September 27, 2011

The Old Hospital

Can a building feel pain, or sense joy? Does it sense a life force coming into the world, or a soul lifting off into the ether? Does it know the fear of the people inside—when the cancer diagnosis comes or the Parkinson’s’ worsens?
The old hospital near where I grew up is being replaced with a new high tech health care facility that is part of a larger chain from a nearby city. The small, two -story building with its shiny hospital green walls and black and white tile floors will no longer be used. Built in 1952, only a few years before I was born there, it is being ditched for a new facility that will serve as a “feeder” to a large city hospital thirty miles away.
My parents moved to my mother’s hometown a month before I was born. My mother had been getting prenatal care from an elderly general practitioner who died when she was seven months pregnant. She then sought care from the only doctor in the little town where they would move; he still made house calls and also served as coroner. It never occurred to her to seek the care of an ob/gyn in a larger city.
On the day of my birth, my mom had a regularly scheduled blood test at the hospital. She hadn’t suffered any pain, but the hospital was ten miles from the doctor’s office. This Marcus Welby on Whitley County was there on his hospital day.
The staff broke Mom's water about 10 a.m., knocked her out with Twilight Sleep, a popular anesthesia of the day, and my father paced back and forth in the tiny father’s waiting room. At 1:30 p.m. I came into the world into the forceps-laden hands of the local doctor, who could have been a character from a weekly television drama. My mother was completely knocked out, and remembers nothing of my birth.
The next time I came to the hospital was thirty months later. Hospital rules forbade me from being on the floor to visit my mother, so she held up my baby brother to the window. I told my father, “I see Mommy way up high.” The hospital allowed two adult visitors at one time, during limited hours.
When I was ten, my maternal grandparents were on vacation in Asheville, North Carolina, when my grandfather had a serious heart attack. After ten days of forced medical incarceration for Grampy in the North Carolina hospital, my grandparents flew back. The hometown hospital had a new unit called the “Cardiac Care Wing” and my grandfather was admitted for two more weeks of “rest.” Amazingly, no close relative had a serious illness until I was ten. I remember walking into his hospital room and seeing my six foot something grandfather lying there hooked up to IVs and heart monitors, and being very afraid.
At fourteen, I had my upper wisdom teeth removed. This required a night in the hospital following the brief surgery by the local dentist. I was terribly frightened so my mother stayed in the room with me, sleeping upright in a very uncomfortable wooden and vinyl chair.
The last time I was in the hospital was after an all-night flight from Tampa, FL to this rural hospital in Indiana. My father called to tell me that my mother had tried to commit suicide and was in the hospital. I quickly charged a ticket on Delta and my boyfriend ran me to the airport. A friend picked me up in Indianapolis in the middle of the night and we arrived in my hometown about six a.m. She slept at my parent’s house while my father and I went to the hospital.
There sat my mother – then fifty – on the same floor where her father died just six months before. She had not dealt well with his death, despite his declining health from 1967 to the time of his death in 1983. She also didn’t deal well with the “Brain Drain” departure of her two children. Both my brother and I attended college in Indiana and then flew the coop – me to Florida, brother to Oklahoma.
My mother drank Drano. Or she said she drank Drano. We don’t really know. She wasn’t injured in body – but it was certainly a call for help. Seeing her in that bed, petite, sad, angry, belligerent, an amalgam of emotions, I didn’t know quite how to react. In this place of safety and healing, the green walls seemed to close in on me.
My mother was transferred to an inpatient psychiatric hospital, and began a journey of dealing with her demons.
How odd these vignettes seem now, in a world where one can have your chest sawed open for heart surgery and be walking on a treadmill a few days later. Imagine an overnight stay for wisdom teeth!
I never set foot in the hospital again, yet when I read about its demise in the town newspaper I still read (and also write for) I felt wistful. This building has been the heart of this community – it has witnessed beginnings and endings and tragedies and triumphs in between.
And I’m sad to see it replaced, even with a building more high tech. Will it have the same heart without the ghosts of a generation or two of its citizens?