In her 2014 bestseller, “Radical Remission: Surviving Cancer at All Odds,” Kelly Turner challenged the idea that everyone has to have a partner, because — what if you get sick? Citing study after study, she showed that what matters is whether you have effective help, not where it comes from. Friends really can be enough, she argued.
Even if you have a support system of steel, though, I’ve found that its effectiveness may be undercut by the singles-unfriendly policies of medical facilities, or the prejudices of health-care workers. I’m single by choice, I don’t have any children or siblings, and I just turned a healthy 70. But like many generally healthy people, I’ve had bouts of illness, some of them serious — and I didn’t need the additional stress of the anti-singles prejudice that pervades not only hospital care, but ordinary doctors’ appointments.
Here are three examples from my own experience.
“Do you have someone to drive you?” Everyone who doesn’t live in a cave knows that more and more Americans are single, childless and living far from our families. Many of our friends work full-time or don’t live nearby. So why are patients frequently required to have someone drive them to and from medical tests and procedures, even when they’re not having an anesthetic?
That happened to me recently when a dentist’s office insisted that a friend drive me and stay in the waiting room, although I had only Novocain, a local anesthetic that does not affect my ability to drive. I might request a general anesthetic at the last minute, the nurse explained, and if no one was with me, they’d have to reschedule the procedure. And I couldn’t take a cab. Why? Because the doctor’s office said so. And it can’t be a hired driver. I would have to impose on a friend to take hours off work when there was no real need.
Of course, health-care providers like that dentist are being extra careful, on the off chance of something going wrong. But by that standard, schools should require a parent to hang around in case their child has an allergic reaction or an asthma attack, or sticks a pencil up their nose. Asking someone to take time off work is a big ask, and if a patient has repeated appointments, it can put a serious — and unnecessary — strain on a single person’s support system.
Sometimes, health-care workers make their own rules. Four years ago, I went to a hospital for a hernia repair that required an overnight stay. Since no one was with me when I checked in, I asked the staffer on duty to store my suitcase. The hospital does have a storage facility for that purpose, but she wouldn’t take my bag, or even check me in. “You have to have somebody with you,” she insisted, although hospital policy didn’t require it.
At a different hospital stay, during a six-hour liver operation, the friends with me couldn’t learn if I was alive or dead. One of them had my power of attorney and health-care proxy, and I’d filled out the hospital’s release form saying that all three should receive updates on my condition during surgery. I later learned that hospital’s policy is to honor those documents, as the law requires. But the staffer in the surgical waiting room repeatedly told my friends that she couldn’t give them any information, because they weren’t immediate family.
Both times, the problem wasn’t official hospital policy, but hospital employees who imposed their personal prejudices on me and on the people who love me.
You may need your own caregivers. Although hospitals used to have strict visiting hours, many now provide cots or lounge chairs to accommodate overnight guests, who have almost become a necessity. “One thing that I tell people is, if you have a sick family member, don’t leave them alone in the hospital,” advises surgeon and author Atul Gawande. And a report by the Institute for Patient- and Family-Centered Care states, “For a number of years, the Joint Commission [on Accreditation of Health-Care Organizations] has recommended that patients bring a family member or trusted friend with them to the hospital as a safety strategy.”
I wish I’d known that sooner. Alone in a hospital room on the night of my liver surgery, I couldn’t stop myself from sliding down in the bed until my catheter disconnected, my breathing tube snagged on the bedrail, and the foot board cut into the backs of my legs. For more than two hours, staffers simply ignored my ringing the call bell. When I later complained, they shrugged. Without a companion to demand help — or provide it themselves — I was out of luck.
“I hear things like this all the time,” says psychologist Bella DePaulo, who’s written several books about being single. “When these topics are mentioned in blog posts or on Facebook, a slew of comments often ensues, with other single people chiming in with their own exasperating experiences, words of advice, and expressions of gratitude that these matters are getting aired.”
Then what’s a single patient to do? I asked three experts: Penelope Damaskos, director of social work at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York; Michelle Bailiff, social work supervisor at the Christiana Care Health System in Delaware; and Christina Coyle, a social worker at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
“It’s not just people without close relatives,” Coyle told me. Patients might have to rely on nontraditional support for many reasons, such as having a disabled spouse, or living far from their families.
All three agree that no matter what hospital policies say, some health-care workers may feel uncomfortable when patients lack traditional support, especially within the family-centered culture of today’s medical care. So be proactive, they urge. If you’re going into a hospital, talk with a patient care representative or a hospital social worker before you’re admitted, so they can remind your future caregivers of the choices you’re entitled to make. “You are the expert on yourself,” Bailiff said.
I don’t see being single as a special need, and it shouldn’t take so much extra trouble to arrange for nondiscriminatory care. But if I ever have to be hospitalized again, I’m going to take their advice. Like it or not, it looks like the most practical solution, at least for now.
“Being single is not evidence of pathology,” Damaskos declared. “It’s a lifestyle.”
Of course, I agree. But that still has to be said, whereas “Being married is not evidence of pathology” is taken for granted. That’s what single people have to chip away at — not just until our support systems are routinely accommodated, but until they’re acknowledged as equal.