In my recent piece “Therapy Space” (Intima, Spring 2016) I addressed the difficulties of a consulting psychologist trying to find space on a busy pediatric unit for confidential discussions with parents of sick patients. Parents were often uncomfortable talking at bedside in front of their children, but talks in the hallway could be overheard by anyone passing by. In desperation, I sometimes took parents into a little-used women’s bathroom that had a sofa in it and put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.
In my hospital work I actively sought compartmentalization. Tarina Quraishi, in her essay “On Elevators” (Intima, Spring 2015), observes the negative side of spatial divisions. She points out that because doctors do not share the waiting room experience with patients who feel anxious and vulnerable, and patients never see doctors in the break rooms where they reveal the people behind their professional facades, the spatial divisions in hospitals foster emotional divisions.
Quraishi writes about the hospital elevator as the one place in the hospital that “traverses stories.” The elevator packs medical staff, administrators, patients, volunteers and visitors into a “meager four-and-a-half-by-six-foot space.” In this space, for a brief time, “human instinct transcends the professionalism we hold so dearly.” In an elevator an assorted group of people will all smile at a baby or take the time to make sure a person in a wheelchair is able to safely exit on the right floor.
Reading Quraishi’s essay brought back two of my own striking hospital elevator memories. The first incident occurred when my infant son was hospitalized for a serious infection. One morning I rode the elevator down to the cafeteria, feeling worried about the baby’s condition and exhausted from forty-eight hours without sleep. The elevator doors opened on the next floor to admit two people I knew, a colleague and the mother of a patient. The mother greeted me with a cheerful, “Good morning, Dr. Hansell!” and the colleague expressed surprise that I was back from maternity leave so soon. I was jolted into the reality that this was the same hospital I worked in. Despite my disheveled appearance and my sour smell of strong coffee and anxious sweat, these two people had recognized me. I felt the strange sensation of being three people at once as the doors closed and I descended – a patient, a psychologist, and a co-worker. For me, that elevator ride truly “traversed stories.”
My second memory is of being stuck in the elevator of a children’s psychiatric hospital with a traumatized, abused child I was working with. I had been taking him down to the room full of toys we used for play therapy when the power went out and the elevator stopped between floors. I immediately felt claustrophobic and anxious, but it was important that I maintain my professional adult demeanor with my young patient. I told him as calmly as I could that we’d have to wait patiently until the power came on. The boy expressed disappointment that the toys downstairs would have to wait. But then he said, “I know! Let’s play Elevator World!” He spun out a fantasy in which the elevator was the control room of a space ship heading to a distant planet. I, his claustrophobic therapist, was named the brave captain, and he was the pilot who controlled the ship by pushing the useless elevator buttons. When the power came back on and we left the elevator, I realized that my little patient had helped me through the incident. In Elevator World, our roles had fallen away and we had become just humans.
Andrea Hansell earned a creative writing certificate at Princeton University. She completed her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and practiced as a psychotherapist in Michigan for many years. Andrea Hansell earned a creative writing certificate at Princeton University. She completed her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and practiced as a psychotherapist in Michigan for many years. She is currently living and writing in Rockville, Maryland. Her essays and short stories have appeared in a variety of publications including Lilith, The Intima, Easy Street, and The Lascaux Review.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine