Unexpectedly, I spent the past afternoon in the emergency ward of the local hospital. This was at least my twentieth time at emergency since 1995 (only once for me), but I’ve never managed to warm to such places. Spending time in emergency admitting is just a slow dread that leaves me feeling half-suffocated.
I suppose nobody welcomes a visit to a hospital, unless a birth is involved. If you are the one with an injury or illness, you remember it as a place where you were wrapped in your pain and discomfort like a second skin. If (as I usually am), you are there to lend moral support, then you slowly drain yourself while trying to provide comfort, all the time hoping that the patient gets some relief, and possibly hoping that, the trip is not fatal.
You might draw some support if you at the hospital in a group, but, even then, others can do only so much to help you. You are alone with your fears in a hospital in a way that you rarely are in any other place in modern industrial culture – all the more so because we are a death-denying culture, and a hospital doesn’t leave much room for denying.
But even if the emotions were not apt to be so intense at a hospital, the way they look and are run reduce your chances of relaxing or finding a moment’s respite.
Part of the trouble is that hospitals have the dinginess of any public places that are busy twenty-four hours a day. They are not dirty, but my impression is that no one has painted the walls or given the floors a hard scrub for years, if not decades. Like an all-night Denny’s, nobody cares for them. Hospitals feel like husks from which the soul leaked out long ago.
Another reason why hospitals depress me is that they are run impersonally. I do not mean that the nurses and doctors do not care about the patients; I know many who are dedicated and exhaust themselves regularly trying to provide the best care that they can.
But hospitals are busy, aggressively public places when you are concentrating on your personal crisis. You get the feeling that your crisis is unimportant, constantly about to be lost in hundreds of others. If it was not your crisis being dealt with, the resources it requires would immediately be taken up by someone else’s crisis. Nor is this feeling helped by the constant cutbacks, when you can easily feel that the real goal of the hospital is to spit you out of the system as quickly as possible, often before you are quite ready or your problem is solved..
Moreover, this feeling is only intensified when you hear the staff cracking jokes or bantering among themselves. I understand that they are only relieving their own tension, but, when you are sunk in your own crisis and trying not to curse the long waits, you can easily get annoyed by the apparent callousness.
But the really draining part of waiting for admittance into emergency is that the first casualty is always your privacy. With admitting clerks shouting questions at you, or nurses and doctors asking intimate questions while other supplicants sit a few centimeters away from you, your private concerns are suddenly on display. For that matter, you or yours may be literally on display, thanks to the backless gowns that are the norm. If you have not already shriveled up into your own private world thanks to your pain or concern, you may wish you could do so rather than having your concerns exposed in this way without anyone bothering to ask your permission first.
If you are there for moral support, you find yourself visiting the gift shop or going for an unhealthy snack you don’t really need, just so you are not on display for a while. But, if you are the would-be patient, you have little choice to stay, feeling like you are answering questions on the phone about your love life while riding a bus filled with eavesdroppers.
All this goes on for hours (six today, and we considered ourselves lucky). At the end, the patient is safely ensconced in a bed, and falls asleep from exhaustion, while – after a brief visit – their supporters stagger home and collapse on the living room couch before snatching a quick snack.
How the staff endures this environment day after day, I don’t know. I suppose the answer is that many don’t, because emergency ward staff have a high turnover. But how those who remain learn to ignore the place and what happens there is hard to fathom. But for those of us who visit, an emergency ward can often seem the last place that’s healthy to be sick in.