A patient’s experience of surgery and hospitals during a pandemic

In this blog post, I’ll be talking about three inherently sensory and emotional transformations that I noticed between April and July 2020. In this time period, I was diagnosed with recurrent tumours; as a result, I had several appointments, major surgery, and seven day stay in hospital. 

It’s worth noting that I had major surgery under normal conditions several years ago. As such, I’m able to compare what it was like then to what it was like this year.

Telephone appointments

When you’re in the run-up to major surgery, you typically have several face-to-face appointments with your consultant before your operation date. You normally have an initial diagnosis appointment at which you are told the details about what’s wrong, and then a follow-up appointment to give you further details and context about your surgery.

As a result of the pandemic, I had the majority of my appointments over the phone. For example, in April 2020, at the height of the pandemic, my consultant told me over the phone that my tumour had come back and that I was going to need treatment. While it was safer for my consultant to tell me over the phone instead of bringing me into hospital, it was much harder to process mentally. 

The appointment did not require physical attendance at the hospital – which I usually find very stressful – so I had not psychologically prepared in the same way that I normally would. Typically, the thought of going into the hospital for my check-ups is usually enough to convince me that there is something wrong. Receiving the news outside of the hospital was far more shocking. It was also harder to ask questions because I was not physically with my consultant.

Telephone appointments also have an effect on your ability to translate medical jargon into non-specialist language. When you can’t see your consultant’s body language and other non-verbal cues, you lose vital pieces of information that tell you important things, like the severity of the condition that your consultant is explaining. This challenges your ability to predict and interpret what they are about to tell you, which can dramatically increase your anxiety. 

Masks

Masks have the ability to dramatically reduce the spread of COVID-19 and they are vital within hospital settings. I also found that they had some interesting effects on communication.

When you are experiencing face-to-face care, it is of paramount importance that you can communicate your pain levels to the professional who is looking after you. In my experience, pain is one of the hardest things to communicate, regardless of whether you’re in hospital or not. It’s so subjective in nature, and the words you use to describe it are so personal and unique to you. If you do end up feeling like your pain has been misunderstood, it can be a distressing and isolating experience.

On one occasion, I found myself feeling frustrated and misunderstood when I was trying to communicate my pain to a professional within the hospital. I was not wearing a mask (due to the tubes in and around my nose), but the professional I was talking to was wearing a mask. I felt that she didn’t understand the nature of my pain or how much pain I was in. This was made even worse by the fact that I couldn’t see her face or her facial non-verbal cues; as such, what she was saying lacked emotional context which added to my frustration.

Because of the potential for the above to occur, I found that some medical professionals tended to over-communicate. They were incredibly animated, especially with their voices and hands. A physiotherapist actually went out of her way to tell me that she had a very expressive face, that wasn’t entirely visible with her mask on. Even though I couldn’t see her face, this made me feel much brighter and like I had a real connection with her.

Visiting

During the pandemic, visiting in hospital has turned virtual. Keeping in touch with loved ones is reliant on visuals and sound – an experience that is devoid of touch and smell. 

Touch and smell are the two senses that connect me to my family and loved ones the most – whether that be through hugs or through the scent of home, familiar laundry detergent, or perfume. Not being able to see them or my partner was probably the most challenging thing of all.

Professionals within the hospital, particularly nurses, can be affected by this. I felt that I needed and wanted far more attention from the nurses who were looking after me. This is not something that has happened when I’ve stayed in hospital before, as my family were typically the ones catering to my emotional needs. 

Receiving treatment during this time was even stranger than I had imagined. I can’t even begin to imagine how stressful it is being the ones to actually carry out the treatment, and for that, I have endless gratitude and respect for those who work in the NHS.


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