July 20, 2014
A Hospital Traveler
If you try to carry too much of your regular life into a public hospital ward, you are doomed. Check in your precious privacy at the entrance and reset your standards of dignity to low grade expectation levels. Above all enter with an open mind. A lot of patients are like those dopes who expect to travel the world and find all the comforts of home, then complain bitterly when they have to succumb to whatever passes for “local.” Enter then with the mind of a true traveller. In The Old Patagonian Express, the travel writer Paul Theroux, passing through Puntarenas in Costa Rica, eschews the “civilized” (his word not mine) part of town – the Americanized suburbs which “tire the eye quickest,” and where he writes, “the traveler is an intruder.” Clinging to your normal life, like a human snail with your shell of normality on your back, will just make you homesick, frustrated, and maybe even angry.
I’m here for five days, Bay 5 Bed 6. I’ve been here before and, as always, it is a time to observe and of course it is travel of a sort, not a geographical journey through foreign places, but a glimpse into the lives of others. The medical stuff just sort of takes care of itself, but a patient can choose how they interact with the system and other people. It is here that character and personality reveal themselves, for better or worse. Nobody is here for the ride. They have to be here and the range of reactions is fascinating. I have seen them all; from beautiful, selfless generosity of spirit to downright meanness, anger, and spite that brings its inevitable harvest of conflict and aggression.
This being a neurological ward, there are always a couple of patients whose personalities, the face they present to the world, have been changed drastically by their condition. This time, the most obvious is Ben. Ben inhabits a new world and it sounds terrifying. He is an elderly Jewish man with a full beard, bed-bound and stick thin. Only his words reveal his inner torment, reflected in a constant stream of talking and shouting: “Nothing, nothing…..Let me have my life back…..What do you want from me?….I love you…..Let me out of this prison…..My daughter loves me…..She doesn’t love me any more…..She only loves herself.” At this point, Ben’s voice is full of sadness. “Lilly, Lilly, come here…..Please help me…..Let me out…..My head is falling…..I am dead in my wife.” He begins to sob. This is a brain breaking down, the fragility of the construct we call a life. In the not too distant past, he would have been regarded as a lunatic or possessed by demons, perhaps. Today, we know better. Or do we?
Reactions to Ben’s outbursts are generally very negative, resentful of the disruption, often there are comments to the effect that he should be moved. “Moved to where?” I ask. Are there to be special places for those whose illnesses make some of us uncomfortable? Too few of the fellow patients seem to recognize his needs and instead see only the problems he presents for them. They are not ready or prepared to travel and learn in this place. It is noticeable that those who are more accepting and empathetic are mostly those who, like me, are regular “residents” and have experienced these situations before.
On my third day here there is another revealing incident. Bed 3 is occupied by Paul, another regular who is a 60-year-old Welshman, naturally garrulous and sociable, but a little on the loud side. No, let’s be straight. Paul is loud. But Paul has a heart of Welsh gold and wants to help everyone. Late in the afternoon, Tom, a new patient, is brought in with his wife and Paul helps him settle in. A couple of hours later, Paul is making his way out of the ward and, in a friendly gesture, gently touches Tom’s lower leg as he passes the bed. What happened next reminded me of the scene in the first of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy when Bilbo suddenly turns from an old gentle Hobbit into a snarling, savage image when he thinks Gandalf is bent on stealing the Ring. Old Tom jumps out of bed and goes for Paul, shouting, “Get away. Get away.” His wife joins in. They close in on Paul and threaten him physically. The whole thing blew up so quickly. Paul is in shock. So am I. This is raw aggression that seemed to come from nowhere. They later apologize and the tension subsides. It’s another small lesson in life. Inside this couple’s charming exterior there was some smouldering anger that burst into flame all too easily. For a hospital “bed traveler,” this is grist to the mill and a damn sight better than that infernal TV in the corner.
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