini fridge, microwave and complimentary breakfast, you can easily avoid eating out.  If breakfast is covered by the hotel, this just leaves lunch and dinner.  For lunch, a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a granola bar is probably all anyone needs.  Most of the ingredients for this type of lunch are shelf-stable which means less items to refrigerate.  For dinner, there are several options that can be made ahead of time that work amazingly in the microwave.

Microwavable Meal Options

  •  Sloppy Joe’s with canned vegetable and fruit cocktail.  Make the Sloppy Joe meat ahead of time and freeze flat in a gallon sized zip-lock bag.  Thaw out in the microwave when needed.  Make sure to include a small plastic bowl to microwave the canned vegetable.  Also, make sure to purchase the cans with pull tabs so you won’t need a can opener.
  • Pulled Pork Sandwiches with canned vegetable and pineapple chunks.  Again, make the pulled pork ahead of time and freeze flat in a gallon sized zip-lock bag.
  • Baked Potato Bar with bagged vegetables, shredded cheese and ham cubes.   Make sure to cook the potatoes first, as they take the longest at around 5 minutes per potato.  Serve with a bread stick.
  • Mini quiches with salsa and cheese.  To make these add three beaten eggs to a microwave safe bowl.  Add salsa and cheese and microwave covered until eggs are done.  Serve with tortillas.
  • Goulash and apple slices.  Make the goulash ahead of time and freeze flat in a gallon sized zip-lock bag.  Thaw in the microwave when needed.

Hotel Food

If you are able to bring a crock pot, the meal options are literally endless.  Some hotels may not allow crock pots, so you may want to check with them ahead of time.  I have been known to bring crock pots with on occasion.  If you choose to do this, make sure to bring crock pot liners to make hotel room clean up much easier.

Here is a list of kitchen items that you can bring along to make cooking in a hotel room much easier:

  • Apple Cutter – this works for both apples and pears, and it very easy to rinse under hot water to clean.

Apple Cutter Travel

  • Paper or Styrofoam plates – these make clean up faster in a hotel room.  You could bring reusable plates, but doing the dishes in a hotel room is tricky to say the least.
  •  Plastic silverware – again this makes clean up much easier, and these can be washed and reused a couple of times if you want.
  • Travel Salt and Pepper shakers – these can be found in most grocery stores.  They can be tossed when you are done with them.
  • Sharp Knife – this can be used to cut fresh fruits and vegetables.  I use a knife that has a cover on it for safety.

Travel Knife

  • Baby Wipes – these make amazing little cleaning tools, and are great for temporarily cleaning dishes when you can’t wash them with dish soap.  They also work to take stains out of clothing.
  • Dish Soap – you will have dishes that need cleaning, and so bringing a small bottle of dish liquid makes washing dishes much easier.  Dish soap can also be used to hand wash clothes as well.
  • Laundry Soap – many hotels have onsite laundry facilities.  You can cut down on the amount of luggage you will have to bring if you plan to wash clothes part way through your stay.
  • Zip-Lock Bags – these are great for packing lunches or storing left overs.
  • Collapsible Dishes –  these pack nicely and expand when you need them for cooking.  They are small enough to fit into a hotel microwave, and are easy to clean.

Travel Tupperware

Plan For Some Entertainment

Hotel rooms, doctors offices and waiting rooms are generally not places that kids get super excited about.  Chances are that between boredom and lack-of-sleep, the kids may need a bit of a distraction to keep them well behaved.  It used to be that clinic waiting areas were havens of fun toys and gadgets that would occupy kids for a while.  Enter the new age of germ awareness, and you might be lucky to find a magnetic table and some worn out books.

Electronic Devices While at the Hospital

Planning for some entertainment will go a long way toward your sanity.  This is the time to bring the electronics.  They don’t have to play electronic games to their hearts content, but allowing your kids some time with their devices is okay.  We usually allow time with devices after they have done something a bit more constructive.

Family Movie in the Hotel

Having a family movie night in the hotel is something that our family definitely enjoys.  If you can, try to choose a movie your family has not seen to make it more fun.

Streaming Movies

Vudu is a free great streaming service that can be easily accessed via a laptop.  The service is free to sign up for, but you will have to pay for each movie.  They have the choice to either rent or own, and there are also some free movies available.  The free movies are usually quite old, but it is worth checking out.  Quite often Vudu will have movies that are not yet available on DVD, which makes movie night even more fun.

A very nice feature that Vudu has, is the ability to download videos directly onto your device.  This way you do not need the internet to the watch movies you own.  Keep in mind that you will need to download the movies ahead of time, and this can take a little while depending upon the speed of your internet.  We love this feature for when we are in the car, because the movies are downloadable unto any device that has the Vudu app.

DVD Movies

We bring some DVDs that we can pop into the laptop.  This is also great if you have a DVD player in the car.  You may want to check out the library too, as they have quite a few movie options that may appeal to your family.

Doing School From The Doctor’s Office

School is a concern during long hospital stays.  We home school, so we take school with us, but this is also a concern for those in brick-and-mortar school.  Doctor’s offices and waiting rooms are not usually conducive to education and learning.  It can be difficult to find a table or desk, and even if you do find a table, it may not be near an outlet.

Travel Desk

We purchased a travel desk for each of our kids, and it has made all the difference.  The travel desk works in the car too.  It has an attachment that will hang the desk from the seat in front.  The desks have lots of pockets and places to put things, and zip up into a messenger bag.  They even have cup holders and are large enough to hold a laptop.  Many of these desks have compartments to hold a tablet.

Travel Desk

Since they are portable, they pack up quite easily.  This is great when you are travelling to lots of appointments in various parts of the clinic.  They are also great when your kids need to do school work in the hotel room.  Hotel rooms typically never have enough table space, and with these it’s not necessary.


If you find yourself facing a long hospital or clinic stay, remember, it will all be okay.  Take some time to get prepared.  Follow some of the these tips and the time will pass by much easier than you think.  To get some more great tips, check out some other great posts in the blog.

5 thoughts on “Surviving an Extended Hospital Stay With Your Family

  1. This is an incredible post! I’m so sorry your family has racked up so much experience in this area, but extremely grateful for your sharing these truly awesome tips with the rest of us. We did this ONCE, with our two-year-old, for several weeks – I was so grateful to be able to stay in her room some nights, and that we could get into the local Ronald McDonald house for the others/take some meals there – but yes, yes, yes, your tips for otherwise keeping extended stays from being even more disruptive/wreaking even more financial havoc are superb. Thank you!!!

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