An Observers View of Hospitals, Mental Illness, Death and Hope

third anniversary, #66 in explore! by Ashley Rose via Creative Commons v.2.0

Photo: “third anniversary, #66 in explore!” by Ashley Rose via Creative Commons v.2.0

As I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room attempting to get work done while simultaneously relishing in a little regenerative me-time. I had a long day of meetings today in a city far from my own, in an environment that is both super high-stress and charged with chaos energy. I spent the day, quite literally, surrounded by life and death. I remodel hospitals. Through a combination of research and intuition I design spaces that heal. Unfortunately for me, that means spending my day in places where people are sick and dying, and where their loved ones are experiencing the hardest times any of us (all of us) face in our lives.

Hospital energy can be suffocating. Because I work with nurses, doctors, and administrators who spend every day in one, I am often the person with the least exposure to the sights, sounds and smells of emergency departments and acute care floors. As I tour these hospitals, I am supposed to observe the surroundings, noting the condition and location of the rooms, corridors, ceilings and staff areas. Unavoidably, I also observe the patients, many of which are elderly, so frail their bodies barely show as a lump in the bed. Often they lie with their eyes unfocused, muted by cataracts, their cheeks sunken and mouths gaping. When I see them there I know many will never know home again.

This trip takes me to the Midwest where I am meeting with a faith-based hospital network to remodel their ICU department. On my last trip here I was on a site tour when a family, maybe 10 yards away, received devastating news. A woman fell to the ground sobbing while her family tried to support her. The facilitator giving the tour didn’t seem to notice and continued to share critical information pertaining to the design project. There is not enough new-agey white light in the universe to keep my heart from aching for this family. My eyes filled with tears as I attempted to hide my emotion from my client. A short time later I was walking through the garage toward my car. I watched another woman chain smoke, her hands shaking as she updated someone on the phone, presumably about the status of a loved one staying at the hospital. Her hands betrayed her as she attempted to keep her voice steady.

I’m an extremely visual person. My visual sense is what makes me good at my job. It’s also why I notice shaking hands and unfocused blank stares. Why I can’t disassociate from it is anyone’s guess. I suppose it’s a combination of empathy, a lack of exposure, and morbid curiosity for that which greets us on the other side. I think mostly though, it’s my appreciation for life; a joyous, beautiful life that I grip onto tightly. I worry for those who are about to leave it and more-so for those they leave behind.

I was once on a hospital tour during a code blue, as staff raced to assist an elderly man as his life-force drained away. The tour continued but my thoughts remained with that man. That was maybe five years ago, and while I couldn’t tell you the name of the hospital, I can recall exactly where I stood when the curtain was drawn on his room, how the light filtered in through the westward-facing windows, and how the white walls and powder blue counter tops where too cool; not a suitable place to die.

“Hospitals are places that you have to stay in for a long time, even if you are a visitor. Time doesn’t seem to pass in the same way in hospitals as it does in other places. Time seems to almost not exist in the same way as it does in other places.”

–Pedro Almodovar (Director)

Today, the ICU and emergency departments were fairly quiet. There were many ashen faces, some which I knew would never make it home, but luckily I did not have to bare witness to someone’s last moments. I already had to live it a month ago when my uncle passed. Thankfully I didn’t have to today. I did, however, venture into the Adult Behavioral Health wing today. This is where the mentally ill and suicidal patients are treated. This is truly the most depressing place I have ever been. It’s in the oldest part of the hospital and It’s filled with strange smells and hushed conversations. The lighting was much too dim. There were few windows and several rooms were double occupancy; two beds with two heaps of bodies facing opposite directions, alone in their thoughts. Some of the patients are heavily sedated and lay unable to move in their beds while others are agitated and often rile up the calm patients. I was told the day before had been chaotic. The patients were wired and acting out. The maintenance man I spoke with said he had to excuse himself and rescheduled to come back the following day (today). He must be sensitive too. It’s hard, afterall, to see people suffering from mental illness.

As I walked out of Adult Behavioral Health my eyes caught those of a patient. She had been sedated but heard or sensed my approach. She was young, maybe in her 20s or early 30s with clean, well groomed brown hair. Her mouth was agape, like so many of the dying elderly I have seen on the ICU floors. For a moment we held each others gaze before the heaviness of her lids caused them to fall again. She is so young, and obviously not indigent. What was she doing there? Was it drugs? I sensed a lot of substance abuse in that place. Was she suicidal? I don’t know, but it’s hard not to wonder why she was laying in there, another young woman my age, with similar dark hair, a similar build, and a prettier face. Guarded in the most depressing place I’ve ever visited, while I am free, full of life and bursting with gratitude for every moment I’ve been given. It doesn’t seem fair.

Tonight, I want to send this woman beautiful, loving energy. May she feel universal love for what it is; not just words spoken in a yoga studio or a new age meditation, but love that fills her heart to bursting—to overflowing. I ask the universe to help her and the others in that unit to find balance. May we all find balance.∞

“Letting go helps us to to live in a more peaceful state of mind and helps restore our balance. It allows others to be responsible for themselves and for us to take our hands off situations that do not belong to us. This frees us from unnecessary stress.”

–Melody Beattie (Writer)

Author’s Note:

To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA) is an American non-profit organization which aims to present hope for people struggling with addiction, depression, self injury, and thoughts of suicide while also investing directly into treatment and recovery. Though my story is a about a few brief minutes spent touring a Behavioral Health Unit, for many among us, it is a lifelong struggle. TWLOHA encourages people to have honest conversations about these issues, to live in community. So do I.



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