May 2017 . . . .

“Duke Hospital”

Duke Hospital is beautiful. I went there, recently, to have an MRI because I was told to. I’m not a fan of MRIs, nor going to hospitals, but with all of the current political malaise I know better than to complain that I have people watching out for my health, so I did what I was told to. Also, I was promised sedation, so there’s that. I woke up at dawn’s crack because I insisted on showering. I was always told to be as clean as possible when doctors are going to probe you. You know, so they won’t talk about you during coffee breaks. Do doctors actually take coffee breaks? I never see it on TV. Sex, yes. Coffee? Hmm. Maybe. But not so much chit-chat about hygiene of patients.

Anyway, we were off before rush-hour traffic. The girls were left to their own devices, making their lunches, waiting for the ride to school. Elder had been nervous for a few days — what is wrong with Dad? Younger, not so much. I think she’s pretty sure she has a bead on things, what kinds of things happen in her world and which don’t. Water-main break so we can’t take showers for a day or so? Yes. Dad really sick? Nope. I like her thinking, although it has no basis in science or logic.

Drive, park, walk. (A significant part of my life. More than I would choose — I’m not much of a traveler or a tourist.) I followed herself out of the garage. It was a cool morning, almost crisp and the sun’s glare was welcome. I was starting to feel that fight or flight thing I am reliably told is an instinct, but which I also think is ingrained habit. I seem to need to be more than just cajoled to do things outside my comfort zone, which extends all the way out to the sidewalk in front of the house and out back only to the patch of ground I’m turning into a rose garden. My brain wants to find reasons not to go out on the town. This is defined as social anxiety, folks. So this morning I kept pushing one foot in front of the other, across the street, along with the nurses, doctors, students, other patients, administrators, attendants, visitors, vendors . . . .

Into the enormous hospital building. Correction — hospital complex. My vision, in such situations, gets pretty, well, tunnelly. Where do I need to be, what do I do when I get there, how soon until I can leave? I did look from side to side, occasionally, because I didn’t want to bump into people who wanted to arrive at their appointments somewhere faster than I did. There was a big entrance hall, like a hub of a wheel with hallways for spokes.

We chose a spoke. One wall was windows, open to green space; draped with that kind of ivy and tree which does well enough in the areas shaded by tall buildings. The other wall had paintings on it, Impressionistic prints, I guessed. Pretty. Reaching the end of the hall, we turned left and saw that we had run out of hall without achieving our goal. Oops. Herself hung another left into a waiting room — not ours — and stood in line to ask the woman at the desk where we should be. In a minute, the woman corrected our directions. Off we toddled.

Outside again, we saw the next building, our building, had our ah-ha moment, and made our way through the fractal flow of people and into the coffee shop. I said nothing. No coffee for you, I told myself. I actually had the presence of mind to imagine I had a yearning for coffee that took precedence over my fear of that which was coming in my morning. Maybe some coffee later? Again, a positive sign, that I could imagine a later, after what was coming. Good, I told myself. Good boy.

So we signed in. And then someone came to get me. I mean, like a concierge. My person. Fast, as in expeditiously enough that I didn’t really have time to boot up my fight or flight simulation software. (Would I ever just get up and leave? Probably. Even if my wife was there, and didn’t chase after me and had to catch a cab home? I really don’t know, and don’t want to know.)

My person talked, about what was going to happen next. Did I know? No? OK, then, here’s the deal. He spoke softly, almost conspiratorially, as if how I should take off all my clothes and put on two robes — one backwards and one normally (so I was comfortably covered up) was a secret he didn’t reveal to every patient. How to secure everything in a locker, even though herself was right there. It was, not surprisingly, effectively reassuring. It would be easy, he said. He would be there with me the whole time. And he nearly literally handheld me through the discussion about medication and how it was going to make the next hour so much better. So much.

I won’t explain the details — I know we’ve all been through something similar to it. It is difficult to describe personal fears. Fine authors make a decent living doing it. Suffice to say that finished, still floating somewhat, I dressed to go home.

Herself led our way back along the hallways. Someone was playing a grand piano downstairs in an atrium. An employee, she explained. Further along, a small fireplace burned behind glass, the heat from it going somewhere else as the day was now warm and the hallway comfortable. People were sitting nearby, looking at the flames for portents or the calming relief or the magic held within their flicker.

Around the corner, a young woman in scrubs was playing a violin. On her break. A bit further, two women were talking, one in tears, the other — in scrubs — hugging her.

Down the long hallway, with the paintings proudly hung along one wall, with lights and little cards. I stopped to look. I was in no hurry. The paintings, it turned out, were created by employees in a class offered by the hospital. Yes, you heard me correctly.

In our car, I pondered this place full of frightened people. And people trying to make them less frightened. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what a hospital really is. And this isn’t intended to be an advertisement for Duke, just my observation. Any large organization can lose sight of what’s important. Or it can decide from the top down to be what it should be — loving, kind and as gentle as possible. Beautiful.