This is a corny essay by a man who, having recently undergone surgery, was reminded of those people who, in tending to our health, urge us to focus on what issues properly define life.
First it was the emergency room where I observed the palpable concern on the face of a woman whose only job was to admit me. And then the folks in the emergency room itself. There isn’t much privacy in those spaces; you see and hear too much. And along with feeling ill there’s plenty to be humiliated about. But every one of those workers was sensitive to these matters. Several were focused on the fact that they didn’t want my feet to get cold. Moreover, they answered my questions, and honored my anxiety; not a single patronizing word was uttered, not a single look of exasperation detected. I have every reason to believe that I was the only one thinking about very old people and their very old bodies.
Later, preparing for surgery, a slew of kind, professional, thoughtful women attended to me. You want to talk bedside manner, these are the people who should teach it. If a recent study suggesting that medical students in their third year are already losing this human care aspect of medicine is true, then these are the professors to confront them. “Let’s see if we can find even a little vein to work with,” she said with a grin. One second. It took her one second. “We have lifted off.” Then, thinking about the breathing tube that would be inserted down my throat during surgery, she asked: “Do you have loose teeth, false teeth, capped teeth?” “No”. “Open your mouth.” I obeyed. “You have a very nice set of teeth.” Bloomingdale’s men store, fourth floor, I either said or thought. I remember nothing else.
I awoke in the recovery room experiencing that haze caused by the dissipation of anesthesia where the world is viewed through lenses demanding immediate cataract surgery. But what is a recovery room, really, other than a place where still more people take care of you, utter every word you need to hear. This time it was Jane who gave me small ice chips to suck on and told me about her four daughters, and a husband she believes to be the most wonderful man on the planet.
Then it was a lovely young man who wheeled me to a hospital room, and then afternoon, night, and morning nurses always solicitous, explaining their activities, and apologizing for having to ask my birth date every time they administered a narcotic. On a white board at the end of the bed, they wrote their names in big letters, just like my elementary school teachers used to do.
My father, a physician, never experienced hospitals as a patient until the end of his life. I remember him saying that all medical personnel ought to know the experience of patients, their fright, and pain, as well as their inability to know how to act the role of patient on this troubling stage, with its frightening props and embarrassing costumes. It’s all those hospital workers who get us through this surreal world into which we literally go screaming and kicking, if we have the strength. Like great teachers, they understand that anxiety is part of the ordeal; for some of us, it becomes the entire ordeal. Want to get rich? Collect a penny from every one who has asked a nurse, “I’m not going to die, am I?
Certain people allow us to become the people we imagine ourselves to be. Some people, like hospital workers, actually give us back our lives. With their knowledge and precious manner, honed surely, by the fact that they encounter us when we are at our most vulnerable, they remind us of the meaning of gratitude, and just what genuinely is important.
Hospital workers like Nurse Jane, Nurse Tom, and the lift-off lady represent what philosopher John Rawls called the responsible ones, and still the culture continues to reward the non-responsible ones with obscene largesse. How much is it worth to have a nurse delicately spoon a piece of ice into your mouth? How much is it worth to have an orderly, looking upside down at you as he pushes you through a labyrinth of corridors, ask, “You need an extra blanket?” How much is it worth to have a nurse whisper. “It’s okay, you know, if you want to cry.”
Thomas Cottle, 75, is Professor of Education at Boston University. Among his recent books are When the Music Stopped, Discovering my Mother, and A Sense of Self: The Work of Affirmation.