When my sister brought back a chocolate chip cookie to our table at Au Bon Pain inside the Children’s Hospital, I asked what shelf she had gotten it from. The second from the bottom, she said.
“That’s exactly where all the kids run their hands over the cookies,” I told her. She looked dismayed. “Their parents never watch them,” I added, a trace of bitterness creeping in.
I live across the street from the Children’s Hospital, and I go to class next door. I don’t work there, but I find myself in its colorful lobby at least several times each week. I pick up my prescriptions from the hospital’s CVS, my sandwiches from the cafeteria, and my late-night desserts from the Au Bon Pain.
I weave around children in wheelchairs, zombie-like looking residents in scrubs, toddlers with balloons, parents with no make-up on, teenagers with head scarfs, elderly couples with slow gaits. I walk with single-minded purpose. My private life intersects with the lives of those most vulnerable and with those who are treating them. But it’s my private life, and I don’t feel an obligation to slow down, mentally or physically.
It’s disgusting, really.
During our Patient-Doctor II class, 15 of us got to interview a middle-aged man with a progressive neurodegenerative disease. The interview was scheduled from 2:15-2:30. It ended up running 45 minutes over.
Though I had read about this disease in textbooks and understood its underlying mechanisms, I had never seen a person with it. I was rapt, listening to his story. I thought about his neurotransmitters and his synapses and his neurons and how they were all failing him. Then I just thought about him.
We were learning, so we had the luxury of asking the patient any questions we wanted. Most were focused on what his life was like living with the disease. One student asked him how supportive his family was. I asked him if he needed help with daily tasks. Another student asked him how he handled the news of his diagnosis. The questions got increasingly personal, and he answered them all.
I left class that day thinking about him.
Then I went to do errands at Children’s Hospital.
I thought about how slowly that patient had walked, with an unsteady gait. I imagined trying to skirt around him, frustrated that he couldn’t obey the rules of pedestrian traffic.
I thought about his halting speech. I imagined him in front of me at Au Bon Pain, trying to stammer out an order while I sighed inwardly.
I thought about his tremors. I imagined him dropping change over the counter as he tried to pay for his sandwich while I stood behind him, ready with credit card in my own steady hand.
I thought about the half dozen medications he needed to be on and how long that would take him to pick up at the pharmacy, while I tapped my foot and vacantly stared at the cover of People magazine in the meantime.
It is one thing to understand and empathize with a patient during work hours. It is also one thing to reflect on the difficulties of living with a chronic illness while you sit alone in your room typing out a blog post.
It is quite a different thing to lose the divide between your personal sphere and a hospital’s, when your off hours aren’t anyone else’s off hours. I have my earbuds in, my tunnel vision, and my head in an entirely different place. I don’t look at people; I look around them. I look for opportunities to pass them, to avoid them, to carve out my personal space. Often, I don’t feel like sharing that space.
Sometimes I stare at the chocolate chip cookie shelf. Restless children touch and tired parents have their minds on things that aren’t cookies.
I try to remind myself that I’m lucky enough to have the luxury of noticing the cookies. I try not to glare. I try very hard not to glare.
It’s disgusting, really.