Many of my colleagues in medicine naturally assume that she would choose the women's hospital back in the States. It offers second-to-none medical
technology, world-class health professionals, and out-of-this world creature comforts that leave many patients feeling more thoroughly pampered than at any
other time in their lives. Yet when asked where she would prefer to have her next baby, she replies unhesitatingly that she would opt for the old world
hospital. Why? There she felt less alone. She could talk and bond with other patients. She felt like part of a community of mothers. "It just felt so good
being with all those other moms," she says with a wistful smile.
Over the past century, the architecture of the American hospital has undergone a dramatic transformation. At one time, patients were generally housed in
open wards, where each was aware of what was happening with the others and conversations between patients were common. Then wards were replaced with
smaller rooms, generally occupied by two patients. In both situations, privacy could be difficult to sustain, in part because doctors and nurses seeking to
preserve privacy could often do little more than pull a curtain. Today, the ward is ancient history and the double room is fast going the way of the
dinosaurs. Hospitals being built today feature private rooms.
Nobody wants to lose sleep due to a roommate's television viewing or snoring. Yet sometimes our zeal for privacy gets the better of us, short-circuiting
opportunities for compassion and community. It is hard to be ill and in pain, especially seriously so, but such burdens are often magnified when we
shoulder them alone. When the poet John Donne famously wrote that "No man is an island," he was not making a purely descriptive statement. He was also
highlighting our powerful need for companionship -- someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on, and a human being to share our experiences with. Typically,
the events taking place in hospitals represent experiences when we need one another most.
In some respects, hospitals increasingly resemble high-security prisons, where we go out of our way to preclude patients from interacting. In our haste to
control infections, we isolate them. In our zeal to preserve confidentiality, we prevent patients from getting to know each other. They sometimes begin to
feel as though they are being kept like specimens in hermetically sealed containers. To spend day after day in a single room, particularly when visits from
family and friends are few and far between, can resemble a form of solitary confinement. Yet patients are not only threats to one another. They can also
serve as mutual bridges to companionship and healing.
A 300-bed maternity ward in Manila [Erik De Castro/Reuters
Even though health professionals such as nurses and doctors frequently interact with patients, there is a limit to what we can offer. For one thing, the
people in white coats and surgical scrubs are often too busy to allow the development of a deep human connection. Moreover, many of us have never been
seriously ill or hospitalized ourselves. By contrast, other patients often know what the world looks like from the vantage point of a hospital bed. They
have been through similar travails, and certain kinds of conversations may be possible only with another sick person. While some patients may do well in
isolation, others long for more human contact.