“Hospitals tend to have an extraterrestrial air. Shiny structures filled with yawning expanses of slick, sterile floors, strange beeping machines, and masked creatures with gloves cutting open sleeping bodies.”
Reading these opening sentences of Jessica Little’s essay, “Medical Metamorphosis” (Intima, Fall 2014) transported me back to the Boston ICU where my husband died two years ago. Although we had traveled far from home for his treatment, I had not expected us to leave planet Earth. But there we were, in an alien world where even time was distorted, the fluorescent, nightless days bleeding into one another and seeming both too short and infinitely long.
The bizarre planet on which we found ourselves was inhabited by patients, who lay prone and unresponsive in nests of tubing, and the family members who fluttered helplessly around those nests. It was easy to identify my own kind, the other anonymous family members, as they wandered the halls of the hospital. Sleepless, unshowered, smelling of coffee and despair, they could be found dozing in the uncomfortable chairs in the ICU waiting room or dripping tears on lumpy scrambled eggs in the cafeteria.
The planet’s other inhabitants were the medical staff. They arrived for their shifts labeled with shiny ID badges, dressed in clean white lab coats or blue scrubs. With deft and practiced fingers they probed jaundiced skin, inserted needles, turned knobs on machines. Twice daily they made rounds in large, protective herds. When they spoke to family members they were kind but distant. To do their job effectively, they could not think too hard about who the patients had been in their healthier pasts, or how their family members felt about seeing them so compromised. As Jessica Little observes, they had by design mutated into aliens; it was part of their training. And yet, as she also notes, the staff sometimes encountered “a collision of consciousness. A hovering earthling that breaks down the barrier.” As one of those earthlings, I often saw the humanity behind the alien masks, a nurse who patted my arm and handed me a tissue, a doctor whose eyes welled with tears as he examined my husband and then looked up at me.
In Ms. Little’s essay, the tragic death of a medical resident’s family member brings into focus her “own earthliness, the impotence of all the aliens…and the fragility of family.” In my own story, it was the Boston Marathon bombing that humanized the medical staff. Suddenly all of us, staff and patients and family members alike, were shocked, frightened and vulnerable. We stood shoulder to shoulder watching the horrible scenes unfolding on television, wondered about the safety of friends and family members, and debated whether it was safe to go home. I felt sorry for the staff, because unlike me they could not just collapse and cry in a chair. They had to soldier on, tend to their patients, do their critically important jobs.
I left the ICU after my husband’s death feeling gratitude, admiration, and compassion for the doctors and nurses who cared for him during an extraordinarily challenging week. I am reassured by the thought that future patients will be cared for by doctors like Jessica Little who know how and when to blend the trained alien with the understanding “that ultimately we are all earthlings at the end and all the time.”
Andrea Hansell, who has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, earned a creative writing certificate at Princeton University and has published work in Lilith, Mademoiselle and The Ann Arbor News. Read her piece, “The Dragonslayer” in the Spring 2015 Intima.
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine