I began writing in this space to reconnect with the daily discipline of words, and over the last few days have strayed from my intent to write each day. With a nod to realism I had established for myself the rubric of accepting without too much guilt the missing of one day, but not two days in a row. However, sometimes life gets in the way of the best intentions. But today, at least, I’m here again.
I am sitting in my son William’s dormitory room at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He is recuperating from illness (He is OK now, and I won’t further invade his privacy in this public space). But that is what created the opportunity to drive the 551 miles from Gainesville to get him back to school after his visit home for winter break.
His illness created a reason for us to spend more time together over the last few weeks than either of us had planned. That time, as any parent with a sick child will attest, has included anger and fear that arose from within the deepest parts of me. I have also experienced great joy in getting to know him better. It’s been fun talking with him about his earliest memories, and I have felt happiness and even pride in a deeper understanding of the man my son has become.
But one set of experiences arising from his illness carried me in an unforeseen direction, and got me thinking about circumstances I had never imagined. On Christmas Eve we ended up at the hospital emergency room, and after a brief triage interview my 20-year-old son was put in a wheelchair and whisked away. As I tried to follow I was told that hospital policy forbade my accompanying him. My protest was ignored. We’ll set aside any discussion of my emotion at that moment, or of what William later explained to me about his feelings of being set adrift in a fearful place with no previous experience of illness, and no one to turn to for advice.
Later, I was able after much tribulation to return to his side, and can say in fairness that he received good medical care. However, humanity was absent from the medical staff that “processed,” him. And that’s what it was, processing.
An IV was started and some of the tests ordered were scary, especially if like William you had not been inside a hospital except to be born and once after swallowing a screw when still in diapers.
The ER doctor, when William and I eventually were allowed to ask him about the tests he had ordered and his thinking regarding them, told us, “Look, you don’t have to stay here, you can leave, but who knows what’s going on … and you might die.” Literally.
I know something about emergency rooms, I’ve worked as a cop and as an ambulance medic. The afternoon was not busy and this was not a case of imminent medical disaster. Where was the compassionate healer in that doctor? Where was the human being who could recognize the fear in a 20-year-old and allay it with what used to be called “good bedside manner?”
Even later, when I asked about the “hospital policy” that led to separating us, I was told that it was because there wasn’t enough space to work if family was allowed. OK, I can understand that if it was cardiac arrest, arterial bleeding, a gunshot wound or the like. But that is what triage is for, and our visit was a referral from a local affiliated urgent care facility physician to the ER for blood tests related to flu-like stomach symptoms, with no fever … because that’s the only place to get such tests on Christmas Eve.
But no one at the ER heard that, because they have a “process.” And no one at the ER heard that because they could not listen to me because I was only a concerned father, not the patient. And I guess no one listens to patients, even when – or especially when – they are frightened.
A long time ago, about 1970 or 1971 when I was a college student, my baby sister was hospitalized while our parents were out the country. I drove home and I sat by the bed. In the middle of the night a nurse came in to give her an injection. When I questioned that, because I didn’t think any injection had been ordered, a fracas ensued, which eventually led to a resident being called who determined that the syringe was for the child in the next room.
Anyone can make a mistake, certainly. But the fracas ensued when I questioned what the nurse was doing and pointed out that she wasn’t listening when I told her no injection had been ordered.
An acquaintance teaches a sort of humanities course at a renowned medical school. She recently explained to me that the course is designed to teach medical students what it is like to be on the receiving end of their ministrations when they eventually become doctors. She also said that the school is cutting back on how many hours are dedicated to that portion of the curriculum.
I’ve been blessed with knowing a few healers, two of them – a nurse practitioner and a cardiologist – back where I used to live in Wisconsin. They took good care of me for 10 years so I was able to observe and come to admire their methodology. Identifying what gives them the title “Healer” in my mind is easy: They look you in the eyes and listen. They listen with their hands and their ears and all of their education and training, but most of all they listen because they have not forgotten about caring.
When I worked as an ambulance medic I watched people die and saw the resultant emotional pain blossom and explode in their families. At the side of frozen highways in the strobe of emergency lights and in the cold rotor wash of medivac helicopters, I learned that death is lonely and undignified – unless it is relieved by human caring. I watched the dedicated EMTs, paramedics and trauma nurses and learned that the peace they brought to the suffering with a kind word, or a hand held, or a touch on the shoulder is as important as the medical knowledge and training they brought to the scene of each emergency.
As I age, and as I experience my parents aging, I have thought about what the future will inevitably bring. There will be doctors and hospitals. Living wills and medical directives are important to discuss, so see to it.
But don’t neglect your college-age children. Unless they have signed releases and filed them with their university, or its health center, or their doctors if they have them, those entities will not release any information to you, no matter if you are far away and worried. They might not even let you near your children.
Copyright 2011, David Hipschman