Before I got into medical school, while I was still in my first year of graduate school, I learned what hell was like.
The hospital was a rabbit warren. Walking down the long empty beige halls fueled my hatred for hospitals. And, of the color beige.
When I had volunteered during college, I would press myself up against the wall whenever a gaggle of doctors passed by. They ruled the hospital: powerful, scary, all knowing. I cowered in their shadows the way Edwardian servants used to hide themselves if their masters passed them in the halls. Hospitals were built for them. Reserved spaces for medical school graduates to stomp around in.
But then I became chained to the hospital, unable to leave at the end of a shift. Having a family member in the hospital is a weird limbo to be in. One the one hand, you are not sick, not enduring the pain and suffering of invasive procedures like your loved one is, so sympathy and support from others isn’t as readily given. On the other hand, you cannot leave the hospital — at least not for long. You are compelled to stay by the side of your family member, but unable to help them. We bare witness. Witness to the workings of the hospital. The comings and going of nurses, residents, lunch.
Even when we’re not physically in the building, our minds are bound to it. When I did step outside for a quick Starbucks, I was in a fog. I have always been a relatively patient person, at least never one to lose my cool over my coffee order. But when handed a decaf drip instead of a macchiato, I lost it. Sleeping in a chair all night while monitors beep incessantly, changes you. My old passive, easy going self had died, and I was reborn a stubborn bitch, with a taste for the blood of incompetent interns and bags under my eyes.
Sometimes, when I could no longer look at the unrecognizable stranger who was my mother in her hospital bed, I would walk to the parking garage, sit my car and sob. The men who worked the garage started to notice, and then I became a fixture, a daily occurrence.
When I returned to the hospital, I strutted down the hall. Unafraid. To my surprise, groups of doctors did move out of my way. Perhaps they scattered because I hadn’t showered in days or perhaps they recognized the deep-set worry lines across my forehead. It felt good to walk unencumbered. I became filled with a strength and a purpose that seemed to come from outside myself.
Hard times change us. That’s the truest thing I know. And while I don’t wish my hospital experience on my worst enemy, if you find yourself in a similar situation, remember that growth can come from struggle, confidence from feeling small, and hope from fear.
Hospitals are not built for doctors. Hospitals are for patients and their families, for the people whose heads and hearts are full of worry and hope and love, swirled together into a sleepy confounded state of being.
Move out of their way. Out of the way of people not in pressed white coats or surgical greens. Out of the way of people wearing worn tennis shoes instead of 200-dollar clogs, the ragged, the weary, the ones trailing a half deflated get well balloon behind them. Learn to recognize these silent heroes. They look a lot like we do. When we take off our stethoscopes and put down our penlights and return to being sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews. They are your family, and mine.
Let the hallway be the place we honor them. Show them we know how hard it can be. Show them that we recognize how very lucky we are to be able to leave the hospital at day’s end, to be able to rinse off its tragedies and return to our normally scheduled lives. For their strength and their sacrifice, be moved.
Fiona Scott is a medical student.