A list of learnings from the medical microcosm

After reading Albert Espinosa’s The Yellow World, here’s the first half of my own catalogue of learnings from hospital, part of the Reflections on Hospital series

Red cross painting. Laura Eades 2015

Red cross painting. Laura Eades 2015

Seven months ago, recovering from a cesarian in hospital, I read Albert Espinosa’s brilliant book of life lessons learned from his teens spent on a hospital cancer ward, The Yellow World.  It’s full of cool stuff that’s stayed with me, it’s one of those books that’s profound without having big pretensions.

Before Christmas, when I spent some time on a children’s ward with my then lung-infected baby, I wrote these snippets. Here are my little learnings from the medical microcosm.

1. Less mindclutter means a clearer consciousness, of course

So, here I am in hospital again. After 35 years of never darkening the doors of an institution like this, for the third time in a year I’m back in this tiny shrunken world. Wanna know a secret? Part of me likes it. I mean, which habit-hounded neurotic wouldn’t secretly quite enjoy having strict simple parameters drawn around them?

I said ‘shrunken’ world but really I should say it’s reduced. Not so much smaller as stripped back down to the basics. Reduced stresses, reduced chores (just get well, nothing else matters), reduced circuit of movement (I made it outdoors for five minutes yesterday to stand in the air for the first time in two days). Reduced demands on the body by machines taking over some of the functions (like the oxygen being pumped to my baby girl so her lungs don’t have to struggle). Reduced responsibility for me, because I can hand it over to the experts.

Also reduced distractions. No internet. Lights out by 7pm. It’s reminiscent of the fortnight I spent in a (Catholic) nunnery dormitory in Venice, while hunting for student accommodation. Or of a vipassna.

And it does almost feel quite mind-expanding. It’s thought-provoking, sitting in bed, or sitting beside someone else’s, trying to make healing happen, or step aside and let it work its magic.

Kind of on the edge of life, or where life gets a bit edgy, there are thoughts that drop into your consciousness quite colourfully.

2. Heal and toe, it takes two to tango

Healing has two parts.

There are the doctors and nurses, who are kind of the mechanics of healing. They log all the numbers off the machines and write down the colour of the babies’ poo, and bring in antibiotics in tubes that run straight into my daughter’s head. They make the rules and run the ship and tell me “Nein! Nein!” like a naughty dog when I try to put a canteen tray in their ward-tray-only trolley.

And there are the mums here. Like me – because it’s a children’s ward. The mums do the other part of the healing. The being there; the encouraging; maybe even just the waiting and the witnessing, since there’s sometimes nothing at all you can do but keep someone in mind.

Like the doing and the being.

3. Will a mother’s body always be a metaphor for her children’s?

We aren’t the same body any more: She’s born, and she’s not even breastfeeding. She’s got pneumonia, now I’ve got a sore throat. She’s got the big guns, I’ve just got a tiny inconvenience. My pain is a fraction of hers. She can’t breathe easily, now I can’t either. Do you know what I’m like with illness? I’m very sorry for myself and usually a bit dramatic. Do you know what she’s like? Smiley. She’s like a smiley, wiggling, hoarsely gurgling pirate with a bandage round her head to stop her removing the valve for intravenous medicines.

Something else that’s perverse, is I’ve been avoiding meditating for weeks. Now that breathing hurts, I suddenly want to meditate (just because I can’t. Well, I absolutely still can. Just because it’s a bit harder I mean. You see what I mean about being dramatic?). I want to be embodied with the breath, to be inside, to talk to my body, and as I do so, I almost feel like I can talk to hers. I’m learning to empathise.

4. This is such a great place to fall in love 

I’m learning new levels of tenderness. I’m grateful to have my sympathies provoked. It’s a relief to have easier access to the part of me that really cares and finds it easy to step up. It gives me confidence in my capacity to be loving. I’m enjoying feeling the love flow out of me as I pay attention to my child. I’m enjoying being in my mum role – being necessary and irreplaceable.

She can give me a smile. She can be creative – look at her there, making an edible toy out of the wetwipes packet. Look at that progress she made. Look at those glassy eyes, still with their sheen, peking over the oxygen tube strapped to her nose. Look at her rolling over and growling as she tries to teeth on that soft toy bunny. Does that look like a sick baby? Look at her look at her notice her don’t overlook her. No, I feel such love and admiration for her, the mischief in her face that won’t be discouraged by wheezing or vomiting or the thing sticking in her head.

5. Surrender feels better than you’d expect

You just give yourself over, put yourselves in the hands of the experts. You don’t have a choice. You’ve got to trust them. You’ve got to let them do their job. You’ve got to let them stick electrodes on your baby and put a valve thingy in their head. It’s such a relief to trust, and for the buck not to stop with oneself.

But I could trust even more. I could surrender even more, because I’m someone who always thinks nobody does it better than me. Independence is a muscle I’m afraid will turn to flab. I feel annoyed, as if I’m very mildly disempowered every time I have to ask for every bottle of baby milk; that I can’t just do my own in the kitchen. I have to let the Abendbrot trolley come to me: I can’t go out and choose what I’d like, it has to be bread and cheese. I feel a bit like a child myself. How frustrating it must be to be a child, and not to be able to choose. No wonder mine shouts at me that “I want to do it mySELF!”, though sometimes it’s a ridiculous demand, like when she wants to take the nail scissors and clip her own nails, when I know she can’t even use safety scissors on cardboard yet.

It’s not massive, and so I’m getting a bit passive.

Some days it’s totally claustrophobic, all too tiny. Sometimes it seems so simple, though, I think going back to my house with all its routines and responsibilities feels quite overwhelming. Then I realise how far I’ve come, how much I’ve let others take up the reins for. It’s very kind to give me that break.

6. Everywhere is rhythm, we just don’t often listen to it

This place has its own time zone, its own cycle of checkups and beds folded for floorwashing and mealtickets and lights out. I’ve been in this room since I came here a week ago. My roommates have come and gone in chapters. In between have been spaces. I’ve really needed those slow, quiet times, when I could tell my little girl out loud how much I like her face, in my own time, at my own volume.

It also has its own seasons. Friday nights, and Saturday nights, are rush hour. The children’s doctors in Germany close their doors, so if you need medical care you have to come to the children’s ward in the hospital.

As I write this now, the glass door at the end of the corridor which marks the barrier between the intensive care unit and the emergency reception shows a myriad of saturday night careseekers: children howling in tights with the sound turned down (because I can only see them, not hear them). And the corridor, normally with its twinkling Christmas lights, is full of people rushing up and down, and someone in a special high wheelie bed, like in Casualty.

This real hospital is just like Casualty!

When they come through the doors, then I hear them. The yowling and the hollering on this ward shows every colour of anguish. You can hear the different meanings, though I’ve always thought I couldn’t ‘read’ my children’s cries that clearly: it feels as if you could tell that this one means “don’t leave me alone” or this other one “it hurts”. Not sure what the one like Donald Duck being crucified means. Hopefully there’s a remedy.

7. Being there

Looks like Being There might be quite a useful discovery. I’d forgotten about it but being here reminds me. It’s an alternative to trying to fix things for people. Something you might be doing for more than one person already, even when you’re telling yourself you’re not doing enough, not being loving enough. Being There is something loving that’s always available for us to do for each other, without really needing to do anything.

My first daughter taught me about Being There when she was a colicky baby. Nothing in the long nights of the earth’s turning could stop her crying. We’d do everything, systematically. Change nappy, feed a thousand times, rock gently, rock vigorously, sing, walk her in a sling in the streets, burp her, wind her, avoid eye contact, bore her, swaddle her, tire her out, give her toys, massage her, give her colic drops, read her stories, pass her from parent to parent. And in the end, there was nothing I could do. But be with her as she cried, awful though it was, and say “I’m here. I know. I’m here”. I was powerless to change it for her. I could only witness. Just be with her.

There was a little two-year old girl in my room yesterday day called Lilli, who wouldn’t stop crying because for some reason her mum didn’t stay over, and wasn’t there in the morning either. We ended up doing all kinds of singing (Bob Marley) and bookreading (Besuch am Zoo) to try to console her. When her mum came eventually, Lilli felt safe and fell asleep. When she slept, though, the mum probably thought she wasn’t really contributing anything, and went off to the cafeteria or somewhere. The girl would seemingly sense her absence in her sleep, and wake up, and find her gone, and cry again.

Being There is a kind of psychological spaceholding which guarantees we’re not alone. I think of all the people who are Being There for me without even knowing it, without doing anything, every day of my life. It’s so so great to not feel alone. As I sit here, I can almost feel them connected to me, giving me security.

8. It’s easy to be judgmental about other parents

Did you get a whiff of my disdain about Lilli’s parents? Hm. It’s easy to judge parents. Probably easier to judge parents than any other kind of people. I’ve felt that judgement and it really sears, because you’re doing your firkin best, even at your least zen.

So when I wonder why they don’t read Lilli who won’t stop crying a story, or sit her on their lap, rather than leaving her in her bed and getting annoyed with her for her incessant screaming, I should just let it go: they haven’t got the story in their repertoire, or the energy for it; maybe they haven’t got a hug to give; maybe it wouldn’t work at all, and maybe there isn’t an answer to her crying, and maybe I’m not the one with all the answers.

And when I see my roommate sing to her little boy, I’m inspired: I hadn’t sung. i’d like to sing to my baby more. Now I do. Just Grease songs and crap. But lovely.

* * *

More life lessons from hospital next week! Open the comment thread by clicking on the pale grey dot with a plus sign, under the blogpost.

* * *

Read more on Illustrated Guide to Life: