It's not doctors who watch your heart rate and blood pressure and catch a hint of redness that could indicate infection. It's not doctors who change your dressings, bring you a cold cup of ginger ale at 2 a.m., and maybe bend a rule or two on your behalf. You know who does, and you want those nurses to be your allies. They will if you respect their time, make an effort to understand the system in which they operate, and know when and when not to go over their heads.
Most nurses are in constant overdrive. Being specific helps them set priorities. "It's one thing to say, 'I need my nurse,' but what can expedite the request is, 'I need help getting out of bed to go to the bath room,'" says Isis Montalvo of the American Nurses Association. When you press the call button, you'll probably be asked over the intercom what you want. If it is important and your assigned nurse is with another patient, some other nurse may be able to step in. If you just need a little water or your pillow plumped, you may have to wait. You can manage, and the nurse will appreciate your accepting that other tasks come first.
Squeaky wheel. Sometimes you'll need chutzpah, sometimes finesse. If your pain is unrelieved or worsening even after getting pain medication, use the call button. If no one comes, ask again, and then a third time. "They do have other patients, but your pain comes first," says critical-care nurse Debora Simmons, associate director of the Institute of Healthcare Excellence at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. If your nurse wants to give your pain meds another 15 minutes to kick in, get him to commit to checking with you then, she says. If he doesn't show, hit the call button again. And if he asks you to sit tight for a few more minutes because of a patient down the hall whose blood pressure is dropping, Simmons says that's when you ask to talk to a supervisor.
On the other hand, why bother them with things you or a family member can handle or complain about issues beyond their control? Nurses may seem all-knowing, but they don't run the whole hospital. If meals are consistently late or the TV doesn't work right, don't gripe to the floor nurse. Ask her whom you should call.
This story was originally reported on 7/15/07.