by Shoshana Forester Smith as Published in Kveller Magazine

In Judaism, bikkur holim refers to the mitzvah (good deed) of visiting and providing aid to the sick. As a recipient of bikkur holim, I cannot tell you what a difference it has made in my life.

Being chronically ill and in long-term care, as I am, is very different than having an acute illness with a short hospitalization. After awhile, people tend to visit less, or find it uncomfortable visiting someone who isn’t getting better. People have a hard time grasping that sometimes recovery isn’t possible. People want to fix you, but they can’t, so they feel frustrated.

Here’s the thing, though: Visits from friends and family mean the world to someone who is in long term care. It is an opportunity to get outside our own heads and discuss things other than illness. It is a respite from institutionalization. 

I am 36, so I realize I am not the typical long term care patient. Two years ago, with the support of my family, I made the decision to be admitted to a chronic care unit in a long term care hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba — on Hanukkah, no less. This was after eight years of essentially living 10 months a year in the hospital, dealing with the fallout from complex medical problems, including gastroparesis and chronic intestinal pseudo obstruction that made it difficult to eat and drink, reliant on IV therapy and a feeding tube, and with constant nausea and pain that was difficult to control. Chronic care is a solution for patients who have medical needs beyond what can be managed in a typical nursing home. It’s essentially a medical ward for people who will never be able to return home. 

People who are chronically ill often struggle to find meaning in their situations — personally, I grapple with having an identity outside all the things that are medically wrong with me. Before I got sick, I built an identity around my job, my volunteer work, and my graduate studies. When that all came to a grinding halt, I felt completely lost. 

At first, I didn’t want visitors — I didn’t want to have to explain that I wasn’t going to get better. Then, I put my guard down and welcomed the company. I realized these visits helped me escape from my own personal hell. I loved hearing about what was going on in other people’s lives, about their triumphs and struggles. I found that I still had something to contribute, even if it was just a fresh perspective. I mentored people, which was rewarding, and I helped people find apartments and jobs. I wrote people’s resumes and cover letters — and even a few resignation letters — and I edited term papers. This was all possible thanks to visits from loved ones, which helps me feel connected to the world outside my hospital room. 

By being involved in people’s lives in different ways, my life still had a purpose. I have often said I will keep on fighting as long as I can contribute to the lives of those around me. 

A lot of people have good intentions of staying in touch with friends and family who are sick. But between work, kids, caring for family members, chores, and other day-to-day activities, it’s easy to put off visiting that friend or relative. My advice? Don’t. Make time for the people in your life — you will get as much out of it as the person you are visiting will. Being around sick people helps you put the pressures of life in perspective. If you don’t have your health, nothing else really matters like what your job title is or how much money you have in the bank. 

When my grandma was sick when I was in my early 20s, I tried to visit her several times a week. I was with her in her final days on life support. Even though she was in a coma and could not communicate, I will never forget how she squeezed my hand when I told her I loved her. In situations like these, bikkur holim is food for your soul. 

If you want to take part in this mitzvah, as everyone should, here are some tips to keep in mind:

1. Don’t try to fix me when you come visit. If bee pollen or cupping could cure what ails me, believe me, I would have tried it. When people suggest treatments to the chronically ill, it makes them feel like they have failed at looking after themselves. Sadly, those of us with chronic illness have generally been through the wringer of tests, treatments, medications, and procedures that don’t always help and that sometimes can even cause harm.

2. Do ask me how I’m doing. Being sick can be one of the loneliest things in the world, because you feel like no one really understands what you are going through. The ability to speak candidly about what you are experiencing can make the experience a bit less lonely. If someone doesn’t want to discuss how they are really feeling they will likely say “fine” and change the subject. If you feel comfortable, you can press a little to see if you can get them to open up. If they don’t want to discuss their health, they will likely deflect you again, and at that point, do not press the issue.

3. I don’t need gifts, flowers, or food when you come to see me — you are enough for me. Those of us living in care don’t have a lot of room for stuff. I encourage my visitors to bring gifts of toiletries to redistribute to the other residents who don’t have friends and family to bring them shampoo, toothpaste, and the like. Those residents appreciate those gifts so much even though it is such a simple gesture. 

4. But if you really want to bring a gift, a nice gesture is to bring a food or drink that you know your friend enjoys — but check with their nurse first to make sure it’s allowed. Pictures and cards are another good gift; most patients have wall space or even bulletin boards for those things and they are a nice reminder of loved ones when you feel lonely. 

5. Digital visits also count! I FaceTime with friends and family who don’t live nearby. Just like in-person visits, these virtual hangouts give me energy and remind me that life goes on. It fills me with purpose. For example, my nephew lives over nine hours away, so I don’t spend a lot of time with him in person. But we video chat a few times a week — it’s important to me that I still get to be a part of his life even if we live far apart.

6. Bring the kids — I love it! Children have a magical way of helping change your perspective. They don’t look around a hospital room and see illness and disability; they see things to explore and play with. Plus, when friends and family bring their children, they are teaching their children a valuable lesson — that we should make time to visit those who are sick or housebound. It’s important to include these people in our daily lives; it is reciprocal joy. 

So thank you to everyone who goes out of their way to keep me involved in their life. Your visits are the best gift you can give because you are giving me the gift of time, which is priceless.