Family and friends visiting patient in hospital ward and talking with doctor. Female physician sharing the recovery of hospitalised man with his friends. Image Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Over the years and in several of the countries of the Gulf, I have noticed that hospitals often become centres of social gatherings, particularly with the more traditional families. If a family member is admitted, you can be sure that he or she will be entertaining the entire family and friends to boot during the stay there.

My wife was admitted at a local hospital recently after she was down with a bronchial viral infection. The daily visits to cheer her up provided me with a brief snapshot of how hospitals strive for order and how patients and visitors alike seem take off in the opposite direction.

It was one of the better hospitals in Jeddah, well laid out with soothing and friendly decor. The hospital was not a very large one, but had all the conveniences that patients and visitors would need. The staff members for the most part were courteous and amiable, and one did not immediately sense that it was primarily a commercial enterprise, hungry to get your last drop of blood, unlike many of the other such institutions.

During my visits, I happened to observe quite a few radical violations of stipulated rules. For one, in spite of ‘No Smoking’ signs everywhere, some people insisted on flouting them. While this infraction may be tolerable at other places, it is certainly not acceptable in a hospital. In fact, on the fourth floor, at a lounge for children not far from the room where my wife was admitted, adults were busily puffing away near the emergency exit, while watching a football match on television. My requests to curtail this misbehaviour within the premises were obeyed only during my presence. Once my back was turned, out came more puffs of nicotine. My complaints to the hospital staff on this issue were usually met with shrugs of helplessness.

The next common transgression I immediately noticed was how we tend to park right at the entrance. It doesn’t matter if there are ‘No Parking’ signs posted. If we can double and triple park, so be it! In fact, a few visitors had driven all the way on the sidewalk closest to the entrance. God help those pedestrians and visitors who would have to navigate between this jungle of oddly parked cars. The extremely ‘bold’ and ‘adventurous’ ones had even gone as far as parking their vehicles at spaces designated for the ambulances.

Cellular phone usage was de rigueur with the visitors as they sat in the lobby or by the doctor’s waiting room. The different ring-tones of several cell phones on the patients’ floor one evening drove me nuts! Cellular microwave signals could and often do play havoc with the settings of life-support equipment.

And then there were the visitors! Not content to limit themselves to small parties or groups, these people came in herds, carrying everything save the kitchen sink into the patient’s room. Flasks of tea or pots and pans containing home-cooked food were brought in by weary maids. This was party time, and the visiting crowd swelled ten-fold during weekends. The home-cooked meals may taste better, but weren’t the patients aware that they had to follow a strict and regimented diet prescribed by the doctors for their speedy recovery?

And the children! They simply ran in and out of the rooms and used the hallways for track and field events! Have we totally lost control as parents?

Whenever people are in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, more attention seems to be paid to the visitors than the patients. This whole culture of calling on sick people in hospitals seems to have gone out of hand. Instead of being there for the patient, the friends and family members act as hosts, serving tea, coffee, soft drinks, chocolates, dates etc. It can’t be restful for the patient either, having a room full of visitors, maids and children.

When I spoke to a Saudi lady about her experience while her father-in-law was in hospital, she felt the same way, too. She was absolutely exhausted. She said: “When I deliver my next child, don’t expect any chocolates, I’m opting out of that whole thing. Let’s stop this hospital circus and put the patient first.”

While I believe that all patients welcome visitors to help them break the monotony and boredom of hospital stay — and especially those patients whose mobility is severely restricted — we, as visitors, must try to respect their need for comfort and welfare and abide by the hospital’s rules. And let us not forget the issue of convenience of other patients whom we do not know.

Hospitals are there to fix the sick. They are not there to be treated as venues for social gatherings.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. You can follow him on Twitter: @talmaeena.