My friend Carolynne makes the best book recommendations. So when she said, “Everyone should read God’s Hotel,” way last summer, I ordered a copy. I read the first half or so, and I did like it, but I found myself bogging down in the descriptions of the patients — it was too close to home for me — and I soon mislaid it. At Christmas I gave it to a good friend who works with the elderly.
Then, I saw it on CD at the library. I was between audio books, and I picked it up. Read by the author, Victoria Sweet, it carried me away.
When Carolynne said “everyone,” I figured that was hyperbole. But now I think she was right. We are in a health care crisis in this country, and Dr. Sweet, working in one of the last Almshouses (yes, you heard that right) in California, if not the entire country, gets right to the heart of that crisis.
Who do we take care of? What are people for, anyway? Do we have compassion for people who are sick, of any age, often elderly, for those who are mentally ill, for those who have destroyed their bodies with drugs or alcohol? Do we have compassion? What about those born brain-damaged or otherwise impaired? Who lives, who dies, who decides?
Weaving in her studies of St. Hildegard of Bingen, and her own complex journey, Dr. Sweet raises these hard questions. Ultimately, or so it seems to me, she believes with writers such as Henri Nouwen that we are all God’s children, and deserve to be loved and to belong. Like Atul Gawande and Oliver Sacks, one of things she learns is that her patients have much to teach her.
Here’s an excerpt, taken from the tale of a dying patient who, when Dr. Sweet asked if she needed anything, had a simple, doable request.
“I was, and am to this day, floored by her response. I was, and am, awestruck by such equanimity. She wanted — not euthanasia or a miraculous cure, stronger pain medications or a second opinion but — different food. A pair of glasses. She said nothing about her terrible misfortune. She was calm, matter-of-fact. Somehow she’d accepted her fate, and it was the small things, that were important to her.
“We did change her diet, and we did get her new glasses. Not long after, she moved to another ward, and there she died peacefully, eighteen months later. But her lesson, which I was taught over and over again by so many patients, took me much longer to assimilate. Bravery. A core, a rock of self, radiating courage.” (30-31)
God’s Hotel: a Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine untangled for me (finally) the definition of Alzheimer’s within the definition of dementia. She cares about things like the difference between anima and animus almost as much as she cares about her patients. Dr. Sweet is the sort of doctor one hopes to have at one’s bedside. A doctor who knows the names of not only the patients, but of the nurses and the janitors and the cooks.
And it is written beautifully, in simple, clear prose that makes us see and hear the story as it unfolds.