Smiles in sad places

It seems that this is the post that never gets written. The post that disappears in the midst of technical faults and Internet errors. The third time that is hopefully the charm. The post that could have fallen through the cracks.

At 7am, I sat in the 24/7 Computer Room, tapping away at my keyboard in an enthusiastic attempt to create something of meaning. At 8am, my supposedly saved version had disappeared from cyberspace. At at 3pm, I again re-visited it, only to find it disappeared again before my very eyes. And now, at 4pm, we can get started again.

I want to write, I had thought to myself. There are so many things about this place that get lost in the rush and the chaos of this system. The people going back and forth, the scans and the interviews and the way that even though everything is always different, it sometimes feels decidedly the same. The sorrow and the despair of patients trapped in unforgiving rooms, the smiles and exhaustion of the staff as they work long hours on the things they love. The stories that so rarely get voiced.

"Hospitals are sad places," a patient had said. The person sitting opposite gave me a look that had sadness mingled in with its sincerity. "Who would want to visit you here? And what would you talk about?" At home, or at work or at the shopping centre, there are things to distract you - there are chores and meal choices, things to do and all of the things that you would buy, if only you could afford it. In hospital, the only thing your friends can see is that you are sick and they are not. That you're the one in the gown wearing the TED stockings, on a bed that squeaks when you roll over and with the sheets that never feel warm enough. And the visitors, they get to go home to their dog at night. To midnight snacks and reliable wifi. To soccer games with mates and study dates at local cafes. What do you talk about what the divide between the two of you is so glaringly obvious?

Hospitals are sad places, I was told. But I couldn't quite believe it.

Hospital, where the airy, bright atrium are places to read textbooks and, invariably, be interrupted for long conversations with patients who get bored waiting for an appointment. Hospital is where there are hellos with colleagues every few meters, and short conversations as we pass by in the lifts and corridors. Hospital is where I can sit in the cafeteria as if it's my dining room, studying amongst the conversations. Where I can be distracted by people doing people things - children running amock, parents being exhausted by long days, staff on much-deserved breaks and those on walkers and in wheelchairs trying stoicly to navigate it all. 

And while it is a happy place for those of us who spend all day here, most days, it is also the place where last breaths are taken, where tears are shed by people who had to have more extensive surgery than they expected, where harsh words are pummeled from stressed patient to upset family. And the stories just ebb away, scrubbed out of the floor and the walls by the constant cleaning. The blood from the surgery will be mopped up, the vomit cleared away, the empty packets left over after tests are put in the bin and thrown away. And it's hard to remember that this place, which brings smiles to so many who work here, is also filled with sadness for endless others. It's hard to remember to muffle a laugh and turn a smile into a serious face on short notice. It's hard to constantly stifle the positive emotions the moment you make it out of the corridor and into the ward. And if your mind wanders to a happy memory while in the midst of something serious, you must have already mastered the capacity to keep that emotion off your face.

I wonder if muting our emotion is really a good thing. Because I know that smiles are more infectious than frowns, and they're the sort of infectious that gowning and gloving won't prevent. And I think if I were admitted to hospital, I wouldn't be too upset if I got an infusion of laughter. I wouldn't mind if the team taking care of me were allowed to be present as themselves. It'd probably make the whole being sick in hospital thing a whole bunch less scary. Because if I was sick, I'd probably be a little scared - scared of what would happen, and if I'd get better, and how I'd keep up with my school work. A few jokes along the way would make me feel a whole lot safer. It'd make me feel a lot less like I was sick and a lot more like I was taking a bizarre, wholly undesired holiday. With some new friends who were for a reason rather than for a season. And I wouldn't mind going home to tell all of my friends I'd been infected with happiness while I was out of order.

I want to write, I thought to myself so many times today. I want to write about how hospital can be a happy place. How we can share a joke and a brief moment of joy between the jabs for blood tests and the wheeling away for a scan, between the visits from staff and the clearing away of plastic cutlery. So when I see you in the corridor or the lifts, or in your room or in the cafeteria, I want to see a smile. Because this is my happy place. And it can be yours too.


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