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Going to the hospital isn't what it used to be. Once upon a time, or so the stories go, a hospital patient checked in, got her problem taken care of, was nursed back to health and went home a week or so later, feeling great.

Now, even a heart transplant won't keep you in the hospital for more than a few days.

That makes it all the more important to know how to manage a hospital stay — to understand who's who, who can do what and what you'll need to take care of on your own.

Letting us in on a few secrets for a successful stay are three staff members from Via Christi Regional Medical Center in Wichita, Kan.: Alice Thornton Bell, vice president of clinical services; Angi Gragg, director of case management; and Brian Katan, medical director of emergency services. Katan is a physician; Bell and Gragg are nurses.

Fact or fallacy: If you have an emergency, call an ambulance. You'll be seen more quickly than if you arrive by car.

The truth: Maybe. Maybe not. If your 6-year-old breaks his arm and arrives by ambulance, he'll probably be taken to a treatment room before someone who arrives by car. But a 48-year-old with chest pain who has driven herself to the emergency room is going to be treated first.

Hospital emergency departments use a triage system, which prioritizes which patient needs to been seen first, second and third. And a possible heart attack trumps a broken arm.

(If you or your spouse is the one with chest pain, please call an ambulance. People in a panic don't make good drivers.)

Fact or fallacy: If you know you're going to the hospital, pack everything you might need.

The truth: Depends on how you define "need." You "need" a list of the medicines you take (or the medicines themselves), your advance directives if you have them, a list of things you're allergic to, a photo ID, your insurance card and a way to pay any co-pays.

(If you're older or have an older parent, consider imitating Bell, who keeps her mother's advance directives in her car, so they're always handy in case of emergency.)

Leave your valuables, including rings and watches, at home.

If you have a favorite pillow or blanket that will help you feel better, it's OK to take it.

Fact or fallacy: When you leave the hospital, you'll be ready to resume your usual routine.

The truth: Fallacy. These days, nearly everyone goes home needing help with dressings, medications or similar services. Make sure you've arranged for help before you leave the hospital. Your case manager can assist you.

Fact or fallacy: If your doctor wants you to get pain medication at 9 a.m., you're entitled to raise a fuss if it's not there by 9:05.

The truth: Nope. If 40 people on your unit are supposed to get medication at 9 a.m., there's no way they can all get it exactly at 9. The nurses' goal is to get everyone taken care of in a range of time — between 8:30 and 9:30, for example.

Fact or fallacy: Your nurse is the one in charge of your care.

The truth: Sometimes. You'll be assigned a "case manager" who may be a nurse or a social worker or someone else, depending on the hospital. They are the ones responsible for coordinating your care. They'll make sure you go home with the help and/or equipment you need, for example. They may help with insurance issues or with making arrangements for physical therapy.

You're also likely to deal with dietitians, occupational therapists, chaplains and others.

When someone comes into your room, it's perfectly OK to ask, "What is your role? What do you do here?"

Fact or fallacy: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

The truth: Mostly fact. You must be an advocate for your own care. If you haven't gotten your medication or your meal, speak up. If the nurse should have been by, call. If you've been waiting patiently in the emergency room for an hour and a half, ask for an estimate on when you'll be seen.

But do it nicely. Being obnoxious or rude won't win you any points. Neither will asking every three minutes. You'll be like the boy crying "wolf" and may not get attention even when you truly do need it.

THINKING AHEAD

Hospital staff members suggest that you think ahead:

If you were to break your leg today, who would you call? Could a neighbor or co-worker pick your children up from school if your spouse was out of town? Who'd let your dog outside? Who'd call your relatives?

If you know you have a hospital visit coming up, plan for it as you would for a vacation, giving houseplants an extra watering and making arrangements to have mail held, for example.

At the hospital, have a family member or friend take notes and ask questions on your behalf. Identify one person to give updates to the rest of the family, so that six siblings aren't calling in to see how Mom's doing.

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