My stepmother has several clear rules: no sarcasm; be kind to all, especially animals; and any family member hospitalized must be accompanied by family or friends at all times.
I break the first rule with sad frequency. Never the latter two.
Recently, I volunteered to stay the night in the hospital with a relative battling a complex disease. Other family members were exhausted or in reserve for future emergencies. I wanted to help. Several years separated this hospital stay from my last, when another relative was in intensive care.
The hospitals are quite different as were the ailments being treated. But I recognized hospital time immediately.
In hospital time, day and night aren’t marked by sunlight or darkness. You know it’s night when a quiet settles over the ward punctuated by the beeping of an IV or the breathy gasps of a medical pump. Light comes from the heart and breath monitor: greens, reds and blues, a child’s crayons tossed on a black grid.
Nurses pad. On this ward, they pulled portable screens on rollers wherever they went, like silent porters. One nurse had decorated hers like a sentient robot, with fuzzy ears and a quizzical expression. Through the night, the patient – usually desperate for sleep – is woken to check vitals or administer medicine. It’s then that some patients weep: with fear, with pain, with coming to terms with the permanent loss of good health.
With what comes next.
This room was equipped by what I consider one of the worst inventions ever: the hospital reclining chair. I know why it’s sheathed in baby blue vinyl, but for what earthly purpose is it made not to fully recline? Even at perfectly healthy temperature of 98.6 degrees, night for me was a fever-dream. I adjusted and readjusted. I tossed and turned. Once, a concerned nurse asked if I needed a blanket, but the recirculated air was uncomfortably warm, to accommodate the sick.
Day is bustle. Day is food smells. Day is doctor after doctor appearing, usually interrupting a meal.
The young ones are too sure of themselves, making bold pronouncements that canny patients like my relative quickly undercut. The older doctors have learned to balance their expertise with a better ear for the patients’ own wisdom as well as a deeper understanding of how maddeningly complex the body’s workings can be.
The specialists troop in: respiratory, physical therapy, social worker, chaplain. To a person, they are competent, cheery and pressed for time. Janitors push bins that rumble like thunderstorms. The nursing assistants deliver ice and bedpans with equal dispassion.
The very ill drowse through it all. Those in recovery try to arrange themselves for guests, with limited success. There are no makeup tricks or hairstyles that complement the sea foam green of a hospital gown. To them, the promise of discharge is as yearned for and sometimes as elusive as a lottery win. Finally, finally, when they hit the jackpot of the attending’s signature and an available wheelchair, they’re giddy with delight as they put the ward in their rear view.
Friends and family
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate all that health workers have done for me and my sick friends and family. I’m a tourist here, able to (so far) come and go on my own power.
My own hospital stays have been brief and joyous. Fondly, I remember the Durham Regional ob-gyn nurse who held my newborn son like a football then whisked him away to the nursery to “meet some girls.” I still experience a twinge of irritation when I remember the Duke medical student who botched the epidural with my daughter’s birth. The pain killer drew a vertical line through me, the left side numb and the right feeling every ocean-large, clenching contraction.
When my brother started post-stroke rehab, the physical therapists seemed saint-like in their ability to offer encouragement, parry abuse and deliver hope, often in the same session and repeatedly.
But here’s what I thought in the darkness of hospital time: these spaces scare the bejesus out of me. As I do my own rounds of the ward (bringing decent coffee or tea, appetizing food, and this time bottles of the favored brand of coconut water), faces look up eagerly from their beds. Maybe they expect a visit. Perhaps the arrival of a dearly loved child or friend is imminent. Perhaps they’re waiting in vain for a visitor who will never come.
Perhaps they think health itself will stroll through the door, in happy scrubs. Hospitals are hope and recovery, but also fear and loss. Maybe I’m spooked since it’s never clear which one will prevail.
Robin Kirk, a writer and human rights advocate, teaches at Duke University. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org