I’m back at work after undergoing a surprise triple bypass open heart surgery at the beginning of September, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in this column. When you suffer from a serious illness or undergo a life-changing, intimidating surgery as I have, you learn how scary and life changing going through such a procedure can be.

You also learn a lot about your friends and relatives. Who you can count on and who you can’t. For me, some of the answers were surprising.

Unless you’ve had or someone close to you has had a similar experience, it’s difficult to understand the emotional journey the patient must travel. You otherwise have no frame of reference.

Top that off with busy lives, and a general uncomfortableness with what to do or say while in the presence of (or far away from) someone going through a difficult time, and you have a recipe for crushed expectations and hurt feelings.

So what should you do when a friend or family member falls ill? In my tradition, visiting the sick (bikur cholim) is known as a mitzvah, a good deed. What should you say? How should you act? Here are a few guidelines to go by:

  • There is no limit to the amount of times that one can fulfill this good deed or to the level of its fulfillment, provided that one does not become too bothersome for the sick person. Most of the time, a short visit is preferable.
  • If there are two sick patients, one who has many visitors and the other a few or none, one should preferably visit the latter person.
  • Not all patients are in a position to receive visitors. Under such circumstances, one should inquire of the relatives whether it is okay to visit; and even then, try to keep the visit short. It is also necessary to have a sixth sense and realize when one is overstaying. In a situation where a patient is not ready for visitors, visiting can still be accomplished by staying in the foyer or hallway and helping out family members.
  • Although most aspects of visiting the sick can be fulfilled only with a personal visit, if one is not able to do a personal visit, he can fulfill the good deed with a phone call.
  • Enter the room of the sick person in a positive mood. Do not display any moods of sadness or melancholy, as this could affect the welfare of the patient.
  • Rather than ask if there’s generally anything you can do, or say “let me know if there’s something I can do for you,” offer to do something specific. “May I bring you a lunch tomorrow? How about I pick up your children from school next week.”

Thankfully, I was overwhelmed with the love and support from my many friends who visited me in the hospital both before and after the surgery. I had such a constant stream of visitors that my wife and my nurses politely asked some to give me time to rest.

Those from my workplace showered me with concern and attention as well. I’ve always been proud of the family atmosphere within my firm, and that was clearly evident from the time that I entered the hospital. When my doctors instructed that I was not to work for a period of thirty days following the surgery to avoid stress, my team cut off my access to the firm’s emails and server, kept files moving, and answered clients’ questions in my absence.

I was both surprised and touched by the many clients who sent emails and cards. Most didn’t know of the surgery, but those that discovered my situation couldn’t have been more loving and supportive. The same could be said of my professional colleagues, from fellow attorneys to CPAs, trust officers, financial planners, and others.

My sister and my brother-in-law drove across Alligator Alley twice to provide comfort and just be there for me – which, frankly, is what I needed most.

Of course, my wife was a bedrock through the entire ordeal. The chief caregiver usually goes through more than the patient himself. Patti slept in my hospital room with me, except for the night I was in ICU, when she tried to sleep in the brightly lit waiting room. I begged her to go home, but she wouldn’t.

Our three daughters were all there for me too. They were terrified but did their best to hide their fears, giving me lots of hugs and kisses. They also cooked dinners at home and brought them to the hospital for me and Patti.

I received so many flower bouquets, Harry & David fruit packages, and edible arrangements that I didn’t know where to put everything. The gifts and baskets were extremely thoughtful and much appreciated. They also lead me to an important point.

What a hospital patient needs the most is your time and your attention. For me at least, it was uplifting to be with others who cared.

Depression is also a common byproduct of my particular surgery, and I was no exception. My condition and the need for surgery came as a total shock to me. Those who know me well knew that just before I had completed my normal weekly exercise regimen that includes 100 miles on my bicycle, twice weekly triathlon swim sessions of 3000 yards, and thrice weekly circuit training sessions my trainer puts my wife and I through.

I thought I was the poster boy for middle-age physical health! Upon discovering my advanced heart disease while groggily awakening from my heart catheterization, I had a rather difficult time wrapping my mind around the fact that I would soon undergo a triple bypass surgery at age 55.

It meant a great deal to be able to talk through my concerns and feelings with anyone who would listen.

You don’t have to offer advice, although I received many great suggestions.  One of my law school classmates called and patiently listened to my concerns about anxiety and depression.  The next day an Amazon package arrived at my door, including a meditation book for beginners! It’s something I thought about taking up, and now I have his go-to resource.

The great news is that modern medicine is wonderful, I’m on the road to complete recovery. My surgeon, Dr. Randall Buss, and cardiologist, Dr. Ken Towe, tell me not only should I return to the activities I enjoyed prior to the discovery of my illness, with increased blood-flow, my performance should improve!

It’s inevitable that all of us will have a loved one experience a significant medical issue. My best advice is to be there, in the present, (whether in person or on the telephone) for your friend or family member. It is the greatest gift you can give.

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.