A scene from Airplane!:
Dr Rumack: You’d better tell the Captain we’ve got to land as soon as we can. This woman has to be gotten to a hospital.
Elaine Dickinson: A hospital? What is it?
Dr Rumack: It’s a big building with patients, but that’s not important right now.
The first time I was hospitalized, I was only 16. I’d never been in the hospital before, though of course I had family members who were, so I didn’t really need a primer on being an inpatient. However, what I could not have been prepared for was the people I met while on the inside.
I’m not speaking of doctors. Or nurses. Of whom I met plenty, of course. What I’m speaking of is roommates.
I Didn’t Sign Up For This
I was initially in a ward with 4 beds. I spent a month there, and the other 3 beds were almost always occupied. Even though I was on the pediatric floor, the powers that be apparently thought it was OK to put young women in the ward on the pediatrics floor. And I don’t mean teens. I mean adults. Yes, young adults, but adults.
At 16, I was not entirely sheltered, but I grew up in a white suburb of Detroit where we played outside a lot and I rode my bike to see my friends. By myself. Fairly normal stuff, with nothing particularly eventful happening.
The women who wound up being my roommates universally came from what I perceived to be very bad situations. Almost all of them were raped or abused. In some cases, brutally. None of them ever received any counseling or other services because in most cases the abuse was at the hands of a known person like a family friend or even a family member. More than 1 or 2 of them were hospitalized for pelvic inflammatory disease. They typically shared their stories, usually at night in the dark, and it sort of became a running narrative. One gal would go home, and another one would come in, and the story sharing would start over again.
I was shocked. I was saddened and I was helpless to do anything for them. In some cases their mothers or other family members who KNEW of the abuse and did nothing came to the hospital to visit. And I sat in my bed and wondered how these things could go on, and how these women could get out of bed in the morning. It was a strength I will never be able to comprehend. There are a great many things I am sorry to say I can’t remember (like the name of the English teacher who visited me in hospital), but I remember these women and their stories. I think they found solace in each other, at least I hope they did.
Some People Are Just Jerks
There were two notable exceptions: one was a young mother and another was a teen who was also a patient of my gastroenterologist. The young mother was in and out quick. The other teen was there for a bit, and nobody could figure out what was wrong with her. She lay in her bed moaning all night. She was not treated with much respect by the hospital staff, I think because she was a frequent visitor and had a reputation as a malingerer.
At some point my doctor (and hers) fitted her with a TENS unit and the change was instantaneous. She was able to get out of bed, and to talk. And to torture me.
Most of my time in the hospital was NPO, meaning I couldn’t eat. I was receiving lipids every day through a central line. This teen with the TENS unit ordered herself a pizza one night for dinner. And then stuck it under my nose.
“Do you want a slice? Oh, right, you can’t eat anything!”
Now, I’ve been on the receiving end of bullying. Oh yessiree Bob, I have. But this was beyond making fun of my hair or my clothes or my glasses. This was cruelty, plain and simple.
Who does that kind of thing? I was stunned, and I don’t think I said anything. I may have mentioned it to my favorite nurse, but honestly there wasn’t much they could do about it.
Should We Have Compassion?
What drives someone to be cruel? I don’t know, but in this case I can certainly guess. She seemed to have a need for attention, and yet she wasn’t getting any. But me — I got plenty of attention. There was always someone there to see me: teachers, classmates, friends, parents, siblings. I received flowers, balloons, gifts, you name it. And look, I was not a popular kid by any means, but the friends I did have really cared about me. I can’t remember anyone ever visiting this girl, even her parents. And that’s not right.
She was gone in a few days, of course. And I stayed. And there were other roommates from other hospital stays. A girl I knew from school. A woman who was always asking me (me? I’m not supposed to leave my bed!) for help. But none as memorable (or as annoying) as those from my first stay.
I’ve come to understand there are significant socioeconomic reasons for why people wind up very sick, going to the ER, and becoming hospitalized. These aren’t people with a loving home and health insurance, who are in a position to receive preventive care. They are just barely hanging on, and that’s not right. Healthcare is a basic human need, and once you’ve been in the “system” and seen how many people are denied care — and it’s usually those who need it the most — you can’t un-see it. Everyone deserves care, before they’re so sick they need the ER.