Thursday, January 14, 2010
Hospitals and Hope
I once read a book called The Accidental Tourist (later made into a movie with William Hurt and Geena Davis), where the Davis character muses about hospitals. If an alien came down and watched an ambulance drive up to an ER and get surrounded by health-care workers, the alien would think us remarkably compassionate beings. What a strange institution a hospital is, when you think about it: a building dedicated to altruistic behavior. Several floors of highly organized departments, run by people with various levels of medical or administrative training, the whole beehive-like structure designed to receive injured or ill humans and either heal/cure them, help them deal with their problems, or usher them to a relatively painless, peaceful death. I was at a hospital on Tuesday, helping a relative with day surgery. The staff was efficient and gentle, for the most part, and everything seemed to go well. I handled language differences (between patient and workers), read over instructions for post-op care, and offered support. My relative was understandably stressed and vigilant, but appreciated every smile and reassurance through the ordeal. You don't have to be anxious like my relative to find hospital admission an intimidating experience. Issues about the reason for being admitted aside, the fact that your sense of personal dignity and autonomy is greatly compromised - perhaps even taken away completely - shakes the Self to the core. Whether it is wart removal or open-heart surgery, the basic set-up of handing your body and feelings over to strangers is the same. For people unused to trusting others, or ceding control, it must be particularly hard to deal with. The first healers were likely women, caring for their own children, then their siblings and mother (fathers and husbands might be away often or dead), then the children of friends, and on and on, until the circle of concern widened beyond genetic bonds to the pseudo-genetics of close associates. (That is, people who are not likely related, but feel related due to shared values, etc.) Eventually, in small groups, gifted herbalists and healers tended to all, and passed down their skills to daughters and granddaughters. Medicine changed when men took it on; the way skills were acquired and shared was institutionalized. Women were excluded for many centuries. Today, we take for granted the presence of hospitals in most settlements, and their cohorts of strangers caring for other strangers. Hospitals are symbols of hope: places where connections form, howvere temporarily, and selfless behavior exhibited, without an obvious or immediate evolutionary explanation.