By: David Seyfert

life·hack
/ˈlīfˌhak/

life hack is any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life.  Life hacks,are all about eliminating life’s manifold frustrations in simple and deliciously clever ways.

The good news is that you’re going to the NIH, you will have access to the finest physicians, researchers, and medical facilities in the world with almost unlimited resources.  The bad news is that there’s a reason you need you need to be at the NIH in the first place.

Here are some tips to hopefully make your stay a less stressful and more user friendly experience especially in a time when COVID protocols have been enacted at the NIH.

My son was recently admitted to the NIH for three days and I stayed “off campus.”  I had a car with me so I used the opportunity to stay at two hotels on the NIH bus route (The American Inn of Bethesda and The Bethesda Marriott).  Both hotels listed themselves a little over a mile from the NIH so I thought I could walk to the hospital each morning. I could not.  I’m not sure from what part of the NIH each hotel used  to calculate the distance but by the time one reached the clinical center, it was probably closer to two miles.

The American Inn had free parking but a very small parking lot of a dozen or so spaces.  I was lucky enough to get the last space when I arrived at 10pm after a late afternoon arrival at the NIH – not sure where I could’ve parked if I hadn’t gotten that space.  The room rate was $100 per night for a room with a full sized bed and included a bag breakfast (the free morning buffet was closed due to COVID).  The room was very small and a bit dated but clean.  There is a Mexican restaurant next to the hotel and a bar across the street, but there are not any fast food restaurants or a place for a quick bite.  The closest place to grab something quickly was the convenience store of a nearby gas station.  Downtown Bethesda was also located well beyond walking distance so the hotel feels isolated.  Driving to the NIH in the morning from the American Inn is particularly stressful because you’re fully engulfed in the morning rush hour and there are a lot of lights.  The one positive is the there is a Trader Joe’s and Target literally hidden away in a small complex on the way back to the NIH – I drove past this shopping center twice even using GPS.  

I relocated to the Marriott for the remainder of my stay – both the American Inn and the Marriott offer special rates for NIH visitors.  The Marriott has ample parking but charges $10 a day in addition to the $130 daily room rate.  The Marriott did offer a much better rate to Marriott reward customers and so I was able to secure a rate of $120 a night with parking included.  (Depending on the time of year, a hotel’s reward program, or AAA, or AARP rate, etc. may be lower than the NIH rate – be sure to inquire as to which is the lowest rate.The Marriott is a much more upscale hotel than the American Inn.  I had a room with a king sized bed in a room that was triple the size of the American Inn.  There is a restaurant on the premises – I found the dinner selections limited and a bit pricey but convenient.  The breakfast menu was more extensive and much more reasonably priced.  One of the absolute best things about the hotel is that it’s a very quick drive (less than 5 minutes) to the West Cedar lane patient and patient visitor entrance.  Before COVID, the Marriott had their own shuttle to the NIH, but have they discontinued this service for over a year.  They are on the NIH shuttle route, but the earliest shuttle is 7:30 am and the latest 6:10 pm, which I found to be too limiting to be of any practical use. 

Patients and visitors are admitted at the West Cedar lane entrance to the NIH.  All visitors will park their car to the right of security center and exit the vehicle.  Visitors will be asked to pass through a metal detector, luggage and bags will be x-rayed, and vehicles will be searched. Visitors under 16 need to be accompanies by an adult. Visitors will need to provide identification (e.g., driver’s license/passport), proof of vaccination and proof of negative COVID test within the previous three days. 

The parking garage is located under the NIH clinical center which will be directly up the hill as you pass through the security center.  To get to the parking garage, go up the hill to the right.  You’ll pass the Children’s inn (Building 62 on the NIH visitor map) on your right and make a right left turn just before the Edmond J Safra Family Lodge (Building 65).  At the parking garage, you’ll receive a parking pass after your car has swabbed to check for traces of explosives.  Visitor parking is located at the bottom of the entrance ramp, and it’s just a short walk to the visitor’s entrance to the clinical center.

Once you’ve entered from the parking garage, the current protocol is that your temperature will be checked, you’ll use hand sanitizer and replace your mask with an NIH-provided mask.  At this point, you’ll receive a color coded badge, which indicates that you’ve been through the COVID screening process for that day. You’ll need to repeat this process if you leave the NIH grounds.

The parking level garage entrance level is also the place to obtain an “extended visitor ID badge.”  There’s a desk to the left of the parking garage entrance where you can apply for this pass.  You’ll be asked to provide identification, and fill out  short application.  The approval process takes about an hour – after you return, you’ll have your picture taken and receive your ID badge.  Visitors with this pass will be able to drive onto the NIH campus without having to go through the screening process at the main gate.  After presenting your badge, you will directed around to the left of the security center and drive onto the campus.

Several APS1 families have stayed on campus at the Children’s Inn, which actually also accepts young adults.  I was told the Safra Family Lodge is geared more toward adults, has fewer restrictions than the Children’s Inn, but also fewer amenities.  Both the Children’s Inn and Safra Lodge are government/donation supported entities so they are not like Ronald McDonald houses that are open to anyone.  I don’t have a clear understanding of under what circumstances stays are permissible at each so it’s best to check with your  assigned patient coordinator to determine eligibility.  Given a choice of staying on or off campus, from personal experience, I would recommend staying on campus if you can to simplify and reduce the stress of your stay.  

There is a Starbucks (7am-8pm) in the main lobby of the clinical center as well as the  coffee bar (7am-3pm) next to the bookstore on the main level.  (The earliest you can get coffee is 7am!) The cafeteria (11-2, lunch only) is located in the basement.  There is also a concession stand located in the basement as well that is open from 8am to 6pm and has a wide selection of snacks as well as a few toiletry and personal items like a nail clipper and chapstick.    There is also a gift shop in the lobby and the bookstore located halfway between the front and back of the clinical center. Both feature a nice selection of NIH-themed clothing and merchandise.

I asked the APS type 1 Facebook group for their favorite NIH hacks and received the following responses:

Jaqueline Woods recommended the Bethesdan Hotel (Hilton) on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda.  She related that there was a free shuttle bus to the NIH but she would also take the 15 minute walk/ three block walk to campus. There is also free shuttle service to several Metro stations.  

Katherine Mitchell had this to say about the Safra Family Lodge:

“The Family Lodge is delightful if you can get in! Not sure what their current procedure is for accepting patients and families since I went a few years ago, but it might be worth calling.  If you can get in, it’s free, there’s a big community kitchen, the front desk staff is so sweet and there’s a free shuttle. It’s literally next door so it’s also an easy walk if you’re mobile and the weather isn’t icy.  Only downside is, you can’t have food in your rooms and they are serious about it – they check the rooms with dogs lol.”

Susan Hay Livingstone asked the following question:

“What is the age limit to stay in the pediatric wing? 18? What happens then? Is a parent not allowed to stay with child their in the hospital?l

To which Marcy Leblanc replied:  “It was 18 for us. I still stay with my daughter on the adult floor.”  

Marcy went on to add: “My biggest tip.. Avoid the American Inn – it has really gone down the tubes over the last few years .. We usually stay at the Hyatt. It has a hospital rate, sits on the bus route, is walkable to the NIH if need be and very walkable to lots of restaurants, shops etc. Also it literally sits on top of the Metro so you can go anywhere from there plus it does have parking for an additional fee. Another tip is, that is you miss the last shuttle to your hotel, Hospital security will have someone drive you back, you just have to ask.”

Cynthia Rhodes Albertsons had this helpful tip:

“Take a bag of snacks so you have something to eat when you get back from a test you had to fast for. That way you don’t have to wait an hour for food to come. This will honestly be most days.”

Katherine Mitchell added:

“I’ll piggyback off Cynthia’s idea. Since you can order as much food as you want, I would always order extra apples (aka non-refrigerated snacks) and stored them in my drawer for snacks to tide me over and bc I’m also a late night snacker. It worked since I forgot to bring enough snacks of my own the first time. I’m pretty sure you gave me this tip, Cynthia lol.”

APS Type 1 board member Robin Finch also recommended the Bethesdan Hotel and has also has stayed at the Hyatt Regency Bethesda.  She had this to say about the Hyatt and also added some very helpful tips as well:

“The Hyatt is right above a Metro stop on the red line. It’s just one stop away from the NIH stop and walking distance to downtown. I’ve never had a car there. The Hyatt was booked our last trip so we stayed at the Bethesdan. I took a cab from there to the Children’s Inn (there was a cab waiting in front of the hotel). We walked from the hotel to the Hyatt metro stop and there was a grocery store and restaurants in walking distance. The Bethesdan is on the NIH shuttle route but we were there on a weekend so not helpful. I’ll send you the name. The Children’s Inn provides free private car service to and from the airport. We got Door Dash delivered to the security gate next to the Inn because we weren’t allowed to leave campus because of Covid. The address for patient entrance near the Children’s Inn for taxi or food delivery purposes is 5300 West Cedar Ln, Bethesda, 20814.”

Thank you Jaqueline, Katherine, Susan, Marcy, Cynthia and Robin for your suggestions and recommendations. Please continue to share your favorite NIH tips, tricks and hacks in the APS Type 1 Facebook page.

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