Every now and then you read a nonfiction book that makes you say, Hey, there's some good ideas and thoughts here, why can't we talk about these things? And make the world a little better?
Victoria Sweet's God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine is just that kind of book, which is why I've been telling you about it all week.
It's a bit tough to describe just why it's such a great book. When I think of the "game-changing" nonfiction I've read, usually one quote or one overall idea stands out about it in my memory (for instance: I'll always thank John Bowe's book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, for the continuing insight that "the system isn't broke...the system is working exactly the way it was set up to work"). But for this book, just the overall experience of reading it and experiencing Victoria Sweet's work and world in her telling of it will stick with me.
None of her ideas, formed over her life's work in medicine, are all that earth-shattering on their own. Listen to people. Pay attention to the details. Consider the whole person when considering their health. Take time to pause and think.
You'll also notice that's a list of ideas that is nowhere to be seen in the practice of modern medicine.
Fairly early on in her narrative, Sweet discusses the consultants who came to find ways the hospital could economize (and they got a cut of the savings, naturally). One of their shocked findings was that one of the head ward nurses did nothing but sit at her station and knit. On the surface of it, that does seem like a rather damning charge. There was a head nurse who had vowed to knit blankets for the thirty-six patients in her care (most of whom were elderly women). And after the consultants were done, that nurse and eighteen other "head nurses" whose job was to stay on their ward and look after what needed to be done were cut, while the remaining staff were to be trained to be "nurse managers," and given additional work and beepers so that they weren't always on their assigned wards. Here's what Sweet says:
"It was a little-old lady ward, with thirty-six little old ladies--white-haired, tiny, and old--and sure enough, almost every one was wrapped in or had on her bed a hand-knit blanket...
I've thought a lot about those blankets since the disappearance of the head nurses and their well-run neighborhoods of wards. About what the blankets meant and what they signified. And here's the thing: The blankets made me sit up and take notice. Made me pay attention. Marked out that head nurse as especially attentive, especially present, especially caring. It put me and everyone else on notice.
I'ts not that the ladies for whom they were knitted appreciated them or even noticed them. Who did notice was--everyone else. Visiting family noticed...The Russian ambulance drivers noticed, when they rushed into the ward to pick up one of the ladies, that each was wrapped in a colorful identifying blanket.They also noticed the head nurse, sitting in the nursing station, answering the phones, arranging the charts, and directing them to the correct patient. Even the doctors noticed. The blankets put us all on notice that this was a head nurse who cared...
Because those blankets signified even more than attention and caring. The click of that head nurse's knitting needles was the meditative click of--nothing more to be done." (pp. 74-75.)
Sweet goes on to explain that of course the new system saved money, but it increased everyone else's stress and lowered care standards, which she referred to as "the inefficiency of efficiency."
Huh. "The inefficiency of efficiency." I guess this book left me with one huge unifying thought after all. This is a great book. Read it.