OBJECTIVE Understanding feelings, meaning and resilience in patients staying in public hospitals in north-eastern Brazil. METHODS An ethnographic investigation was carried out in Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil, between January and July 2005 which involved 13 adult patients staying in a general public hospital, using qualitative methods. Free, open and exhaustive observation (by means of ethnographic interviews) was combined with the participants' description of vivid moments in their lives and their observations. The data was organised by thematic categorical analysis and humanisation, psychology and medical anthropology criteria were used for interpreting it. RESULTS Multiple feelings were perceived by the patients (both negative and positive ones) regarding their experience of being hospitalised. The meaning of hospital for them covered danger, prison, suffering and learning. They used resilience strategies, ties of solidarity between patients, friends and family members, attitudes, thoughts and personal characteristics and religious faith for confronting their adversities. CONCLUSIONS The results encouraged us to continue taking steps towards professional practice facilitating harmonious coexistence in the hospital setting and carrying out further studies aimed at increasing patients' resilience.