Over the last few years, I have spent more than my share of time visiting in hospitals. Visiting a patient in a private room has its advantages – I once marked several batches of essays in one – but can be lonely for the patient unless they have a constant stream of visitors. A semi-private room is better, depending on who the other patient is, but can turn into a nightmare, as happened once when the other patient was from a psychiatric ward and had to be strapped down because he was under the illusion that he was defending the west coast against a Chinese invasion. So, on the whole, a four-bed room is usually the best balance between privacy and company.
For instance, over the past three weeks, the four-bed room where I have been spending several hours every day has presented a variety of people coming and going, some pleasant, some eccentric, but all providing stimulation to one another with their differences.
One was a woman who in sixty years had been both a hairdresser and a prison guard. She was outspoken, and obviously restraining her language, but unfailingly polite to the nurses and everyone else. She quickly became friends with the person I was visiting, and the two of them soon started trading the contents of their meal trays like kids at recess, and watching out for each other.
At the start of my visits, another of the bed was occupied by a soft-spoken man who had recently retired from sales. His wife, a puppeteer, was another frequent visitor. He participated lightly in the conversation, and everyone knew he was a Christian fundamentalist, but it was only on his last night that he revealed his missionary instinct. In response to a few questions, he got out an oversized Bible and a stack of computer printouts and immediately started trying to convert the ex-hairdresser-prison guard. It was a mark of her restraint that she didn’t lose her temper with him, although she complained long and bitterly after he left.
The fundamentalist was followed by a man who kept the curtains drawn around his bed and said as little as possible. He, in turn, was followed by a male nurse who took some advantage of his conventional good looks, but also interceded with the ward nurses on behalf of other patients. After him came a folk singer from Prince Edward Island, hospitalized on the other side of the continent after he had come to sing at a family wedding and contracted laryngitis. He spoke little (unsurprisingly), but showed a strong streak of kindness when he did.
The other bed in the room was initially occupied by a young Vietnamese woman. She would talk, but she spent a lot of her time on her cell phone or watching videos on a portable player with her legs draped over her bed tray. Either her sister or her boyfriend would crawl into bed with her at night, a practice that disturbed the nurses, but seems to me a reasonable way to help lessen the strain of being in hospital.
When the Vietnamese woman left, her bed was taken by a homeless man who worked part time as a roofer. He had the most prehensile toes I had ever seen, and was absolutely filthy. Despite cracked ribs, he was always descending six floors to go for a smoke – and I suspect, to judge from his behavior, for his drug of choice as well. Talking to him, I got the impression that his brains and reality were not quite in sync. However, his brains worked well enough for him to realize that he had a good place to stay, and he only left when it was clear that the next step would be to have security escort him out.
None of these people were extraordinary. You could probably pick half a dozen strangers at random on the street and find an equally interesting assortment. But on the street, of course, you would never learn much about them. In a hospital room, where little happens between doctors’ visits and being wheeled away for tests, people have to pass the time somehow, and while some opt for a portable TV, sooner or later most people talk. And, because they have so little to do, anyone who does talk invariably ends up saying more about themselves than they would in other settings. Probably, it helps that the first questions anyone is asked is why they are in a hospital – a private detail that makes giving more private details easy.
I’m not sure if I or the patient I was visiting will ever see these people again. Both of us took several people’s contact information, but a promise to keep in touch made when you are sharing the experience of being in the hospital is easy to break afterwards. You can’t help suspecting that you knew the other people only in special circumstances, and that in their ordinary lives they might be strangers – and strangers who are not at all eager to see anyone from a time when they were helpless, bored, and far from their best. Still, for the time of a hospital stay, the people in a four-bed room provide a variety and interest that any other form of hospital accommodation cannot hope to match.