And now for something completely different – the researcher as participant (hospital patient)

We interrupt the series on the Christchurch earthquakes to bring you an article containing Judith’s observations as hospital patient.

According to the handbooks of social research, participant observation is when the
“researcher is immersed in a social setting for some time in order to observe and listen with a view to gaining an appreciation of the culture of a social group.” I recently have had such an opportunity as a hospital patient. After suffering from increasing pain with osteo-arthritis for six years, a few weeks ago, at age 71, I had an operation for a total shoulder replacement.

I pass on some of my experiences, firstly in a private hospital and then, in the next blog, at home. I hope that some of it may be useful to other people, or at least cause a bit of amusement.

The operation turned out to last 3 and a half hours – longer than a “Lord of the Rings” film, when I was told it would be just two hours. I usually think of operating theatres as enclosed and clinically white. The whole side of this one was windows overlooking thick bush. A pity I was not around long enough to appreciate it, but I am sure it had a calming effect on the people who worked there.

The surgeon and anaesthetist were friendly and informal; no white coats or stethoscopes around the neck when they came to meet me. We seemed to be on first name terms. The anaesthetist suggested that the medication coming through the drip on my hand would be soothing “like a G and T”. He obviously had me summed up as someone who liked one of those.

It was hard to imagine that I could go for 40 hours without food and even more so that I would not be ravenous afterwards. Although I was able to eat, I did not feel the need for it, and even a week or more after the surgery I don’t feel any hunger pains. Although I am eating enough, I can sit and watch others having nibbles before a meal and have no desire to join in – even when a delicious cheese is passed around. I asked the surgeon if he had done some stomach stapling while he was at it, but he said nothing like that.

I was given pills without detailed explanation although they told me the names when I asked. One was Tramadol, which is actually a strong narcotic, for severe pain. I cannot say that I ever had severe pain (I know people differ in their pain thresholds). When I got home the prescription label said that it could cause drowsiness and so I thought it might help me sleep – but then I googled Tramadol and the list of potential side effects were mind-boggling, including both diarrhoea and constipation. No thanks, in the absence of severe pain. With the approval of the surgeon I decided to stick to paracetamol. It pays to asks about medication and potential side effects – or to do your own research.

The hospital food was good – there was choice at all meals. The menu was annotated to show which items were heart-friendly – a little useful health education – and there was lots of fruit. I wrestled to open those small cereal packets. They are hard enough to open with two hands.

Most people will have had their blood pressure taken at some time and have experienced the blowing up and letting out of air in the arm band. Well, imagine you had three such sleeves on each leg. The pressure in each band, one by one, increases with a whoosh and then is let out with a sigh. This goes on all night and day. It is like sleeping with a heavy breather/light snorer, except that it is all going on below your knees. Of course, in the hospital context it is meant to be therapeutic. The air massage of your legs helps to guard against thrombosis when you are lying down for a long period. Perhaps something of the sort could be devised for long distance air travel –a commercial opportunity for someone. Probably beats elastic stockings.

Hospital patients have to endure many interruptions in their sleep during the night (always assuming they can get to sleep in the first place), for taking temperatures, blood pressure checks, oxygen readings. It was the first time I had experienced the latter. Once I was off the oxygen up the nose routine, it was tested through a clothes peg on the finger. My grand-son had a go but his finger was too small. He had a reading taken from his thumb – 99%, the nurse said. He was rewarded with an ice block.

Other after-effects from shoulder surgery (and probably other types), which you may not know of, are worth noting.

• Sore throat and dry mouth – something was poked down there during the operation. I have a dry cough still and some difficulty eating toast and crackers.
• A runny nose – there may be several reasons for this, as well as the tube up the nose scenario. This may be peculiar to me. I found it was easy to get emotional in the first few days. I always feel a bit sniffy when people give me care and sympathy – am I alone?
• Multiple perforations in lower arm and hand, for drips, taking blood etc.
• Numb fingers – my worst fear was that I would lose the full use of my hand – I use them a lot! Don’t panic, it wears off.
• Constipation – it took two bowls of prunes and two doses of Kiwi-Krush to move me. In my 42 years in NZ I had not come across Kiwi Krush – a kind of crushed kiwifruit ice block in a glass, a very attractive green.
• Be prepared that everything you do has to be done more slowly.

On ANZAC Day the Dawn Service seemed to be broadcast to the hospital – but I was even more delighted to hear the tui and ruru calling in the early morning. The next day I was released.

About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit
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6 Responses to And now for something completely different – the researcher as participant (hospital patient)

  1. gordon says:

    HI there i had to go in to hospital several times over the years and could not understand why some people complain about every thing do they understand that the food is worked out health wise remember its
    not hotel food but much better and the staff work under pressure all the time so i salute them from the cleaners up to the highest paid member.To be a member of life saving teams like firemen..ambulance..and hospital they deserve praise not complaints i think i will shut up now ??? KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK EMMERGECY SERVICES



  2. 4.33 pm says:

    That foot pulser she mentions I found a blessing for my permanentiy cold feet.I agree the personal were great.


  3. Liz Baxendine says:

    Great that your researcher’s eye could give us such a clear picture of your operation. Best wishes for speedy recovery and let us know!


  4. Brian Mitcherson says:

    Interesting account. I spent 45 years working in hospitals as a Medical Laboratory Scientist and worked on innumerable patients throughout those years. However, it wasn’t until 8 years ago that I became a patient. I was diagnosed with lower bowel cancer and had to go through combined radiation and chemotherapy in Palmerston North, and then major surgery in Wellington Hospital. Subsequently I have had follow up surgeries in our Hawke’s Bay hospital along with some other stays for problems. It is so different seeing things from the receiving end, but, I have only praise for the way that people cared. It would have been useful to be able to experience being a patient before being a carer, but, it rarely works that way.


  5. Sue says:

    I found the whole write up exactly my experience in particular being woken regularly just as one drifted of to sleep, I expect it isn’t a holiday. Going 40 hours without food is stretching
    our capability a little far but have been there and can only agree one isn’t suppose to be
    hungry after and it’s very difficult to get nourishment at 3am which was when I came round.

    On the whole the reduced staff who are rushed of their feet do an excellent job.


  6. Carol Andrews says:

    Very informative and entertaining! Had you thought of sending it to the staff at the hospital? They might enjoy reading it.


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