A New Year and Another Country
I spent the last three months of 2014 in another country. Over the course of those months, I was hospitalized five times in two different hospitals. (Spoiler for my worried friends: I'm OK, well, on the mend and writing again.) I had visiting nurses and caretakers and family meetings and all the things you have in that other world, which is the world of the ill.
Let me say I was blessed. I've said that before, but it is important because I'm not complaining here, or if I am, I know I do so from a point of privilege that few share.
On the other hand, when you're lying in your skimpy hospital gown under a cold blanket, there really isn't much to say about privilege.
The world of sickness is horribly unequal. But I'm also here to tell you that the privileged can get the wrong care or be the victims of misjudgments, too.
People are always saying that medicine is as much art as science, but I didn't believe it until I saw it. I've been a lawyer long enough to have run across some pretty bad judges and lawyers, but somehow I'd held on to the fiction that because medicine, unlike law, is a science, the wild swings of judgment and ability that you see among people in other professions somehow didn't apply. They do. And they are much scarier.
To this day, the various doctors I've seen don't agree on the treatment I was given.
Not everybody knows how to deal with illness. I've always thought it was pretty obvious — not to crow, but I'm good at it. Sick people are still the same people, except they're being dragged down and scared, physically and emotionally.
What they need is generally a good laugh or a good story or just a hug and a squeeze of the hand. The truth, I learned, is that most people don't know what to do, don't know how to ask, and I wasn't very good at asking or telling. So you find that some folks end up MIA, while others whom you least expect come forward with a level of love, understanding, trust and forgiveness beyond anything you could expect from the closest relative. My hat's off to a lot of people, but especially to my beloved friend Weili Dai.
I was also blessed with wonderful nurses, both at the two hospitals and especially at home, once I realized I needed their help. My nurses have been angels of the night, with me at 4 a.m., when fear can turn pain into crushing anxiety unless you are lucky enough to have Cathy Moran whispering, "It's time to go to the ocean." I can think of no more noble profession.
Pain is a really terrible thing. It changes you in every way that matters. I did my best to tolerate the pain, to put on a good show of it, but if you have suffered from serious pain, you will probably agree that there is nothing sweeter than the absence of it.
I remember lying in my hospital bed hearing a nurse crying about having to make a pre-holiday run to Costco and almost breaking into tears of envy at the thought of the joys of a trip to Costco.
Everyone who gets sick will tell you it changed them, but that's not always so. I hope being sick will teach me to appreciate what I have, to be grateful and thankful, to live life understanding its fragility and to embrace it all the more just for that reason. I hope I can.
I hope I can be a better mother and sister and friend, a better teacher and co-worker, a better human being. To recover is to remember enough to be grateful and forget enough not to be terrified.
Happy New Year. More important, have a healthy year. And my eternal thanks to Dr. Tonia Young-Fadok and her colleagues at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Ariz., and to Dr. Laurence Seigler and the doctors, nurses and staff of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.