De Hospitalibus Excelsior (Wood Shavings From the Hospital)

THE first sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics in the Jowett translation reads: “All men by nature desire to know.” Then the savant goes on in this and other tomes to say what it is they desire to know. Actually, as it turns out, what is chiefly set down in these works is what Mr. A thought he knew, which was not quite so much as he thought.

Be that as it may, I was scanning the Metaphysics only yesterday and found to my surprise that despite its ostensibly medical tone (in Greek, meta means “after,” and physic has the usual meaning), there is not one syllable on the right conduct of the Highminded Man, on whom the ancients placed such mistaken reliance, upon finding himself in the hospital — or “in hospital,” as they say in the U.K. Perhaps this brief study will supply that lack, and then again, perhaps not.

A visit to hospital may be broken down into three rough stages, the middle being the roughest by far:

1. Entering

2. Staying

3. Leaving

I will have a word to say below in regard to these matters, so that each reader may derive benefit therefrom according to, or even notwithstanding, his needs.

Entering (the) Hospital

As you pass through the Entrance, on your right you will find a dense throng of idlers whose only apparent purpose is to impede your approach to the admissions desk. Indeed, by the time you reach the desk you may — especially if you are in the acute phase of a coronary or the like — be dead. In that case, go home, loosen your clothing, lie down, and await further developments. On no account should you pester the hospital on the “telephone” as they already have their hands full with the live ones.

Once arrived at the desk, be sure to answer all questions asked in the admissions interview, completely and cheerfully. It sometimes seems to those in frightful agony or bleeding copiously on the linoleum that the question of their grandmothers’ maiden names and secondary schools might perhaps be left for a later time. However, this is far from being so.

The necessity of these interrogations has been demonstrated dramatically by Dr. E. C. Mc—, who, after all diagnostic efforts have failed to penetrate the mystery of some obscure tropical flux, employs the stratagem of saying, “Why, this patient has exactly what his grandmother had when she was at Choate.”

Your Stay in “the" Hospital

On your arrival upstairs you will find everything vastly different from downstairs as well as from what you had hoped. At once you are whisked into a garment Balzac so aptly described as “La peau de chagrin" (or the wild ass’s skin), one that seems both backward and upside down but is not, and then this raiment is immediately removed and an enema administered. If you are accompanied “upstairs" by your family or friends, it is well to warn them of the prevalence of the enema in hospital, as cases are on record of innocent bystanders being unexpectedly seized and dealt with in this way.

Another aspect of hospital “life” to which you will have to become accustomed is the unwillingness of the nurses to tell you anything except what you do not want to know. This is known as the Law of Inverse Communication:

Nurse: And how are we today?

You: I must have internal bleeding as I am always vomiting blood and vital organs. What do you suppose is wrong?

Nurse: Doctor will be here tomorrow.

Contrast this with the following:

You: How’s tricks?

Nurse: Well, Florence my sister-in-law took and bought this Persian lamb coat at Lord & Taylor’s, and I said to her when she brought it home, “Tom (that’s her hubby) won’t like it.” So sure as you know, when Tom come home he . . . [etc.]

The only other point to be kept in mind is that it is entirely unnecessary to panic in the presence of medical terminology. Just take it in your stride, remembering that it is both colorful and pregnant with some meaning. For example, if you are told you must have an “otoornithectomy,” just calm down and say to yourself, “That is nothing more

than an operation for the removal of a bird from my ear.” A radical nasal otoornithectomy is, of course, the advanced procedure employed for removing a bird from the ear through the nose. However, it is rarely employed except in terminal cases, when the patient’s interest in aviary matters is at a minimum in any event.

Take Up Thy Bed and Walk

While we are speaking of surgery, or at least before we speak of something else, doubtless some account should be given of the postsurgical regime known as “early ambulation” — although it had a different name in the inquisitorial dungeons at Toledo. This consists of plucking the patient virtually from under the surgeon’s knife, thrusting his feet into knitted slippers of unsuitable design, and frogmarching him (intravenous standard, tubes and all) to the Visitors’ Lounge to mewl, puke, and smile through his tears at six to eight total strangers.

Since this procedure was “perfected” by the military surgeons during the Second World War, the ambulation has become earlier and earlier. Indeed, it is difficult to credit, but several cases are actually on record of the patient’s being required to walk about even before the operation.

No Soup du Jour Today

To gibe at hospital food would be beneath the dignity both of the author and of this publication. One no more does such a thing than one would dream of taxing the ocean for being oceanic. For hospital food is, necessarily, just that.

However, it seems desirable to advert to the somewhat oblique view of the matter taken by hospital personnel themselves. This was nowhere made more evident than in the recent incident of the patient who, scanning the “Salt-Free Menu,” ordered not salt (as one might have supposed in view of the sequel), but simply the Soup du Jour. Needless to say, his tray came up without soup. Instead, there was a laundry list with the penciled message “There is no soup du jour today.”

Mystified and hungry, the patient thereupon phoned the dietitian to say that if the kitchen had any soup he would welcome it as the soup du jour. However, the dietitian stuck to it that although she had several other soups, “We have no soup du jour today.”

This episode has been reported at length not just because of what it teaches us about soup, but because the facts have attracted international attention. For it was on that very evening that the patient’s electrocardiogram became so violently agitated that a large number of persons were rendered senseless by blows from the runaway stylus.

Leaving the “Hospital”

It is, of course, a mere truism to say that nothing becomes our entering hospital so much as the leaving of it.

Just as you entered by the Entrance, you will leave by the Exit. First, however, there is the financial interview with the Bursar, who will present various documents for your consideration exactly as if the “facts” they purport to set out were true. On no account should you attempt to disabuse this dignitary of the belief that you are actually someone else who stayed twice as long as you and placed repeated telephone calls to Biarritz.

At the final moment of departure you will be asked one last question: “Hot enough for you?” (in the summer) or “Did you enjoy your stay?” (at all other times).

It is acceptable practice to answer either Yes or No.

Mr. Slate is a New York attorney currently at work on a ten-volume History of Silence.