Patients and ex-patients, categories that include almost all of us, have been writing and phoning. Last summer I wrote several columns on "how to survive a stay in the hospital."
"The hospital" -- the very word strikes us emotionally, for it evokes many images: births, deaths, fear, frustration, anger, relief, gratitude.
Those of us with these feelings have worlds of company. Here's the prize-winning bad experience of recent months, that of a Texas man, 77, who tells of seven days' treatment for an intestinal disease in a large (more than 700-bed) Texas hospital. He writes:
*"During the seven days I was in the hospital my room was cleaned once."
*"The evening of the day I occupied the room, I took a bath. There was no soap . . . no bath mat . . . The plumbing did not have circulating hot water. After I bathed I threw the soiled towel and wash rag on the floor. There was no other place to put them. The soiled linen stayed on the floor" -- added to by successive bathers -- "for several days."
*"The part of the hospital I was in was kept as cold as a meat locker . . . I was awakened early Saturday . . . given a meal of iced knicknacks" -- his name for his soft diet -- "and escorted in a wheelchair with blankets over my shoulders and lap to the X-ray room in the basement. The area was so cold that plumbers doing repair work complained, and they were bundled up in heavy jackets." "I was taken into an X-ray room and assisted onto a table . . . My pajama tops were pulled up to my armpits, my pajama pants were pulled down below my hips, then the woman who assisted me excused herself, saying she would be right back. I lay shivering for 30 minutes, it seemed . . . Finally I got off the table, rearranged my pajamas [and found some technicians] in joking conversation . . . I raised hell . . . They immediately came back to the X-ray room and took their pictures."
*"The personnel -- nurses and doctors -- never closed [my room] door behind themselves. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that I got out of my bed 50 times [one night and morning] to close the door." Several times "I was told that I would be given medication, and someone changed their mind but didn't let me know."
He had more complaints. Finally, he said, "I walked out of the hospital without being dismissed," though he did check out with the cashier.
That seemed to go smoothly.
A reader tells how his wife was in a District teaching hospital "on and off for eight months before she died of cancer." Generally, the medical staff was "exceptional and heart-warming," but there were several instances of the opposite. One: "the chemotherapist" who kept this frightened and anxious woman "waiting for 20 minutes for her first injection while he discussed his weekend activities with a colleague, within earshot."
Another reader phoned to tell of several days' ups and downs in a suburban Maryland hospital. His main complaint: "No one told me what was happening."
Jan Olsen of Potomac has a suggestion for patients who have trouble summoning help:
"If no one comes when you ring the call button or scream 'Help!' reach for the telephone and call the hospital. I finally thought of that when I found myself hemorrhaging -- bleeding potentially to death -- after my son's birth. The staff was apologetic. They had forgotten about that call button screen -- I was the only one on that hallway -- and couldn't hear my call.
"I've been in the hospital since, and I always make sure I can reach the call button and the phone."
Things can go well in a hospital, and many patients report that they have had good stays. Experiences like these tell us what it is reasonable to expect in any institution that wants to call itself "first class."
Linda Wronski of Annandale had to fly to Binghamton, N.Y., when her mother -- "a sharp, alert, aware, 56-year-old, neat, classy lady," a patient at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital there -- was dying of cancer.
"Her treatment was beautiful," she writes. "Each nurse was dedicated . . . Mom had familiar faces every day. Every shift change the nurse and technician on duty came into her room to say they were going off. Then the incoming duty nurse and technician came in to say 'Hi' . . .
"During our last all-night vigil, the nurses told us to help ourselves to coffee, beverages, snacks free. At 2 a.m. a nurse came in to let us know the cafeteria was open to employes , but she'd called down to let them know we were coming.
"Although Mom died, it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. The entire hospital staff was not only acutely aware of the needs of the patient, but also those of the family. And it was like that during Mom's entire seven-week stay . . .
"I'm not sure if hospitals are becoming friendlier, I just found one where friendly is a fact of life, not to be taught or learned."