“The Hospital”

When I was younger, I used to watch soap operas during my self-assigned lunch breaks. I worked at home, and ate my daily sandwich as a visitor to “Salem,” a mythical small town populated by an ever-conflicted, and often curiously inbred, bunch of characters inhabiting the “Days of Our Lives.”

This modest all-American village, “Salem,” was evidently home to a magnificent “Hospital,” where most of the residents spent more than half their convoluted lives, suffering there everything from difficult childbirths (with questionable paternity claims), to potentially terminal diseases of suspicious origin, to psychosomatic nervous breakdowns, to severely disfiguring burn injuries and the inevitable accompanying losses of memory and identity.

“The Hospital” was a Parallel Universe in Salem. Almost everyone who lived in Salem was apparently a doctor, a nurse, a receptionist, an administrator, an orderly, an EMT, a volunteer “Candy Striper,” and, of course, at least a part-time patient, at “The Hospital.” (Many an episode ended with a slow fade on a close-up of a pivotal character breathing laboriously with a respirator, with his or her face entirely swathed in bandages…) “The Hospital” was a complex and mysterious labyrinth of patient rooms, operating rooms, waiting rooms, cafeterias, elevators, corridors, offices, and storage rooms, in which at least eighty percent of the interpersonal relationships in all of Salem were begun, nurtured, furthered, and sometimes – excitingly – culminated. Nobody important really existed, and nothing significant ever really happened, outside “The Hospital.” (If they did, they inevitably led directly to… “The Hospital.”) That’s the way it was in Salem and, I assumed, in every other hospital in the world.

At that point in my life, I hadn’t had much personal “hospital experience,” other than visiting my parents during their more frequent visits there, as they grew older. In the last few years, I myself seem to be growing older, and so have had more cause to find myself a “voluntary” patient in our local hospital. (So far, my visits have all been as an outpatient, and only one required emergency orthopedic surgery, so my experience is still somewhat limited.)

I never look forward to going to “The Hospital,” and I’ve often wondered why, considering that the reason for my going to “The Hospital” in the first place is inevitably to investigate and/or solve some problem that’s cropped up; the experience itself has never been particularly unpleasant; and the results – so far – have always been positive. So what’s my problem?

It’s this: Going to “The Hospital” requires that I actually enter that Parallel Universe, rather than just observing it while eating my sandwich – a place where I am a confused stranger, unknown by all, not knowing where to go or what to do, with no idea what’s going to happen to me. Yes; the Hospital Staff “explains” everything that’s going to happen, using words that are as unthreatening as possible… But I know damned well that an “entry site” is a HOLE, a “procedure” is really an OPERATION, involving sharp cutting instruments, and we all know what “you may experience some mild discomfort” really means…

But, more than that, going to “The Hospital” requires the voluntary removal and leaving behind of all the little talismans we’ve chosen, over the years, to display to the world who we’ve decided we are: Jewelry, clothing, nail polish, lipstick, all “identification” other than a medical insurance card and a credit card, and, of course, the sturdy plastic wristband that makes our total surrender perfectly clear to all. We must set aside being Our Own Person, and become The Hospital’s Person. We will go where they tell us to go, stuff all of our clothing into the plastic bag they’ve given us, wear the “gown” and the non-skid socks everybody wears, lie down where they tell us to lie down, for as long as they tell us to lie there, sit up, roll over, and take a deep breath when they tell us to take a deep breath. We will do everything they tell us to do, and nothing we may “feel” like doing. Our most strongly-held convictions are stuffed into that plastic bag with our sweatpants and teeshirt and underwear, and our rapier wit, our many accomplishments, our plans for the future, and our personal relationships, matter not one whit in The Hospital. The only things that matter are the beeps on the heart and oxygen-level monitors to which we have been attached, whether or not we’ve had anything to eat or drink in the last twelve hours, and the suitability of our veins for the insertion of an IV…

Of course, this is exactly the way everything SHOULD be. I want a surgeon who looks at “me” as an assemblage of organs, tissues, and veins pretty much like every other assemblage of organs, tissues, and veins he or she has ever encountered. I want him or her to be operating – literally – in very familiar territory, where there is nothing special at all, anywhere, about “me.” I want nothing to be amiss, or out of order, other than the specific problem he or she intends to remedy. (If there’s any place I really don’t want to hear anybody say something like, “Oh, s**t; what’s this?” it’s while I’m lying flat on my back, half-naked and half-stoned, on a table in the OR…)

I’ve worked hard recently to put aside the notion that I must somehow present myself as The Best Patient Ever, or the Nicest Patient, or make sure the doctor “knows” me, to reassure myself that he or she will do an especially good job on me – a notion based on what I hope is the profoundly mistaken idea that a surgeon applies a level of competency determined by how much he or she “cares” about a particular patient. I’ve never felt successful in this effort on my part, and for that failure I now realize that I am grateful. What I really want, despite all my ego-driven (and therefore misdirected) attempts to the contrary, is a surgeon whose focus is unshakably dedicated to the success of the job at hand – every job – and not on his or her appraisal of the worthiness of the client, even if that client is my usually charming, and ever-so-special, self. In my own professional life, I’ve done some pretty terrific work for clients I didn’t know well, and even for some I grew to detest. I doubt that anything’s much different, after all, in “The Hospital”… I may need to think I’m “special,” but those who work in “The Hospital” know that I am, in the most basic ways, just like everyone else – no better, and no worse. On the table, with life and death at hand, we are all pretty much the same.

And that’s worth remembering.