You know how, when you squint at a colorful tree, the borders disappear, and all the leaves merge together into one big mass of green? Turn that inside out, and you have my relationship with The Hospital. At times–especially difficult times–all the departments and interests and people in that place start to merge. Their demands and rules start to become one entity’s demands and rules, and their borders disappear. I have to squint hard to separate the strands that come together to form the rope around my neck.
My friend Jack was in a terrible accident last week. I heard about it the evening it happened. After emergent surgery, he was rushed to the intensive care unit, where his chances of surviving the night were estimated at 50/50.
That night, I dreamt that when I went to visit Jack in the morning, he had done so well that he had been transferred to a non-critical floor. I smiled as I walked down crepuscular hallways, looking for his name on the lavender-colored room doors inside my head.
I woke up early to see him, and when I swiped my badge at the entry into the unit, he was still there. I waited outside his room–after all, I am his friend, not his doctor–and when his nurse came out, I asked if I could see him. She frothed at me: I could not see him. I should have entered the unit as a visitor rather than with my badge, since I was coming as a friend and not a provider. I would have to come back. And no, she could not tell me how he was doing.
I did not ask her why, if I was a visitor, I was being chewed out as though I were merely a resident. I instead burst into tears and left.
I stood in front of the window outside the unit, watching the early morning creep into the parking deck across the street. Downstairs, my own work–in a different intensive care unit, with different patients–was to take care of patients exactly like Jack. I knew exactly what we whispered to each other about people with his injuries, and I wished now that someone would tell me that it was all lies.
That afternoon, I was pulled aside by a superior and told that something I had said had caused a patient’s family member to raise an eyebrow. A few days prior, I had been post-call–awake for 30 hours–and on rounds, I had mumbled, “God, I’m so tired I can barely stand up.” This, he said, had been seen as unprofessional.
I turned to face him and marveled at the strange blur before me. No eyes, no ears, no chin–just a building with a big, flapping mouth for a door and an inconvenient parking structure tacked awkwardly onto the back. Flap, flap, flap went that mouth.
Here is the message the hospital was giving to me: I am expected to maintain firm boundaries, refrain from complaining; and provide to patients’ families exactly what they want, whether it’s reasonable or not. However, I should not expect that when I am the loved one of a patient, I can demand any of the indulgences that families can demand of me–not kindness, not time for my own grief and anger, not a sensation of loss of control. I am a pillar of professionalism at all times, and even when I snap in two, both halves need to stand up straight.
I squinted, trying to pick out details, perhaps an element of misunderstanding, or spaces where I could come clean about my sadness. But I was too tired, and whatever it was I was seeking was hidden behind that blurred facade.
Sure, there are faces in that building that express compassion–it’s just not compassion for me.