• Otter Views: Sheet Time

    by Tom Stevens

    Hospitals and care homes have been on my itinerary lately as friends and family members around California dealt with various medical issues. The particulars are too complex to explore here, but a few general impressions surfaced.

    Of those, staff attitude comes first to mind. So far this year, I’ve made repeat visits to hospitals in Salinas, Monterey and Marin County and to care homes in Marin and Palm Springs. The health workers I met showed enviable levels of energy, cheerfulness, professionalism and patience in often daunting circumstances.

    Their buoyant outlook made me want 50 CCs of whatever they were having.

    And it wasn’t just the people wearing scrubs. Groundskeepers, security guards, parking attendants, laundry and commissary workers, even accounts receivable clerks wore the same aura of helpfulness and goodwill.

    Now, they might simply be happy to have jobs in this dismal economy. But I think it’s more than that. Like those who work in churches, schools, day care centers, libraries, mass transit, the military or public safety, the health community shares a “charge.” It’s a willing commitment to care for whoever shows up and deal with whatever comes up, even in hellish circumstances.

    War zones and third world epidemics are worst case. But even in seemingly placid California, hospital and care home staffers confront frequent crises and heartaches. Granted, a quietly humming clinical routine normally prevails on the wards. But it’s not unusual to hear screaming, see bedside monitors jump or flat line, or watch disturbed patients fight with orderlies and tear out their IVs. Some patients never check out.

    It’s all in a day’s (or a night’s) work. And it seems doable, so long as the patient is progressing. What distinguishes health care workers is their response when progress isn’t being made, or when progress becomes regress. They carry on regardless. They treat patients with courtesy, dignity and concern however dire the circumstances. I found that especially remarkable.

    Visitors also benefit. I can attest to that because I suffer from DFS, or Direction Finding Syndrome. Where I was raised, we didn’t use north, south, east and west to indicate direction. Everything was either uphill toward the mountain (“mauka”) or downhill toward the ocean (“makai”). If you needed to go sideways, you just chose two landmarks laterally bracketing where you were. “Go three blocks Diamond Head,” we might say, or “go five blocks Ewa.”

    This system works fine when an ocean and a mountain lie within a single turn of the head. But what happens in deserts, foot hills, forests or estuaries? And more to the point, what happens in the fluorescent-lit labyrinthine corridors; the remote East and West Wings; the mythical North Garden Terraces of health care facilities?

    In my case, DFS happens. If I can’t see a mountain or an ocean out the window, I swiftly lose my bearings. The DFS worsens geometrically when there are no windows. I haven’t yet been hospitalized for this condition, but the time I’ve spent wandering confusedly in care homes and hospitals may amount to the same thing.

    Over these past few months, my DFS seemingly brought me into contact with the entire health care community. As I careened like a skittle top from parking lot to emergency room to reception desk to waiting room to dining area to patient ward, I often took wrong turns. Thus I glimpsed “back of the house” staffers at work: laundering, gardening, cooking, housekeeping, wrestling with Medicare paperwork. I had a standard interruption for all of them.

    “Can you tell me how to get to room 3109?”

    To my enduring surprise, nobody punched a secret button on the wall or snatched up a red emergency phone. No one rose threateningly from a work station to demand what I was doing in the chipper-shredder area. No alarms sounded . . . no audible alarms, anyway.

    Better yet, no one did the cruelest thing, which would have been to give me spoken directions, as in “walk east fifty paces, then knock on the fourth door.” Instead, they took me gently by the elbow and walked me solicitously to the next system nexus.

    ”See that blue door?” they would ask. “Go down there and turn right. The day shift bottle washer will take you the next part of the way.” I could imagine how settlers must have felt crossing the great salt desert in their Conestoga wagons.

    At length I would arrive on the floor or ward or wing that housed whoever I had come to see. Then I would circle the unit, skirting wheelchairs, IV stands and gurneys and looking at the room numbers while simultaneously not looking into the rooms. Ah, 3109!

    “Where’ve you been?” the patient would ask.

    I’d just shrug. “Are you going to eat that Jell-o?”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on June 21, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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