Thursday, November 18, 2021

What I Learned in the Hospital

 Nobody likes to be in the hospital, but my recent five day stay gave me important insights.  Surprisingly hopeful lessons came from lying flat on my back.  

On Friday, I went into the ER at Presbyterian in Santa Fe for shortness of breath and was taken by ambulance to the bigger facility down in Albuquerque early the next morning to treat a pulmonary embolism and get emergency surgery.

One thing I noticed immediately is that hospitals look like America in all its multi-ethnic complexity.  Of the half dozen physicians who attended me, three were women.  Two had last names suggesting their families came from India.  Doctor Chen was presumably East Asian..  My night nurse Sarita was African American, like the tech who did my echocardiogram.  The two “candy-stripers” who finally wheeled me out the door were young white guys from Idaho and Georgia, doing six months of volunteer work as part of their church’s young adult ministry.  It wasn’t a perfectly egalitarian society.  The EMT’s who took my vitals and drew blood were earning fifteen bucks an hour, like burger flippers at McDonalds.  But neither did the hospital resemble a plantation model where white, male doctors ruled the roost with women and people of color assigned to menial chores.  It made me think that our country really has made progress in the last century

The second thing I learned was that I could get along with my roommate, even though he was a Republican and conservative Catholic while I’m a Democrat and theological liberal.  Gary was born in 1947, six years before me, but Gary was a popular name back then and one we shared.  We had other things in common, too.  We agreed that the pizza was pretty good, that our wives were gems, and that getting old was not for sissies.  We could encourage each other to get out of bed and laugh about racing each other around the nurses’ station in our walkers.  On the first day, I told Gary that I thought our country would be better off if the average citizen were thrown into a room with a complete stranger and forced to be civil and polite for a while.  He agreed with that.  We agreed that New Mexico had problems with political corruption and that neither party had a monopoly on cronyism.  I asked Gary what he thought about our current Pope and he replied that Pope Francis was a Communist.  I asked him if Jesus was a Communist also, and that seemed to give him pause.  Gary did have some funny ideas about Roswell and aliens, but we tried to disagree without being disagreeable and managed to keep things friendly.  I wondered if our nation couldn’t do the same.

The third thing I learned was that I could leave my wallet and wedding ring in a duffel by the side of my bed for 120 hours unmolested.  I was asleep, drugged and helpless most of that time, but my valuables and personal items were as safe as if in my own home.  Most people really can be trusted to do the right thing, most of the time.

It was initially hard to find a room at the big hospital in Albuquerque.  They have been slammed with covid and are operating with crisis standards of care. But I must have been an urgent case because they admitted me and the staff gave me as much attention as if I were the only patient in the vascular ward. It was heartening to see critical workers doing their jobs with grace under pressure.

Here’s my take away.  There seems to be a sickness in our body politick lately.  Americans are angry and out-of-sorts. We are dis-eased and anxious about the prognosis for our democracy.  Maybe we need a collective visit to the hospital to restore our better, healthier selves. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

You Are What You Love

Have you ever noticed that people look like their dogs?  Some folks are yappy and high strung.  Others are mellow and always ready for a belly rub.  Somehow temperament gets imprinted on physiognomy.  Perpetual worriers look like a Shar Pei with furrowed brow and woeful countenance. Glad-handers resemble Collies with an ever joyful glad-to-see-you expression on their faces. Maybe people adopt animals that have personalities aligned with their own.  But my theory is that we come to resemble the significant others in our relationships.  Whatever (or whomever) claims our day-in-day-out time and attention puts an impression on our lives.  So wives look like their husbands and vice versa.  

Today’s news gave some confirmation for this theory.  A study tracking 33,000 married couples in Japan and the Netherlands found that decades of living together tended to sync the bio-markers for both partners.  Men and women in long term relationships tended to have similar BMI’s.  They shared physical traits like high or low blood pressure and triglyceride levels, as well as psychological characteristics such as tendency toward depression or the opposite.  It’s not surprising.  “For better or worse, for richer or poor, in sickness and in health” are transformative vows, not empty verbiage.  Through an alchemy of time and constantly rubbing shoulders,  coping with both the joys and inevitable irritations of living in tandem, the two truly do become one flesh.  

Ponder this: you are what you love.  The object that commands your daily sacrifice and devotion may be the stock market, the next election, your work, your family or community.  Regardless, that reality will be your Creator and put its stamp upon your body, mind and heart.  Love wisely therefore, and be careful what you wish for.  You may eventually come to look like your dog, or mirror the thing that you most desire.  

Saturday, September 18, 2021

In Praise of Praise

People like to hear that they are great.  We love praise.  Probably it’s because so many of us are secretly insecure.  We need affirmation because inwardly we focus on our frailties and failures. For instance, I can give a twenty minute talk and fret over the one word I mispronounced, or play a song on the guitar and agonize over one wrong note. I remember goofs from years ago.  This is not just a personal idiosyncrasy, but a general rule.  In sports, for example, Novak Djokovic recently came close to winning four major tennis tournaments in a row--the Australian, French, and U.S. Open along with Wimbledon--which would have established his reputation as one of the greatest athletes of all time.  But he suffered a loss in his final, championship match.  The agony of that single defeat was enough to make him sob out loud, overshadowing the satisfaction of all his previous victories.  Psychologists and economists have the same finding.  The pleasure of winning one hundred dollars is substantially less than the pain incurred by losing the same amount.  By the same token, almost any slight or criticism cuts deep. We take scolding or reproval--or even friendly suggestions for how we might improve--to heart.  It takes an extra measure of encouragement for us to feel that we’re actually good enough.  

I suppose the greatest gifts we can give to other people are acceptance and appreciation. This is one of the traditional functions of faith: a sense of being all right with God or okay with the universe.  It’s close to what the New Testament means by agape or unconditional regard, making people feel they are worthy and special just by being human.  But you don’t have to be religious to confer this gift.  It’s in everyone’s power.

Maybe I should try just for one day to give a big, juicy compliment to everyone I encounter.  For example, say something nice on the phone to the appointment lady at the dermatologist’s office.  Withhold my snarky comment from that Facebook post and say something positive instead.  Tell my wife she’s looking fabulous and is way smarter than me (which is really only the truth).  If I followed through with that plan, handing out approval like it was free and didn’t cost me anything, how do you think my day would go?  

Thanks for listening.  You bring out my best!

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