HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
October 2, 2006, Herald Journal

In the land of the backless gowns


A very dear friend of mine, who happens to be my ex-wife, recently took an unscheduled field trip to Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

The condition that precipitated the journey is called a pulmonary embolism, which is a fancy name for a blockage in a lung artery.

It was caused by deep vein thrombosis, a condition where blood clots form in the veins, usually in the legs. These clots can break free and travel to other parts of the body with very unpleasant results.

Rob said that during her time in the intensive care unit (ICU), she was sitting up and joking with the hospital staff, and they kept looking at her incredulously, as if wondering why she wasn’t dead.

The staff might, perhaps, be excused for its grave outlook.

More than 600,000 people in the US experience pulmonary embolisms each year, and more than 10 percent of them die, usually within an hour of the time symptoms start.

Apparently, the size of the blockage in my friend’s artery led the doctors to wonder why she was still upright.

Despite the risk of disappointing the medical staff by surviving, Rob responded to treatment, and continued to entertain them with her quirky wit.

They administered blood thinners, and gave her a tune-up that included the installation of a vena cava filter, a device designed to catch clots before they reach the lungs.

Either because they got tired of her humor, or because they were satisfied with the progress of her treatment, they released her from the ICU after a few days, and she moved to a new room down the hall.

Her time in hospital, as most things do, provided me with a learning opportunity.

The first thing I learned had nothing at all to do with medicine, but a lot to do with security.

Hospital staff members are very focussed.

These are the people we need to train our airport security agents, and border patrol staff.

If the hospital staff doesn’t want someone to cross its borders, either in person or on the phone, he doesn’t cross.

A hospital ICU is a bit like a very exclusive party. If you are not on the list, you don’t get in, period, no matter what credentials you might have.

This is noteworthy, not because it is a bad thing, but because they are so good at it.

In my informal role as communications liaison for family and friends, I heard from several determined people who had tried to call, or visit, or get information directly from the hospital, and had been turned back.

The next thing I noticed about hospitals is that people react to them in very different ways, particularly when visiting others.

Some people are naturally cheery, and make wonderful hospital visitors.

They have an easy rapport with hospital staff and other patients, and seem to have an innate understanding of how things work.

They do a terrific job of putting the patient at ease, and chatting away about all sorts of things to take the victim’s mind off of whatever is ailing him.

I would like to be one of the people who have this ability, but I must confess that I am not.

Hospitals tend to make me as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, and I am sure that this discomfort comes across in my inane bedside comments.

I do try to relax and engage the patient in conversation, but it isn’t easy.

In my defense, I got off to a bad start with hospitals.

I have only been a hospital patient twice.

The first time, on the occasion of my birth, my condition was grossly misdiagnosed.

I was, in fact, pronounced dead.

Subsequent examinations have shown that this conclusion was, at the very least, premature.

It shook my old man up something awful, but that was nothing compared to how it hit him when they later told him that it was “a miracle,” and I was alive.

I am pretty sure he was a bit wary of hospitals after that, too.

My second trip to a hospital went better.

When I grudgingly went in after a motorcycle incident, the staff did a bang-up job rebuilding my ankle with some spiffy titanium plates.

I don’t suppose I will ever be really comfortable in a hospital, though.

Hospitals are a hotbed of rules and regulations, not at all the sort of environment where a rebel with an independent spirit is likely to thrive.

If a friend or relative is lodged in a hospital, I am always happy to visit him.

Well, “happy” might be stretching it a bit, but I would definitely rather visit someone at the hospital than at the mortuary, so I am at least happy about that part.

Hospitals make me a bit claustrophobic, and the stale air tinged with antiseptic makes me uneasy.

There is always a feeling of relief when I step out that door and take the first lung-full of fresh air.

No doubt, the patients feel that way, too.

One can’t help wondering who came up with the idea of calling inmates in a hospital “patients.”

A lot of them are decidedly impatient.

Perhaps it was an attempt to use the power of suggestion to make the inmates feel like they should, in fact, be patient, and as a result, less trouble for the warders.

One pays an exorbitant amount for everything one receives in a hospital. This may result in high expectations, and in patients being a bit impatient now and then.

It should come as no surprise that hospital inmates get cranky sometimes.

One is forced to give up one’s dignity (and clothes) the minute one walks through the door.

Each patient is issued an ill-fitting, backless gown, that is specially designed on the principle of one-size-fits-none, so as to be uncomfortable for all patients equally. These garments are also presumably designed to deter escape attempts, by making it impossible to get out of bed without getting a nasty draft, and flashing would-be pursuers.

One of the few benefits of a stay in hospital is the beds.

They are built for speed, and are just made for racing in the corridors. And, their automatic adjustments give one something to do to pass the long, dull hours of confinement.

Another piece of equipment in the hospital room that caught my attention was a hoist over the bed. It was a sort of T-bar attached by a cable to a winch mounted on the ceiling.

Presumably, this was designed to help patients out of bed, but I couldn’t help but think it might be fun to swing from it for awhile.

I never did get around to it, though. Hospitals tend to quash that sort of spontaneous behavior.

Rob was released from the hospital last week, and is now recovering at home.

We have some outstanding hospitals in Minnesota, and we are fortunate to have them when we need them, but I am not in a hurry to visit one again any time soon.