Recently, a series of chronic pains, sudden fevers, cringe-inducing blood tests, suspicious x-rays, night time swelling and extended doctor consultations ultimately lead to me being hospitalized for 23 days at a large Tokyo research hospital. In between MRIs, CT scans, PET tests, biopsies, isotopic x-rays and spinal taps, I was able to take some photographs, read an armful of books and watch three seasons of ‘The Wire’. The following are some (visual and textual) observations I made before my demand for release finally fell on compassionate ears.
Don’t ask the nurses because they will invariably tell you ‘no’. However, this is balanced by the fact that doctors will usually say ‘yes’. Glancing at the official ‘rule book’ for the first time, I see that I have already broken 5 or 6 rules – 3 with doctor permission.
After only 2 days, what I once considered to be ‘that hospital smell’ is starting to become ‘my smell’.
My change of daily clothes from jogging suit to pajamas is one of the easiest transitions I have ever had to make.
At first, venturing down into the labyrinths of the hospital basement at night was spooky. Now it has become a perverse joy. Half the walls are covered by pipes that run continuously for dozens of meters before shooting up through the darkened ceilings. Is this is a hospital or a factory?
From Starbucks, I sit and watch the entrance of the hospital. The patients and visitors are a diverse lot yet overwhelmingly dominated by the aged and limping. Two girls in uniforms help patients get out taxis. My eyes tell me that something isn’t right. After a few seconds, I realize that the girls are completely out of scale. They are tall – almost to the point that they have to lean down to open car doors. They never smile or show emotion. With white-white gloved hands, they hover over the taxis like cranes in a shipyard.
When I first entered the hospital, I thought that the people close to me wanted to discuss my condition and its resulting pains, rashes and medications. I even felt that this kind of talk somehow helped to validate my hospitalization. However, as time has passed, I have come to realize that a good patient resists the temptation for sympathy, and instead concentrates on reassuring everyone that things are good and getting better. Alphonse Daudet wrote much about this in his 19th century treatise ‘In the Land of Pain’ (La Doulou). By the way, Daudet’s vivid descriptions of his syphilis treatments don’t make good hospital reading.
The Starbucks on the 1st floor keeps with me alive with caffeine and doughnuts. At first glance, it resembles a normal Starbucks. However, soon one notices that the customers either have white coats or catheters. Moreover, one wall is covered by a flat-screen TV that lists the ticket numbers of prescriptions that are ready. Still, it’s the only place in the hospital that makes any attempt to not resemble a hospital.
Until my hospitalization, I loved architect Ban Shigeru’s ‘Curtain Wall House’ of 1995. Now that I have literally lived in a ‘curtain wall room’ for three weeks, I am reconsidering the building. My guess is that Ban’s clients never spent much time hospitalized.
The hierarchy of nurses is physically visible – pink, blue, white (w/mask) and white (w/o mask). Pink and blue nurses take care of pretty much everything. The white nurse (w/mask) takes blood and gives pain medicine. The white nurse (w/o mask) comes once a day to tell everyone in the ward that she is the head nurse and responsible for everyone else.
The Starbucks baristas see me everyday. We come to know each other’s faces. They predict what I want to order and smile when they are proven correct. They draw smiley faces on my cups (when I forget my recyclable mug). Yet, we never make small talk. How much time do they spend wondering about what is ailing their regular customers?
With an ample supply of boiled mushy food and bed rails that lock me in each night, I return to infantile comforts. Nurses make ‘night’ rounds at 10:00, 12:00 and 2:00 a.m. I hear the footsteps over my neighbor’s violent snoring before the flashlight beams start flying around the room. Within 5 seconds, I must decide whether or not to fake sleep. The rails of my bed are checked to make sure they are correctly locked in place. Last night was a symphony of wind instruments, with two ‘roommates’ having undergone nasal surgery.
Boiled cabbage once is regrettable. Boiled cabbage 2 times a day for 23 days is Abu Ghraib cruel.
Though they seem to be in much worse shape than myself, my roommates change nearly everyday. I naturally take on the role of hearty hospital veteran. We know each others’ illnesses and sleeping habits yet we never talk – choosing instead to solemnly nod whenever we come in contact. A young man in his 20s seems to get a lot out of farting in front of me.
I have now been wandering the hospital on a nightly basis for the past two weeks. There are several security guards that I always manage to evade. Tonight, on my way back from a secret jaunt in the basement, I was surprised by a uniformed guard when I stepped into the elevator. “6th floor, right?” he asked me nonchalantly. Apparently, I have been followed.
Using the plastic thermometer twice daily, I have come to know my own body. Eight times consecutively, I correctly guessed my temperature to the tenth of a degree. However, none of the doctors and nurses seem to be impressed when I brag about my accomplishment.
Minor surgery. After a bout of nausea, the pre-anaesthesia injection stones me good. Thanks. I wake up and stare at the 4 layers of curtain that separates me from my neighbors. In the fluorescent light, each layer produces a different tone of yellow. It’s just about the only aesthetic delight available to me (except for those that I can find on my iPad).
Post-surgery. I have to stay attached to my I.V. drip for 24 hours. Every twist and turn in bed proves this to be an undesired partnership. Slowly rolling my I.V. pole to the bathroom, I truly feel like a ‘patient’.
My wife bought me a new jogging suit several days ago. All 6 people who have visited since then have complimented me on it. Now I feel cocky when I walk around the hospital wearing it.
As I write this, the dark clouds have once again moved in. I watch them role past from the large windows on the 12 floor – but rainy season doesn’t really involve me this year. Now, at the start of my 3rd week of hospitalization, my wife earnestly tells me that she seriously suspects the doctors are trying to steal my body parts and experiment on my flesh. I laugh at this but she refuses to crack a smile.
Until my current stay, the closest I have ever been to a Japanese hospital was when I read Abe Kobo’s kafakaesque ‘Secret Rendezvous’. I re-read it and see few parallels with my situation. Annie Ernaux’s ‘Things Seen’ affects me much more deeply, with its penetrating glances at daily life and contemporary news. I have also enjoyed John McPhee’s ‘Annals of the Formal World’, which collects all of his writings on geography into a single massive volume. It is strange to read about the formation of the earth as I consider my own bones and blood.
I always try to meet my visitors at the Starbucks in the hospital lobby. Yet, I can tell that some of my guests are a little disappointed, having hoped to see a ‘real hospital room’. People who have themselves experienced being hospitalized make the best visitors. My sister-in-law, who recently spent time in the hospital having her first child, always knows exactly what I need – fresh fruit, veggies, towels and recent comedies on DVD.
I feel like I am ready to get the hell out of here, and it seems my doctors are in agreement. To my wife, I refer to going home as ‘life on the outside’. Thanks to my friends and my iPad, I have watched more American TV – The Wire, Treme and The Office – in the past 3 weeks than I have watched in the past 15 years. I think I will wait a few more weeks before declaring whether this is a good or bad thing. Anyways, I’m getting the hell out of here and hopefully staying away.
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