As some of you know, I recently had major spinal surgery and spent four days in the hospital. The nurses and other staff members were friendly and competent. Theoretically, I could choose to leave “against medical advice” at any time.
And yet, it strikes me that hospital and prison stays have a lot in common. Upon our entrance, pieces of our identity are stripped away. Our clothing and belongings are stuffed into a plastic bag to await our eventual release. In their place are plastic identification bracelets and hideous looking gowns that leave us at risk for flashing any passers-by should we venture into the hallway. At least a dozen times a day, we’re asked to state our birth date to double-check that we are who we say we are. I once inquired as to whether they had ever had a patient pretending to be someone else. “Why, no,” I was told. “It’s procedure to check.”
Procedure is big in hospitals. Never mind that it’s one AM and you, the pain-stressed patient, have finally fallen asleep. It’s time to check vital signs.
Like prisoners, we are thrust into passive roles. We are not in charge. Our interests, passions, and loved ones are left behind in the “outside” world. I might be a loving spouse, mom, grandmother, and novelist, but in the hospital, none of that matters. My new identity? “Patient in Room 244.”
Unless, of course, it’s 2 AM and I do my interviewing thing because I’m a nosey writer, and well, that’s just who I am. Turns out that the RN checking on me is concerned that her daughter in college wants to change her major from Business to the School of Fine Arts. Of course, I can’t resist. I tell her that it really is possible to make a living in the arts in a variety of ways, and that I’m an ex-dancer turned writer. I add that the arts enhance our world, and it’s so important to love your work, etc.
“Huh,” the RN says. “What kind of writing do you do?”
I tell her I write novels, coming-of-age romantic mysteries.
“Wow,” she says.
A few minutes later, she bursts into the room where the aide is checking my vital signs. “Is this you?” she demands.
On her phone screen is a picture of my three YA novels. I tell her “yes,” and the nurse’s aide wanders over to take a look.
“These look good,” the aide says.
Then they both look at me as though they’ve suddenly discovered I’m a human being with an outside life. I’m no longer only “the patient in Room 244.” In that moment, I’ve recovered one piece of my “outside world” identity.
It feels good.