Finding Humanity in the Hospital



The beep beep of the heart monitor in the central nurses station never turns off.  It is as if it’s the heartbeat for all of us.  Completely annoying yet a reminder that we are alive and in this together.


My roommate for the last three days is a 83 year old man that never leaves the bed.  Nurses clean him up after bowel movements.  His choking/flemmy cough punctuates the air.  He has sores on his back and watches Friends on TV everyday with the volume turned up.  His wife reports to the room at 730am and leaves at 9pm. They mumble to one another in a middle-eastern or eastern-European language, I can’t tell which. She tirelessly advocates for her man.  This takes the form of berating doctors, ordering nurses around and battling with her middle age sons who come to visit.


Any new tack their drama takes does not surprise me.  They are separated from my bed by a hanging curtain and 7 feet of space.  It is maddening.


I also know that they have been married for 53 years and ran a successful shoe store.  Through the blunt misery that is their existence right now seeps a love and humanity.  And a sense of living in the present.  In many ways there is more love to see here than in the antiseptic suburban sameness that we have been presented with as the “good life”.


I have now been here 6 days.  I came in with chest pains, which turned out to not be a heart attack.  My blood work revealed a bacterial infection called Strep Pneumoccocus.  It can be really dangerous.  They are treating me with a long round of intravenous antibiotics.  I should be back out in the world, enjoying the summer days soon.


What strikes me about the nurses is that that after their shifts they go back to their lives.  Then, after a period of time, the return to the hospital again.  Voluntarily.  To get berated, wipe strangers bowel movements clean, and consistently have to give bad news, take blood, and many other indignities that I don’t even know about.  They cry with families who just watched a loved one die and in the next moment have to negotiate pudding or peaches for a patients dessert, but they keep coming back.   AND …. For the most part, keep their humanity.  Their pain is easy to see.  There are many physical signs of just having been through too much.  And still they bring the humanity and compassion.  It’s amazing.


Having done a prison workshop two weeks ago, the contrast between those two places is fascinating.  With prison, the inmates in the workshop seemed in tip-top shape, both in terms of health and their outlook on life.  But they couldn’t leave.


In the hospital, the concept that you CAN leave at any time is ever present.  Whenever I have felt really down that thought of just walking out creeps in.  But I know I need to let the treatment and diagnosis happen.  So I stay.


Both places force INTROSPECTION.  Personal space and privacy are gone and replaced by lots of TIME.  Owning a Rolls Royce or a mansion or nothing doesn’t matter in a prison or a hospital.  We are left with ourselves.  We are left to sift through the discomfort and chaos and find our humanity.

About tomkelley
Counselor, facilitator at LifeLeadersForum, father of a little angel and husband of a Goddess

7 Responses to Finding Humanity in the Hospital

  1. Hugh Elliott says:

    my mother was a nurse for nearly 30 years. it amazed us all that she went to work, dealt with some pretty emotional stuff from both patients and their families then came home and was mom to 3 boys and wife to our dad.

  2. jim vh says:

    inspiring words Tom. sending good energy your way. much love to you and your family (and your roommate)

  3. Andy Starbuck says:

    Get well, Tom! Great post.

  4. Rhonda F says:

    leave it to you to find humanity amidst both the intense and the mundane. sorry to hear you’re sick again, but happy to see your poignant perspective and positive spirit are shining powerful as ever. Sending love and healing thoughts from my hotel in dc 🙂

  5. Elena says:

    Beautiful and inspiring Tom. The power of freedom is often forgotten and taken for granted……it’s good to be reminded.

  6. Eric says:

    Great post man. One more obvious way the Hospital is great for introspection which we’re both familiar with is bringing one face-to-face with mortality. I would live to see you delve into that aspect of this experience, as I think it would make a very powerful post. Just jumps to mind ing the two minutes I have to say something about this inspiring post. I’m happy you’re back tot he good life – no quotes for you. But I know the Hospital was also the good life for you, cause for the conscious it’s all good 😉 Shalom brother.


  7. a beautiful post, Tom. I’m not sure I would have found the compassion for my neighbors, as easily and as honestly as you did. I was particularly struck by how you saw her advocate for her man. Humanity all around it all it’s forms and expressions…

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