What if you must go to the hospital?

Despite all the warnings, the experience is a good one for more patients than not. No one enjoys illness, but most patients report that they were well treated.

To improve your stay, however, in a place that is nothing like a hotel, and to improve your chances of recovery, here are a few things you might do:

* Ask your doctor how long you can expect to be there. The longer the stay, the greater the chance of a hospital infection or other unhappy event. Try to ask before you are admitted, at the very time the doctor suggests hospitalization. Just asking the question lets the doctor know you don't want to stay any longer than necessary. And both you and the doctor can think in terms of a reasonable goal.

* Ask your doctor if you can avoid having tests repeated -- a common practice -- after you're hospitalized. Repeating tests may be advisable if a test result is in doubt. Every test produces some false results. But often tests done before you entered the hospital are repeated simply because you are being seen by other doctors, and they don't know your recent results.

* If you are to have other doctors in the hospital, ask if you can take along any recent test results or X-rays. I have had a doctor hand me my X-rays and say, "Now be sure to show these to Dr. So-and-so."

* Unless there is a good reason, try to avoid entering the hospital on a weekend. Little is done on many departments on Saturday and Sunday. There are many admissions on Sunday, however, to get ready for Monday operations and tests. This means Mondays may be a hospital's busiest days, with inevitable waits for X-rays or other studies. Shirley Linde, author of the practical "Whole Health Catalogue" (Rawson Associates, 1977), suggests that "Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays are the best days to avoid delays." Unless your stay is to be very short, however, you may not do much but wait over the weekend if you enter on Thursday or Friday.

* Tell your doctor you'd like him or her to explain just what will be done for you in the hospital. You'll be far better prepared, psychologically.

* Get ready for the hospital admissions clerk by thinking about what kind of room you'd prefer, if available, and any other special requests. If you want a single room for privacy, or you'd rather share a room to avoid an extra charge that most insurance plans won't pay for, say so. It might not do any good, but unless you ask, the decision may be made without your input.

* If you're told you're to share a room, speak up if you want a room without a smoker -- or if you want to smoke, though some hospitals have banned smoking altogether in patients' rooms. Speak up, too, if you want a special diet: low-salt, vegetarian, kosher or something else.

* When you get to your room, speak up if you find it repelling or unacceptable or not what you were told you would have, especially if you expect to be there more than a few days. Again, you may have no choice. But you very well may. A California nurse named Barbara Huttman, in her book, "The Patient's Advocate" (Penguin, 1981), advises: "If you don't like the answer you get, sit in a chair until the admitting nurse arrives [then] ask her . . . But whatever you do, don't get testy," because that simple-sounding change may involve business office, kitchen, housekeeping, pharmacy, linen room, mailroom, switchboard and laboratory and cost the hospital upward of $100.

* Make sure everyone in the hospital knows who you are. Make sure the name on your wrist band is correct, then make sure -- when someone is about to administer a test or medication or any procedure -- that you're the right patient.

* Know what medications you are expected to take, and any you've been taking and should continue. Some hospitals let you bring your own routine medications and take them on your own, if your doctor orders it; some do not. In any case, it's wise to keep a list of all the medications nurses are expected to bring you and keep track of whether they do or not. And inspect each pill before taking. The ones you are handed may be, and sometimes are, someone else's.

* If you see a pill you don't recognize, ask, even though it may not be a mistake. Your doctor may have ordered it in response to a telephoned report from a nurse or house doctor about you. But you should still know what it is and what effects it may have.

* If you're told you're to have a test your doctor hasn't mentioned, ask about it. This, too, could be a mistake, and you're entitled to an explanation in any case. "Speak out if the hospital wants to repeat tests done earlier," Linde says. The hospital may be able to phone for the results.

* To make all this easier, try to get to know the people who come into your room. There will be many. The nurses can be your best allies, if you understand their problems too; they have a number of other patients to care for. The volunteers -- often the persons who bring in the mail or flowers or books -- can also help with many questions or problems.

* Ask questions -- don't hold them back. Get ready for your doctor's visit. Jot down your questions in advance. The doctor probably won't wait long for you to think of them.

* If you're asked to sign a consent form, read it first. If you don't feel ready to sign it, if you want to know more about any possible ill effects, for example, say so. You have a right not to be pressured into signing by being handed a form while the eager test-takers stand over you, ready to start. If you're doubtful, you have a right to postpone the test and discuss the matter with your doctor.

* If you're about to be operated on and your left or right side or limb is mentioned on the consent form, make sure it's the correct side. Make sure of the same before you're given a general anesthetic before an operation.

* If surgery is ahead, ask if a local instead of a general anesthetic is possible. I once had a minor operation to remove a small, benign growth on the back of my neck performed under general anesthesia. I was in the hospital for two days, as I remember, then home for the rest of the week, getting over being groggy from the anesthetic. I realized that a few years later when the growth came back, and I had it removed under a local. The doctor finished, and I got dressed and drove home, clear-headed.

* No matter what you are hospitalized for, move around and exercise, unless it is impossible or you're ordered not to. Muscles and nerves and even mental functions begin to suffer from just a few days' inactivity. Remember the difficulty some of the astronauts have had walking after lying cramped in the early space capsules? Activity helps clear body fluids, and a change of scene, even walking up and down the hall, can improve the spirit. "Even in bed," Linde notes, "you can contract your feet and leg muscles."

* Finally, go home as soon as possible, consistent with your medical needs. Every day in the hospital is another day some mishap might happen. If you need help after leaving the hospital, especially if there is no one to help you, ask to see a "discharge planner." This is usually a hospital social worker whose job it is to help arrange home care or a homemaking service to help complete your recovery.

Little of the above may be possible if you are too sick to speak up or look after yourself. In that case, try to have a family member or friend accompany you when you're admitted, visit you daily and stay with you when you feel it is needed (with some consideration for that person's time, too).

The family member or friend should be an assertive one, one not afraid to speak up for the most important person in your life: you.