The hospital and real life

The experience in a hospital is real life. It’s life, obviously.  And, it’s not real life, although it may feel like it.

I was in the hospital sometimes for stretches of two or three weeks. A couple of times, I was told in advance that I’d be there for about a month.

I prepared for that. I packed a lot of comforts of home, foremost among them my meditation cushion, which is heavy and awkward to carry, even though it has a handle. I brought books I never opened, and a notebook, which I used a lot. (My first notebook in the hospital was a gift from my friend Marlin.) I was told that most of the time I’d be able to wear my own clothes instead of a hospital gown. My husband Nicholas was constantly ferrying clean clothes and dirty laundry.

The hospital became a familiar and sometimes comfortable environment. The stem cell transplant floor at MD Anderson is quiet most of the time. The rooms have windows, sofas with pullout beds, and a small closet and drawers to unpack your things in. It’s about as comfortable as a hospital room can be, with sticky floors that are sanitized every day and tiled so that hospital beds, wheelchairs, and chemo infusion towers can roll easily.

The schedule was predictable. I knew when shift change happened, when there was a new care team to work with. I got very familiar with the nurses, technicians, and phlebotomists. They were usually a welcome distraction from the quiet.

The schedule was also unpredictable. Each doctor conducted their rounds on a fairly regular schedule, but there were usually several specialists visiting me every day, and each had their own routine. It was a bit of Grand Central Station every morning.

Vitals checks and blood draws were on a set schedule, during the day and sometimes overnight. (The 6:00 am blood draw was better than 4:00 am. During one stay, I begged the nurses to postpone the 4:00 am draw, which is scheduled for their processes, until 6:00 am, so that I could get needed sleep. They complied, thankfully.)

During a long hospitalization, I found it best to treat it as real life. If I thought of it as short-term, I became anxious to leave, to get home.

It’s also a completely Buddhist thing. My life has only so many days until its end. If I put myself into a mental holding pattern, holding my breath metaphorically until it’s over, I’m missing my life and the opportunities in the present moment.

So much more to say about being present with suffering. About the choice to attend, to pay attention truly, without judgment.

But there is the other side of getting too comfortable in the hospital, finding a new cocoon in what’s controlled and predictable. The hospital is a safe, controlled environment. The choices are limited, and there’s a kind of mental safety in that limitation.

Going home was a shock. I was surprised at how familiar the hospital had become. The first time I came home I experienced sensory overload. I felt the lack of controls, even though I was quite safe and cared for.

In the hospital, I had a meal menu to choose from. At home, Nicholas had to shop and cook. In the hospital, as I got healthier, physical therapists worked with me every day. When I got home, it was up to me to schedule PT home visits, and up to me to increase my activity level. It was real life.

There’s so much more to say. I’ll leave it here for now.

Much love and good health and safety and contentment to you all.

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