Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Even if You're Not a Christian

The Latin word for "health" and "salvation" is the same. So, when in UCLA, do as the Bruins do. It occurred to me, as I lay in a feverish delirium in the ER that first night, that the hospital call button is a lot like prayer: it's a comforting notion; there's some omnipotent, disembodied voice you're communicating with; and you can ask for whatever you want.

But, you ain't gonna get it.

I like to consider myself both pretty self-reliant and short-tempered. Normally, if hospital staff don't give me something I've requested, I go get it myself. (Thus my mini-desertions of the cardiac floor. I do have "patio privileges," but if there's no one around to grant me express permission, I've been known to wander off without the proverbial hall pass.) But when hooked up to wall-mounted machines, I'm a little more dependent than I'd like.

So during my initial day and a half in the ER, I often needed the call button. My calls were inevitably answered by a surly aide, or occasionally a surly nurse. "Yes, can I help you?" "Yeah, my telemetry alarm keeps buzzing." "I'll send your nurse in." Click. And then, as if by magic, a nurse would not appear.
A magician performs the classic trick of making a nurse not appear. But what does appear--also presumably via magic--is one nifty ponytail!

Eventually I reached up and turned off the monitor. Hours later a nurse came in and asked who'd turned it off. "I did," I said. "The buzzing was driving me crazy." "Don't do that. Use the call button," she snapped. Why hadn't I thought of that?

Because of the fevers and rigors, I had the chills. Several times I used the call button to ask for more blankets. "Absolutely," said the Mystical Medical Deity from Beyond. Suffice it so say, my multiple implorations went unanswered, and I shivered and sweated through the night. Hospital staff are apparently unfamiliar with the common usage of the word "absolutely." And maybe I don't use proper prayer technique.
Note how brunettes can right their errant ways. Blonds' souls are simply too weighed down by the evil that festers in their shriveled black hearts. It's a doctrinal mystery that has baffled theologians since Thomas Aquinas's Summa Capillus ("Highest Hair").

This is not the first time in my life that medicine and theology have collided like so many evil embryonic stem cells.

In January, 1987, I had my second open-heart surgery at Boston Children's Hospital. Oh, in Boston? Yes, in Boston. Memories of the 8 days I spent there have, of course, grown hazier and less accessible over time. But one moment persists: my father and I were in the floor's little playroom with another young patient's mother. In my recollection, her child wasn't there, though in retrospect this doesn't make much sense. Or perhaps like many parents in children's hospitals, she just needed some adult contact--not in the form of a doctor or nurse. Or she needed the fleeting reprieve from fear and anxiety about her own sick child granted by the presence of another one and his parent.

And I don't cavalierly wax poetic here--this woman was clearly embroiled in a significant spiritual moment. She looked at me, genuinely lovingly, and declared to my father, "He looks like the young Jesus."
Gerrit van Honthorst, "The Young Jesus." Oil on canvas, 1620. Note the infinite patience with which young Jesus regards his bumbling-carpenter father, Joseph, who yet again has to work all night to finish a job. Young Jesus looks tolerant, but he's thinking, "Really, Dad? Again?"

I was a little freaked out, my father probably more so, but my naive little mind understood that her utterance was somehow a compliment--and possibly even a compulsion. (Much the way a young Jesus likely would've understood, I might add.) She saw something divine in me. Maybe it was the light. Maybe it was my soft, angelic look. Maybe it was the Playmobil nativity set I was playing with.
Whatever it was, I know it was a willful, if subconscious, delusion. She saw in me what she needed to. I imagine whatever that was, it was something she could not bear to see in her own child. In proclaiming me Jesus 2.0, she miraculously cured me by endowing me with some sort of everlasting life. But as I get older and approach the age at which Jesus was crucified (and at which many comedians die--John Belushi, Bill Hicks, Chris Farley, Freddy Prinze), I wonder if there's a little more to that revelation. Perhaps if I assumed the role of Jesus, I would die and her child would live. Of course I don't believe she felt this consciously, though sometimes I still wonder why she kept putting ground glass in my jello.

Yet none of this can hold a holy candle to what happened at UCLA a few nights ago. The night nurse (an androgynous Southeast Asian whose English was far from great) came into my room to give me my nightly meds. She told me that "most open-heart surgery [sic--she meant patients who'd had surgery] are angry," and she made a frowny face in demonstration. "But not you," she continued. "You have nice face and nice body. You have beautiful skin and nice face. You can think about good stuff, or think about bad stuff." In all humility, I have been told I look like Josh Charles.
"S.W.A.T." (2003), starring Josh Charles (not shown). Follow the link for a picture of Mr. Charles.

Then she busted out the medical jargon, explaining the most important thing for open-heart surgery [sic] is to avoid cold, flu, and stress. I said, "Yeah, well it's kind of hard to avoid stress." She conceded that it was, with a burst of nervous laughter, but offered, "If that doesn't work. Pray to God." (I really want to avoid offensive caricatures here, but I need to try to phonetically spell the way she pronounced God: "gawrd." Even that doesn't really do it justice.)

"He'll help you," she continued. "Yeah, pray to God." I was probably too shocked to display emotions of any kind, but maybe she sensed she'd strayed into uncertain waters. "Even if you're not a Christian, pray to God. He'll fix you."
A sick child prays to God. Note the dog's incorrect praying position. Yeah, Rex wants us to believe he's praying, but I suspect he's sodomizing the bed--just look at his face! Let's hope Timmy is praying for Rex's dirty, shameful, dirty soul. Evidently, "No Dogs Go to Heaven!"

While I'm sure her faith in God's healing powers was sincere, this prescription hardly constituted a ringing endorsement of the cardiologists and infectious disease doctors whom I needed to "fix" me. Amazingly, she wasn't done: "Also, 'The Secret.' Go downstairs the gift shop, they have it. Book or CD. It's good!"
Shhh, it's a secret.

Needless to say, I ran right down to the gift shop and bought both the book and the audio-book. I plan to listen to it while reading it, in case the glare of its truth blinds me. Oh, crap, I just realized--what if the explosion of its insight also deafens me? Well, as the nurse said, "You can think about good stuff, or think about bad stuff." I will harness the power of "The Secret" and choose to think about good stuff: that "The Secret" will merely blind me. Frankly, I can only assume that is what will happen. And if so, dear readers, you'll forgive an abrupt end to Beneath the Gown.

What I loved most about the nurse's sermon, though, was, "Even if you're not a Christian, pray to [the Christian] God." The simultaneous awareness that I might not be a Christian coupled with the zealous insistence that I worship her God--worse, beg Him to heal me--deeply troubled me. Luckily I snuck out of the cardiac wing, went to the pediatrics playroom, and stole my new favorite toy.
Note the massive grin on the surgical patient's face. Someone's got a morphine drip! And if you think an operating room called "System X" makes a disturbing child's toy, come Christmas you should really steer clear of the Playmobil play set "Mr. Mengele's Dungeon of Doom."

Perhaps these tiny plastic doctors can perform a Jesusectomy. Let's pray to God they can.


  1. this is so good it makes me want to go to church, the hospital, southeast asia, and barnes & nobles. thank you, gownee.

  2. Thanks so much, early boxer, I really appreciate the positive feedback. I'd caution you away from hospitals, though. I'm yet to witness any real virtues. (Besides life-saving interventions, blah blah blah.)

  3. will, is early boxer you under a different name? i love you.

  4. Great blog, sir. I will read anything you write. I offer this story. After my wife's c-section, the visiting nurse asked the attending nurse if my wife had any allergies. The attending nurse said, nastily, "she allergic to pain." I tried to lighten things by saying, "well, aren't we all?" To which she replied, "think of all the pain our Lord suffered on the cross, and he didn't complain once." Which, you know, is not actually true, ie "God why have you forsaken me" and all that.

  5. Thank you, Straw Man. Indeed, Jesus also implored His Father, "Let this cup pass from me." I'm certainly no Biblical scholar, nor personally religious, but it seems like Jesus's frequent flashes of reluctance and apprehension are precisely what make him such a powerful--and human (or partially human, depending on your creed)--figure. I'd rather worship a deity with a little humanity than one with none at all.

    And I'm sorry to hear about your experience with that nurse. There seems to be an inverse proportion between zealotry and enlightenment. That may be an inane observation that goes without saying, but I'm still dumbfounded that hospital staff feel so comfortable saying such wildly inappropriate things to patients.

  6. Hi WEll
    Just read your blog and it is brilliant- sad and funny. You are a wonderful writer!
    Hope you get stronger every day and are out of the hospital soon - you are in our thoughts and prayers and we wish you a full and speedy recovery.
    Much love
    Carol & Sam Denbo

  7. Hi! I'm a friend of your girlfriend's & her ex-roomie (actually I think I met you once or twice) and I stumbled upon your blog via facebook...Even though what you're going through is shitty, thanks for making it into something entertaining for us to read! And I LOVE the "androgynous Southeast Asian" nurses--my boyfriend's senile grandfather has a few of those attending to him at his house!

  8. Hmm, lunaselife, I'm not placing you from your blog name....Forgive me. But any friend of Katy and Shawnte's is a friend of mine.

    I'm so glad you're enjoying the blog. And thanks for the encouragement.

  9. Hey Will! Hilarious post. Found your blog from Katy as well. I've had a few experiences with nurses myself, but none of them top the ones posted here.
    Hope you are better and outta there soon!
    Mary Anne

  10. Incredible points. Sound arguments. Keep up the great work.
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