Pittsburgh native's book shares tips on getting the best hospital care
Bonnie Friedman is in critical condition.
It's not her physical condition — she's the picture of “reasonably good health,” she chuckles — but the position she has learned to take in navigating hospitalization for the past quarter-century.
“Being critical of the hospital establishment (and the care it provides) has opened my eyes as to what I can get done for myself and others,” said the Pittsburgh native who has written the practical how-to guide “Hospital Warrior: How to Get the Best Care for Your Loved One” (People Tested Media; $16.95).
It has been a jagged journey for this “hospital warrior,” who now arms herself with an armada of facts and a need to facilitate hospitalizations for her loves ones, notably her husband, Bob, whose heart problems and infections have been an ongoing concern for the past 26 years.
But in a way, the roots of her role as medical renegade began in McKeesport, where she grew up, and during which time “my father had a series of health-care problems that ended in his hospitalization; I grew up watching these situations play out over a long period of time,” she said. “And I watched my mother try to cope with all the problems and complications the family faced.”
That was back in the '50s and '60s, “when hospitals were far different than they are today,” she says. Nevertheless, Friedman unearthed a few teaching moments that would help her develop into the warrior role she plays today.
“I learned from those experiences with my father that: one, spend as much time at the hospital as you can — it enables you to be more familiar with what is going on with your loved one's treatment; two, go to get help when you need it; and, three, keep a box of chocolates in your room.”
Forrest Gump as mentor? “My mother taught me that nurses will stop by if you have chocolates in your room.”
Those early lessons proved the basis of a plan she would activate years later when her husband developed life-threatening health problems.
“It's been an evolutionary process. I've been advocating for my husband for many years,” she says of his hospital treatments that began in 1990, “when he was critically ill and I didn't know if he would even make it.”
Friedman made up her mind to be the best advocate possible and challenge authorities when she herself felt challenged by her husband's critical needs, which came to a head in 2013. If she didn't understand doctors' jargon, she would just speak up and clear the air, she said. “I've always had chutzpah,” she said.
And while some surgeons have been notorious historically for acting like they're playing God, she found one who instead proved to be an angel of mercy. “He taught me how to (critically read) lab reports,” which she said didn't sit well with some ill-tempered nurses who were not accustomed to sharing information.
That doctor, Garry Ruben — now an associate professor at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, not far from Friedman's current home with her husband and two children in Silver Spring, Md., — “opened a large window for me” through which she could see clearly the importance of her own role in treating her husband.
Since then, “I have found that I am able to engage with many doctors on a most detailed level,” she said.
When taking such an involved position with her husband's care, she discovered that “you get respect and professionalism from the doctors in return.”
Her battles have often led her to befriend the medical establishment rather than antagonize it. As Friedman writes, “I have great admiration for hospitals, doctors and nurses. And I am truly indebted to the many wonderful, dedicated professionals who have cared for my husband over the years.”
In that time, Friedman has waged and won many a battle in gaining transparency of hospital treatments for her husband. It has become a medical mission for Friedman, who gave up her job as a communications consultant business owner to pursue this patient-advocacy role, which has taken her on many speaking engagements nationwide and led to her participating in panel discussions. She recently returned to Pittsburgh for five days of book-related appearances.
“I have been back to Pittsburgh often,” she said of the city she left in 1967. The area still is home for many relatives, including her sister, who resides in Monroeville.
The homecoming, which culminated in an appearance at the Monroeville Library and at a bookstore in Squirrel Hill, “felt very warm. It was a wonderful and heartwarming welcome back. It made me look at Pittsburgh with fresh eyes; it made me appreciate the city more.”
Of course, what she appreciates most these days is having her husband home and in good health. Does he consider her a superhero? “No,” Friedman said, “he considers me his wife.”
And they both consider themselves lucky. As Friedman writes on the book's dedication page: “For Bob, who thrives.”
Michael Elkin is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.