Updated: Nov 18, 2021
After being approved for surgery, I was scheduled for ‘Thursday for my broken wrist. I am very familiar with hospitals, starting from the time I was a 5 year old child and my father was a physician in St. Louis, Missouri where we lived. I would go with him on a Sunday to Lutheran Hospital when he made early morning rounds. Most often, I would wait for him under the watchful eye of the headnurse, busying myself with pad and paper writing prescriptions, pretending to be the doctor. A few years later, I was introduced to the patient floors, if someone Dad had come to see wasn’t too ill to have me there. My father thought I brought my own kind of medicine, simply by being Julie. I grew up knowing that a patient’s story is part of his or her illness, just as her illness becomes part of her story, and that listening is an important tool in healing. In later years, I became a hospital chaplain, combining professional listening skills with writing as I wrote patients’ stories as a theraoeutic intervention. I thought I understood the patient experience, and I was comfortable working around hospitals.
The orthopedist and anesthesiologist were ready at 7:00 a.m. as promised. Both doctors spoke English, were kind, unhurried and professional as they explained what was going to happen next. But when they disappeared and the nursing staff took over, hooking my up to ivs, preparing me for surgery, I begn to feel as though I were in a completely foreign world. There was none of the hustle and bustle of US hospitals, none of the familiarly annoying sounds of a busy hospital. It was eerily quiet. No beeps no flashing overhead lights, no doctors called over the PA, no team of residents making rounds. None of the nursing staff or technicians spoke ‘English. All the Spanish I had worked hard to begin to master over the past four months drained out of me like a blood letting. I couldn’t understand what the nurses were saying to me because they spoke too quickly and with vocabulary specific to hospitals and healthcare. Words I didn’t know. I was anxious, in pain, and didn’t want to try to work at understanding Spanish. All I wanted was to make a personal connection with those who came in and out of the pre-op room. That has always been my style, my way of feeling like a human being in a dehumanizing situation. I smiled wanly from time to time when a nurse came to my bed, but there was no way to make them like me, to see me as an individual. I lay in silence, with an oxygen cannula in my nose, Jack standing nearby, waiting.
When they wheeled me into the operating room, I recognized the anasthesiologist under her mask, even though her long, luxurious blonde curls were hidden by her surgical cap. “I will treat you like my mother,” she said, reassuringly. I hoped her relationship with her mother wa a good one. Mexican music was playing, and I said in Spanish, trying to be light, “No dancing.” “Do you like Mexican music?” she asked. “ Ah, si,” I answered. And that was the last thing I remembered until I woke up in recovery. Meanwhile, Jack had taken care of paperwork that we will send to our insurance company.
More IV’s, blood pressure checks, pain meds for another 8 hours of feeling lost and alone. For the first time, I felt for myself the terrible isolation that surrounds people who cannot speak the language of the hospital, and the need they have for connection. The other side of the needle from the medical team is a very different, destabilizing position. It shook my confidence, physically and emotionally, realizing how far I am from friends and family, who have done their best to stay in touch and to care, but are nowhere in sight. I began to wonder, for the first time, what am I doing living in Mexico? Ex-pat neighbors have dropped in, hearing of my accident. My housekeeper and tutor have been kind, concerned and helpful. When I called Candida to cancel our date to get together and told her what had happend, my lovely, sweet Mexican friend who gave me cooking lessons, came by yesterday bringing an incredible meal for us, full of chicken and vegetables and a container of rice still warm from her stove, plus sweet soft dinner rolls. I cried when I saw her. She called this morning to say that she has dinner for us again tonight and her son will take me to my doctor’s appointment this afternoon. I asked if I could pay him for driving us. “No, she said. ‘this is a favor.” My hand hurts less today ,and my soul is beginning to heal. I am feeling so grateful, once again, to be here and experience Mexican friendship, its own kind of medicine and healing.