We live in an upside-down world, one where the closer you feel toward a person determines the farther away you want to be from them. It’s a world where things that have always seemed safe and secure, hospitals, for example, suddenly don’t.
I recently completed a five-day stint in a local hospital and though it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the medical professionals there saved my life, I must admit I was terrified to go and only went because I was forced. Once there, I had every expectation that if I was looking to get well, a hospital was the single worst place for me to be.
The reasons were simple. One, like you, I’ve seen the images and read the descriptions of COVID-era hospitals that seem to place them in a sort of dystopian landscape deeply rooted in the belly of the COVID beast.
And then there was that other thing: being alone.
Nothing drives home the horror of COVID as the stories we hear of patients suffering and sometimes dying alone, their loved ones, aware of their suffering, unable to be with them. No statistic or pie chart communicates the unimaginable of this pandemic, as the patient, alone.
Now, let me be clear. I did not have COVID, I had a very serious blood infection that affected my heart and will eventually require surgery. But it doesn’t matter why you find yourself in a hospital these days, once there, everybody plays by COVID’s rules. This meant that my daughter had to leave me at the entrance of the emergency room.
It was there that I soon discovered there is another side, a very dangerous one of being a patient alone. I had just spent two weeks in bed, exhausted, unable to get my head off the pillow and had no appetite—I dropped 20 pounds. Now, I was hit with wave after wave of medical professional pumping me for information: family and medical history, allergies, recent surgeries, symptoms and when they occurred.
Under normal, i.e. non-COVD conditions, I would almost certainly have had someone in the room with me, someone who was able to provide accurate information, someone who could correct me and provide an extra set of ears in the ER which, in any year, has all the frenetic energy and decibel range of a carnival that’s crashed into Chuck E. Cheese.
I remember doing the best I could to provide accurate information but, remember I was sick, sick enough to warrant going to the hospital. Frankly, during the early part of my visit, I was half out of my mind and wonder now how accurate the information I was giving? Again, I was sick, and there were times, I must admit, when I found myself trying to tailor my answers simply to get the medical professional to stop talking.
To their credit, they did not stop. They probed and pumped me for information since it would be critical in determining my care. But, of course, they could only go with what I said and with no one by my side, sometimes there were working with half-truths at best.
Later, when I spoke about this circumstance to a friend, they asked me if it would have been possible to have that person by my side on a speaker phone? I don’t think so. The ER is so loud, so crazy, operates in such controlled chaos, that I don’t think someone would be able to follow along or answer in real time.
That all changes if you are admitted to the hospital. Then, in the quiet of your room, I do think it is possible to have someone follow along on the phone.
When I look back, it was those days after being admitted that I find the most remarkable. Though I was suffering from something quite serious, the nurses were remarkable in creating an unremarkable atmosphere, one complete with smiles and chit-chat, one where questions about how I was feeling were sometimes accompanied by questions about my rather robust hair (My secret? Not washing it for two weeks.)
Everything they did seemed designed to not only put me at ease, but to take my mind off the fact that COVID patients were just a floor or two away.
In fact, in my five days in hospital, there were only a few times that COVID was mentioned, and then in a passing manner to say that things were “weird” soon followed with inquiries about how I was feeling and, maybe, something about my hair—they really liked my hair.
I know it is quite popular, and well-meaning, to call these medical professionals, “heroes.” But I think that’s ultimately misguided and shortchanges what makes them extraordinary: the fact that they are normal human beings who are not only able to operate at the height of their profession but do it while accessing the height of their humanity.
Having gone through this, do I have any advice? Well, number one, don’t get a blood infection, they really are quite unpleasant. Two, if you find yourself having to go to a hospital, if possible, it would be a good idea to talk to the person who would usually accompany you into the ER and go over the most likely questions you will be asked: medical history, recent surgeries, symptoms, etc.
Finally, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it doesn’t hurt matters to have the Beach Boys’ “Sail On, Sailor” set to repeat on your phone.