“Will you keep me company for a little while? Can you stay?”
I just finished tidying up the 92-year-old man’s room, I brought him fresh water, moved his feet to a more comfortable position, all the while chit-chatting about the Korean war, when he was a doctor in the Army, and his stint in Italy during the Second World War. I think he has pneumonia but he looks remarkably well for his age.
“I can stay for a few minutes.” It’s usually men who crave some company, women tend to be more reserved. Or maybe they are more self-sufficient, even when laying in a hospital bed, at their most vulnerable and scared.
I started volunteering at a hospital a couple of months ago, two mornings a week, one day in the post critical care unit and the other in oncology. Essentially, I help the nurses with everything they cannot get to: restocking the rooms or the chemo carts; assisting the patients with drinks and food; running around the hospital fetching meals, lab results, cardio strips; filing charts, cleaning heart monitors, discharging patients, whatever needs to be done I can safely do. I am the nurses’ bitch, nurses being some of the most hardworking people I have ever met.
There was a considerable period of training, learning different codes (for instance, to make sure I recognize when not to feed a patient), what to do in emergency situations, privacy rules etc., a whole different lingo to get used to.
I am good at it, not only because I am organized but mainly because I can read people pretty quickly. I am still amazed at what patients are willing to share with a complete stranger – procedures, fears, worries, personal details. It’s as if, when entering a hospital, we suddenly strip ourselves of the conventions that guide our everyday relations. I listen, I look at wounds, I make sympathetic noises without offering any advice and I walk the fine line of not getting too close, even when I am prodded to share details about me.
A few patterns started to emerge:
- men complain a lot more than women, unless the women are very, very old, in which case they complain relentlessly. Understandable: they probably have a lifetime of keeping their chins up and, having reached a venerable age, feel entitled to let it all rip. I would too;
- being hospitalized is scary and confusing, especially for those who have no family and few friends. Talking about what they are experiencing, physical pains, minutiae about their surgery or procedure can be helpful. I have been asked more than once “Am I dying?”, which is a bit of a tricky question because I cannot make light of death with a cancer patient but I certainly cannot offer an informed or uninformed opinion. When the question is uttered, I can actually feel the presence of fear palpable, hovering at the edge of the bed and all I can do is shoo it away as best I can;
- the post critical care unit is mainly populated by cardiac patients, many of them middle-aged or older men. I have come to admire men’s iron-clad self-esteem: there they are, barely clothed in a silly green gown, heart monitors, iv’s and all manners of tubes sticking out of their bodies, unwashed and unshaved and they still flirt shamelessly. One went as far as asking me out for dinner. Could you possibly imagine a woman carrying on the same way?
- women try hard to hold on to their sense of self by caring for their appearance: brushing their hair, washing, keeping themselves tidy are just as important as their physical wellbeing;
- African-Americans, Latinos and Persians are incredibly polite and welcoming. Often surrounded by family round the clock, they want to know about me, and show their gratitude in many tiny ways. The rooms of Latino patients in particular encompass various generations: children running around, nanas in wheelchairs and everything in between, they care for their own as if they were at home. White Americans are much more matter of fact and demanding, and more used to advocating on behalf of their relatives. I know, because I am one of them and need to remember, next time a family member is stuck in a hospital bed, the humanity behind the faces of those who are paid to take care of the sick;
- and then there are those who have nobody, typically very old, like the 92-year-old man who craved my company. Those, I tend to indulge, hoping it will never be me ending up that lonely but, if I do, that someone will take the time to chat.
Most hospitals, rich and poor, function also thanks to the work of volunteers; still, many friends and acquaintances ask me why I do it and if I am not scared of catching something. By following proper hygiene, the chances of catching something are slim. As to why I do it, I was asked the same question during the interviewing process and my blurb lists my scaling down to part-time work, having been lucky in life and wanting to give back. It’s all true but an ulterior, selfish motive, has to do with my lifelong hypochondria: now that I am older, closer to death and more likely to be struck by disease, watching the experience close-up and becoming more familiar with the ins and outs of a hospital works wonders in taming my fears. In the same vein as forcing myself to stare at rattlesnakes or take acting classes to conquer the fears of snakes and my shyness.
I was not quite prepared, though, for the feeling of lightness and happiness that set in every time I leave the hospital, almost skipping back to the parking lot – I am alive, I am healthy and, in case of need, I have a posse of people ready to help. Other than the love of my dogs, there is nothing else I will ever need.
Hospital and surgical instruments images courtesy of Showtime, from the brilliant series “The Knick”
“One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” image courtesy of United Artists