August 20, 2013

Writing About: Hospitals

While I was writing the last book in my series, I realized that my protagonist had gone to the hospital twice (but as a patient only once). Hospitals are common places for people to go to in real life, as well as in fiction. Writers lead their characters to hospitals for many reasons. If one (or several) of your characters end up at a hospital, and you suddenly find yourself scratching your head about where to begin, this article is for you!

There are four places in a hospital that you can set as a scene.

#1: Operating room

Describe what the operating room looks like: the sterilized tools set on a tray, the heart monitor, and the group of doctors and nurses in scrubs, masks, and gloves. 

What happens in the operating room? Conduct a little research to know what a doctor would do in the circumstances that you are writing about. Make sure you know the correct names of drugs and procedures. This can easily be done with the help of the internet, or a medical professional who will let you pick their brain. You don't even have to get real technical! 

Make sure to add dialogue. Have the surgeon give orders, and voice his/her worries while they are trying to save the patient’s life.

You don’t have to write about every single thing that the doctors and nurses do, but knowing how to end the scene is key. You can leave it on an exciting note where the reader won’t know if the patient survived, or you can bring the event to a close by bringing the patient's bleeding and heart rate under control.

#2: ICU/Hospital Room

What does the patient look like lying in the hospital bed? Do they have IV’s in their arms, a breathing tube or an oxygen mask? Do they have bandages on their limbs or visible stitches? Are they awake or unconscious?

Is a loved one sitting in a chair nervously watching their heart monitor, and praying the patient will wake up? Or are they offering the patient ice chips? Let your readers in on how they feel. Is your character desperately holding back tears, pacing back and forth, or joking with the nurses to lighten the mood? 

If the patient is awake, reveal his/her feelings about being hospitalized, and about his/her illness or injury. Does the patient have to stay in bed? Describe their agitation about not being home, and having to watch soap operas all day. 

There is so much that you can include in the ICU/hospital room scene in your book. Use as much detail as possible so your readers can feel as though they are right there with your character(s).

This is a picture of . . . my arm when I was in the ER due to heart problems.

#3: Waiting Room

Maybe you’ve never had to wait in a hospital waiting room, but I can bet that you’ve at least been in a waiting room in a doctor’s offices. Write about the uncomfortable chairs, the nude walls, the droning television, and let’s not forget the hospital stench! You know what I’m talking about . . . that sterilized smell that clings to your nose hairs.

Then reveal how your character is feeling while waiting to hear about their loved one. Tell your readers about their fears, their guilt, their worry, and whatever might be running through his/her head. In stressful situation, it's sometimes hard for our brains to process what is going on. Your character could be thinking about the pile of laundry they have to tackle, or they could be planning every step that they have to take to help their loved one.

Don’t forget to write about the moment when the doctor comes to speak to your character about the patient’s condition. And make sure to use emotion! Waiting rooms are bursting with emotions. How would you feel if it was your husband/wife, father/mother, etc. in the hospital? What would you do? Go there in your mind then go there in your writing. 

#4 Hospital Chapel:

First, explain why your character is going to the chapel. Are they religious, and need to spend time with the Lord to pray and find peace? Or are they searching for answers? Maybe coming to the chapel to speak to God for the first time?

Then let your readers in on every emotion and thought they have as soon as they step into the chapel. Do they feel a sense of security the moment they walk through the doors, or a deeper feeling of grieve as their fears are more real than before. If they pray, tell your readers every word they say or think. And when they leave the chapel, show the impact their time in the chapel had on them. Do they feel stronger or weaker? Do they have understanding or are they more confused than ever?

And of course, don’t forget to describe the chapel! Churches are so architecturally beautiful. Try to visit chapels in hospitals or look at pictures to get ideas.

A big thank you to Gina Stoneheart for writing about the Lady of Lourdes hospital in Camden, New Jersey, and letting me share it on my blog to bring some insight to others about what it’s like to be in a hospital’s chapel. 
"Once you plant yourself on one of the pews, cushioned in that churchly color of maroon red, you almost forget about all of the illness and sickness residing merely footsteps away from the Chapel. The altar literally sits directly below the statue of the blessed Mother. The Chapel is always open for patients, visitors and associates. It is a place of scripture, worship and prayer from which comfort, grace and blessing flow into the halls and rooms of Lourdes. My favorite part about having the Chapel located right in the center of the hospital is if I need to take a walk or stretch my legs after sitting with my mother for several hours straight, I simply take a few strides to the heart of Lourdes, and reflect as I gather my thoughts in prayer.  It truly serves as my gateway to a better understanding and affirmation that my mom's struggles will soon be lifted."
Recovery Room: You can also write about the recovery room where patients go after their surgeries. The only reason why I didn't mention this option as a potential scene is only because patients aren't here for long, and when they are . . . they are unconscious from the anesthesia.

You can also write about the cafeteria and doctor's lounges/locker room if your character(s) is a doctor. Watch E.R. and Grey's Anatomy to see what a doctor's lounge/locker room looks like.

For inspiration read my short memoir about my spine surgery: Woman of Steel (Scroll down to the bottom of page 5.)
TIP: If you're like a fellow blogger who commented and you're writing a story set in the future, I can't really tell you what the medical field will be like, but I imagine people will still act the same so you can still use these tips for your characters. But if you follow this link: you can see what a hospital room can look like.

SHARE: Your tips for writing about a hospital.


  1. Having spent yesterday in hospital while my son had an operation, your article was incredibly apt. What I noticed most yesterday were the people - staff, patients and families - and the smells.

    1. Thank you, Fi! I was able to write this article based off a lot of experience. I really hope your son is doing okay after his operation! <3

  2. I relate to your post on so many levels. Thankfully, I have never been a patient, but my mother and tragically, my aunt, both have. We lost my aunt last month to lung and breast cancer. And my mother has been in and out of the hospital for two years now due to liver failure and a transplant. I've become accustomed to all of the different staff members and their moods, as well as the various smells that you come across from one floor to the next. My favorite part of the hospital where my mom stays is the church. Its beauty and divinity bring me a sense of solace when I need to be by myself in prayer for my mother and the rest of the patients. Your post today is very helpful for writers who need to build a strong connection for the reader. And if anyone needs any further assistance, please don't hesitate to ask me! You mentioned that you, too, have had experience within the hospital, Chrys. I hope nothing serious but would love to hear more about it. Sometimes, it's good to talk to someone about these things. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I'm sorry for your loss, Gina! And I am praying for your mother! Your posts about what you and your mother are going through are so moving. I'm glad that you (and Fi) were able to relate to this post because it confirms that I did it correctly.

      I've never been inside a hospital's church/chapel before since I've always been a patient, but that could be another place a character can go in a hospital. If you would like to write a couple of small paragraphs about a hospital chapel, I will add it to this post, include your name and the link to your blog. It would be a great addition!

      The longest I was in the hospital was for five days for spine surgery. I included a link at the bottom of the post to a story I wrote about my experience. My story starts on page 5 (at the bottom). I've also had two other minor surgeries, so I've had quite a bit of experience as a patient.

      Thank you for your comment! I really appreciate it!

  3. Your prayers mean so much to us and I can't say thank you enough. They are the greatest gift and act of kindness that someone can give to another human being. My mother always asks me to thank those who pray for her so I'm sending a BIG Thank You from her, Cecilia. I would love to write a few small paragraphs regarding the chapel inside of the church. As soon as I have this ready for you, I will email you. I would also love to hear more about your experience, but I can't find the link at the bottom. If you wouldn't mind sending it to me, I'd appreciate it! I just noticed your FB below so I'm heading over there now. It's my pleasure to come by here!

    1. Praying is the least I can do. :) Tell your mom she's welcome, and that I hope she will be in tip-tip shape soon! <3

      Your paragraphs will really add to this post. I'm excited to read what you write, so maybe when I write about a hospital again I can put one of my characters in a chapel. :) Here is my email:

      And here is the link to my essay: You will have to scroll down to the bottom of page five. It is titled "Woman of Steel".

      And thank you very much for visiting and liking my page. I am truly happy to build a friendship with you. :)

  4. This is great. The story I am working on right now has a character that visits his mother in the hospital, only this is 40 years in the future. So, I have to somehow think up how hospitals will look like in 40 years.

    1. Hello, KC! I am glad this post can assist you with your story. Writing about futuristic hospitals will be tricky. I went on a little hunt to help you out.

      Here is a link of a picture of what a hospital room could look like based off a design by the American Medical Association and the Apple Store:

      And then I found this general outlook for what the world would be like in 2050-2059:

      GOOD LUCK! :)

  5. Thank you for sharing my post about the Chapel inside of Lady of Lourdes Hospital; that means so much to me, Chrys! The next time I go to there to visit my mom, I'm going to show her nurses and some of the doctors. They will love it! I never realized how much the hospital and Chapel affected me until spending so much time there. Your advice and techniques are going to help a lot of authors who need to create these kinds of settings. Especially when they have to search deeply enough to make the reader feel everything that the patient and other characters are going through.

    1. Knowing that this post means a lot to you, and that you're going to show it to your mom's nurses and some doctors fills me with so much pleasure! Thank you for your kind words! Helping writers to write these sense authentically for patients (both real and fictional) was my goal, and having confirmation that it does makes me so happy. :) Give your mom a gentle hug for me. <3

  6. Those are good points that will help writers to create the correct atmosphere with their descriptions.

  7. Really helpful I'm writing a story where one of the characters falls off a balcony and ends up in the ICU, and that was really, really helpful.

    1. Sounds like an interesting story. And yikes for your character! Good luck with your hospital scenes!

  8. Please help me. My character was stabbed and was passed out in the hospital for three days.
    1. Is a feeding tube necessary?
    2. Is three days too long?

    1. Unconscious is a better term than "passed out." :) I'm not e medical professional. Usually the most during that time period they;d have is an IV and a catheter. It would be best if you did this research for yourself, though. You could probably find the answer on Google.