I recently had a hip replacement. ‘So what?’ you probably think, ‘I'll worry about that when I get to your advanced age.’ The reason I write about it is not in search of sympathy, but to inform you what it is like being a hospital patient, in the hope that we can learn from my story how to make things better for our patients and their families.
I was in a lovely hospital with which I can find almost no faults. The hospital operates an antidiscrimination policy on hot beverages. It is impossible to discriminate their tea from their coffee on the grounds of colour, smell or taste. That aside, the food was edible and the staff delightful. Everyone tried their best to be kind and thoughtful.
We teach medical students about the power differential between doctor and patient, but it is both illuminating and sobering to experience a hospital from the patient's viewpoint. When you become a patient you can easily lose your identity, your dignity and hence your self-esteem. The clothes that define you are taken away and you are put in a hospital gown that can only be politely viewed from the front. You are not allowed to walk to the X-ray or physiotherapy departments, but are wheeled in a chair like an invalid. Staff members who take a moment to chat, almost regardless of the topic, brighten a long day immeasurably. As a patient, you are reluctant to initiate such exchanges because the staff must be busy. The issue is being generous with scarce time and being interested enough in fellow human beings to help them feel more human.
Even in the friendliest place, there are frustrations. A wardsman arrives unexpectedly to take you to X-ray. You sit for an hour, bored to bits in the X-ray department before you have your X-ray, and then for another half hour waiting for the wardsman to return (although you could walk to the ward in 2 min). You wish you had thought to bring the novel you were so enjoying, but didn't remember because you were flustered. Forewarned would have been forearmed, but whose job was it to warn you about a pending X-ray? And why would anyone warn you? A hospital patient's time is less valuable by far than the time of a radiographer or a wardsman.
Two simple acts of kindness stood out. One male nurse, seeing how uncomfortable I was, positioned a ‘monkey bar’ hoist above my bed, which transformed my nights from miserable discomfort to being able to change my own position. I was back in control of my own comfort. A physiotherapist took the time to talk about recuperation and, when she found out I have a backyard pool, advised me that swimming using flippers was excellent physiotherapy to strengthen muscles. This revolutionised my recovery and improved my mood dramatically. Neither was aware of the power of their action, although I made a point of feeding back to them how grateful I was. Thoughtfulness and humanity are so important.
When I left the hospital, it felt like being out on parole, as I escaped after 5 days of air-conditioned sterility. The lessons I will try to put into practice are to be more generous with my time, to take more interest in people and to keep patients and their families as fully informed as possible about simple day-to-day procedures. We all feel pressed for time, but time is the currency of humanity, and demonstrating humanity is a powerful way to help patients and relatives preserve their dignity and their sense of worth.