What I Learned From My Hospital Stay

February 8, 2015

Last week, fresh out of surgery, I awoke on an articulated bed in a private room. The next four days were spent trying to get some semblance of quality sleep, and trying to get my body to rebound from the pain and shock it had just received.

Spending a few days convalescing on a hospital bed and walking the hallways of my floor changed my perspective on the frailty of our life. I write this blog post while the thoughts are still fresh in my mind, lest I forget them.

Health Matters

It is a considerable luxury to enjoy a healthy life. How quickly the things you take for granted recede from your grasp when your body falters! Enjoying a cup of soup. Taking a walk. Getting out of bed without help. I couldn’t do any of those things during my first full day. It was frustrating to have my skills and usefulness suddenly truncated to some rudimentary level. Yet, there are people among us who suffer daily from even more debilitating ailments.

A healthy life for all should be a natural goal for any self-respecting society. I cannot fathom the logic of those who oppose universal health care. All you have to do is spend a night in a hospital to come to the same conclusion I did: no-one deserves to live like this. Especially not when we have the resources to heal them.

Compassion Matters

As I walked around the floor trying to get my gut working again (your intestines fall asleep under anesthesia, and it takes a while to get them active again), I saw a spectrum of human experiences. A sour-faced woman talking to her hospital-gowned husband about family business matters. A family gathered around a patient, happily chatting and enjoying each other’s company. Someone coughing constantly for days on end. A woman wailing inconsolably in a room. Someone singing a psalm to a semi-conscious patient. One nurse asking another to verify a Do Not Resuscitate order.

Each of the patients on my floor was digging out of their own pit of suffering. Some of them will get out with relative ease, while others will not make it out at all.

The overall color of my stay was determined by the nurses on my floor. They were amazing. They work long hours. They serve dozens of patients at a time. Some patients were staying a few days and will soon walk out on their own. A few were going to die in the bed they lay in. Yet the nurses managed to dispense just the right amount of encouragement, empathy, and cheer, every time. These nurses practiced compassion as an art form.

Finely-crafted compassion is exquisitely tailored to the recipient. You allow them to tell you what they need, and how much of it. We can all learn to express this kind of compassion in our daily interactions just a little more. The world will be a better place for it.

Medicine Research Funding Matters

Every few hours, medicine is dispensed to each patient on my floor. Each dose of cancer drug, painkiller, or antibiotic is the result of years of research and science. I am more convinced than ever that the development of medicine and medical treatments cannot be left to the profit motive alone.

Surely there must be a better way to fund the development of medical treatments than the obscene price-gouging encouraged by medical patents! Is there no way to publicly fund medical research, in return for a royalty-free right to replicate the product by whoever desires to do so? Perhaps one day we can truly celebrate medical breakthroughs as a species, rather than taunt the poor with treatments that are out of their financial reach.

Relief of Suffering Matters

I believe the general relief of human suffering is the constant calling of our species. It goes hand in hand with recognizing that all humans have inherent value, and that this world works best when we are primarily allies, rather than adversaries.

Any cruel treatment of human beings ought to be viewed as an assault against the core values that bind us together. Torture. Exploitation and slavery. The persecution of the homeless. These all demean us as a species. Consider volunteering for or donating to relief organizations around the world. Call your representatives to end torture as a matter of policy. Do this to heal our soul.

Death With Dignity Matters

I’m glad that many countries are finally recognizing an individual’s right to death with dignity. There is no dignity in prolonging life in suffering. I heard firsthand stories of a vegetative patient being kept alive for literally decades. If there is no consciousness left in their bodily shell, then why keep it alive? If there were some consciousness remaining, then is their immobile body not the cruelest prison you can condemn their mind to inhabit?

One of the kindest things you can do is to support the right to die with dignity wherever you live, and to make sure each person has an advance health care directive prescribing the level of heroics they think is appropriate for the quality of their remaining life.