Practicing humanity

Hospitals, cancer, and a short course in being human

About the author:
Jaime O’Neill is a retired Butte College English instructor.

My wife and I have been spending a lot of time in hospitals lately, wandering the maze of corridors at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, going from building to building, having tests run and consultations held, filling out forms, and sitting in rooms with other people who, like us, are suffering the grave uncertainties that come with menacing illness. In our case, the menace comes from a rare cancer that has established a base in my wife’s sinus cavity.

I’ve lost track of the appointments kept and the tests run. It all begins to blur, though I have a mental slide show of the faces of nurses, doctors, technicians and receptionists, all of whom, thus far, have been kind, human, reassuring in their practiced competencies.

The array of people tending to my wife looks like one of those old United Colors of Benetton ads. We have been greeted or treated by people from all over the globe, women wearing the hijab, a doctor named Ahmed, a receptionist from India, three or four African-American women who managed to muster smiles even after tending to the questions of dozens of fretful people who had appeared before them since their shifts started so many hours earlier.

Because the hours in the hospital are long, the readable magazines few, the worry incessant, I think about Donald Trump and wish he could live through a few days of this kind in order to understand how much is being done by immigrants, or by the descendants of a smorgasbord of nationalities to serve the needs of America’s sick people. An obviously gay man offers tender mercies to my wife in one office; in another, a mother with a sick child at home puts her own worries on hold to give full attention to the patient before her. These people leave their homes daily, drive through pouring rain in dense traffic, deal with their own moment-to-moment personal issues, and still manage to do more than a paycheck would require, still manage to remain deeply human in the ways they relate to the people who need their services so desperately.

I don’t wish for Donald Trump to have the same experience as my wife and I because I wish him ill. I just want him exposed to the world beyond the narrow confines of his rich and powerful associates. I wish he could have this experience because he needs to broaden his perspective, needs to know who is out here each day, not only in the field of medicine, but in every field from construction to education. He needs to know who the American people are beyond those angry throngs that cheered him on last fall, who thought Hillary Clinton should be locked up, or that our highest national priority was building an expensive wall on our southern border.

Nor is Trump the only politician who needs exposure to the daily realities so many Americans contend with, realities made more stark by what is being done by right-wing servants of the rich and powerful who seem concerned only with cutting taxes for the wealthy, regulations for polluters, or safeguards for citizens preyed upon by Wall Street.

Sen. John Cornyn, who patronizingly referred to his colleague, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, as a “little lady,” should see all the “little ladies” in surgical gowns or nurses’ uniforms who work tirelessly each day, doing more real work under more stressful circumstances than guys like him have ever done. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a man who has enriched himself at the public trough for decades, needs to know how hard people like him have made it on people who need health insurance. Paul Ryan, Mike Pence and Donald Trump need to spend a month in a hospital waiting room to see if there is a speck of decency, empathy or humanity left in any of them.

The people who work in a vast spectrum of jobs that provide essential goods and services to their fellow human beings show up every working day, offering smiles when they are weary, answering questions with patience though they have answered those questions tens of thousands of times before. They have no staffs to insulate them, no gate keepers, no aura of unearned prestige to exempt them from responsibility.

As a humanities teacher, I devoted much of my life to the idea that things like art, literature and music were vital to keeping us human. I still believe that is so, but when it comes to reminding people of their common humanity, time spent in hospitals where heroic efforts are routine is a profoundly humanizing experience, reminding us of our common mortality and of the kindness we owe to one another. In a line of poetry, W.H. Auden wrote: “We must love one another or die.” He later changed that line to read, “we must love one another, and die.” It’s true in both versions, but it’s more profoundly true in his revision.

I don’t think people like Donald Trump love the people they govern. They don’t read much poetry, these guys, and they don’t seem to have spent much time learning how most of us live, and die. But, if they were to spend a month in the waiting rooms of America’s hospitals, they might come to know the meaning of Auden’s words, and of the harm they so frequently and thoughtlessly do.