Once upon a time, hospitals were universally acknowledged as singular institutions that were not expected to be anything else but what they were. Because of its singularity the hospital was described in reassuringly undemocratic terms as "a world unto itself," with "its own way of doing things," while its singular nurse--who woke patients up to give them their sleeping pills--was heralded in jokes and movies as one of the all-time great pioneers of rugged individualism. But times have changed. Nowadays not even a mom-and-pop shop is comfortable with the idea of being a world unto itself, and people with their own way of doing things are packed off to management workshops to cure them of it. Above all, singularity is out. The goal of today's hospitals is typicality. Like every other institution in the country--insurance companies, banks, universities--they want to be what is known as a "microcosm of America."
Checking into a microcosm of America instead of a hospital is what made my "Hospital Experience" a hospital experience, as in "dining experience!" instead of a hospital stay, as in "She's resting comfortably."
Any institution wishing to be a microcosm of America must first have a huge workforce of females. This hospitals have, which gives them a second advantage: endless possibilities for confusion. The number of young American women named Pam and Debbi has reached critical mass, as have the number of American jobs in which surnames are never used. Pam and Debbi once were called "Nurse Smith" and "Nurse Jones," but nobody would dare call them that now because it sounds so cold and unfriendly, so when you need to tell one from the other you have to go out and play on the microcosm with them.
American microcosms celebrate the group, never the loner, and enshrine inclusiveness. Hence the wasteful duplication, repetition, and sheer exhaustion caused by our democratic compulsion to have too many cooks in the kitchen. Reciting the history of my swollen ankles to six different nurses was like making six different calls to Customer Service and never getting the same rep twice. In both cases, I had to tell the same story over and over from the beginning, which not only is guaranteed to produce discrepancies, but put me on the same intellectual level as the peasants in Charles Lamb's essay, who thought they had to burn down their barns every time they wanted cooked meat. Throw another microcosm on the barbie.
Nothing says American microcosm like distrust of the written word. Thinking to save time for all concerned, I wrote up my complete medical history but nobody connected with the hospital wanted to read it, and a couple of people seemed to think I was weird for writing it. They all wanted to hear me tell it "in your own words," as if written words were the work of some evil twin.
Because they distrusted my written words, I retaliated by distrusting their spoken ones. I decided they were probing, trying to find a pattern, a recurrence, making an illness out of something that wasn't. I found myself getting wary, then downright sneaky. "Don't tell them you get sleepy every afternoon, else they'll want to test you for narcolepsy," I warned myself. "For God's sake don't tell them how depressed you've been ... And if they mention sex, say 'I had it once years ago but it went away and never came back.'"
I hadn't talked so much since my last book tour! I was talking myself to ... death?
That's when I decided to draw up some emergency instructions in case I had a heart attack before I was discharged from Microcosms of America Memorial. I asked the nurse for some paper, and lo and behold, she delivered the coup de grace.
"You can take it up to the Hospitality Center," she said. "They have volunteers there who can help you with the wording."
Now that Jack Kevorkian has been sprung from jail, the voluntary-euthanasia movement will get, shall we say, a second wind. I confess I am in favor of having a legalized suicide service just a phone call away, but what is more of a microcosm of America than the computerized [phone] menu?