Friday, March 25, 2011


I am comforted by disinfectant.

I have always been more at home in a clinical environment than in the real world. In the hospital, everything makes sense. People either get better or worse. They either heal or they don't. There is no middle... no grey.

As a child, my father worked at the hospital. On rare occasions I would visit him. He showed me exciting ways that he helped people feel better, and mysterious places that I didn't know even existed... like the NICU, and underground tunnels.

It's true that as a child, dad gave me medical terminology books to read. At the age of 10 or 11 I was making words out of latin roots. I loved the terminology because the system was just that - orderly and predictable. An infection meant -itis, a growth meant - oma, a study - an 'ology. I valued this order when nothing else made sense. I was a smart kid who never fit in, my family was different, and all I knew was I wasn't like anyone else.

Along with medical terminology, I studied other systems. The phone book and dictionary were frequent members of my personal library. I would read anything really, if it gave me a chance to look for another pattern.

A waif, I never got into sports. I couldn't even run a mile without thinking I would surely die or vomit in public (equal embarrassment). I learned to enjoy activities that kept me isolated, like music and writing. Somewhere around the age of 14, when I got mononucleosis, I realized maybe I wasn't just weak and got sick more than other kids.

Of course I wanted to know why. It's hard to believe, even for me, but back then I had no internet to search for the cause of my illness. A nice doctor, who I really liked, called it Epstein-Barr Virus then, a consequence of the mono. In any case, it started a sequence of events that would bring me closer to medicine. Healthcare, like the hospital, seemed orderly. There was a science to every action. A drug prescribed for a condition, a cause and effect.

As I grew older, I felt more and more at home in this clinical setting. The order calmed me. Problems were always solved. Effects always caused, reason always consulted. I remember the first time I saw a dead body, my aunt, and touched her face... she was cold, waxy, but I wasn't afraid, I was comforted by the familiar clinical setting. Someone tried to solve this problem, but couldn't.

Maybe it's fitting that I am more at home in this clinical setting. Always uncomfortable with human interaction, I value the situation when gloves are required, and contact is avoided. I'm never scared by threatening situations in a hospital because a system is responsible instead of a few feeble humans. There are codes, procedures, ordinances that keep problems at bay.

So what kind of 'ology describes the study of the system that exists in institutions like hospitals? How can I dissect and analyze my comfort in this uncomfortable place? Why am I the family member anyone can count on to wait out a hospital stay with them... read them stories, do their laundry, sneak them food? Why am I unafraid to face mortality in this place? I'm not above the rules, and will someday likely die in a hospital, but I find that strangely comforting. The system, the institution, is built to shepherd us on in a strange, clinical, orderly manner.

And maybe that's it, the word clinical... I don't remember it from my med-term texts, but I'm sure it means to detach and objectively treat problems... and that's something I'm only able to do with a pair of gloves and a gown.

In any case, I prefer bleach to fresh-baked cookies. I remember everything I've ever heard in a hospital(and often nothing I hear on the phone). I put 'hospital corners' on the bed when I change the sheets, and I can inject my cat with anything without fear. I trust in the system. Healthcare, medicine, infection control, disease management, diagnostic screening, all of it makes sense.

If only I could have thanksgiving and christmas in a hospital operating room. No awkward hugging or uncomfortable small talk, we'd cut up the food and stay on schedule, and no one would get drunk and ruin the holiday.

And everything would be sterile.

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