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Patty Kleban: Life in a Bubble

by on June 25, 2012 5:22 AM

I’ve become institutionalized.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a room on the seventh floor of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). A routine doctor’s visit became a trip to the emergency room which resulted in admission, days of waiting, surgery and, hopefully, recovery. With the exception of a brief trip out to buy toiletries and clean underwear until Dad could get here, I have not left this hospital.

I feel like I’m in a bubble.

Children who are injured or ill and their families can be easily lulled into the comfort that hospitals and other institutions like it provide. There is reassurance because of what goes on here. There is comfort in knowing my child is being taken care of. The routine is a safety net.

Our view of the world changes as it is reduced to the walls of the institution.

In the hospital, we missed the oppressive heat wave of last week but felt the impact in terms of demands on the medical staff. We heard that the hot weather means more accidents and injuries. Heat wave or snow storm. It made no difference to us. I was wearing a sweater to ward off the hospital air conditioning. Here, it only matters what happens inside.

It’s like the movie Groundhog Day.

The days are centered around the clock. Shift change. Surgery schedules. What time the cafeteria opens and when the next dose of medication is due. If not for the clock, the days and nights are very much the same. Everyone waits for the doctors. Like Murphy’s Law, going for coffee almost guarantees they will arrive while I am gone.

Health care in the new millennium has come under fire on the national level but at the patient level it’s pretty amazing. Restaurant quality food. A “KIDS CARE” acronym for customer service. In-room accommodations for parents. Playrooms. PlayStation and video libraries. Validated parking stickers and coffee bars in the lobby. At CHOP, there is a hospital run radio station and a CHOP game show in which the young patients can participate.

They offer interpreters in languages that I didn’t even know existed.

Information is very important in hospitals. When. What time. Test results. Explanation of procedures. Decisions. Where to park. Which elevators are for visitors and which are for staff. The list goes on. Information coming from outside of the hospital - calls from home or work, current events, local news – becomes almost secondary to the information flow inside.

Security has changed since my early days of working in hospitals. Wrist bands for patients and matching wrist bands for parents. Routes to the cafeteria and to the front door that are blocked off after business hours. Paper visitor tags that gradually change colors and expire after several hours. Sensors that are activated by electronic keys on lanyards that limit access to certain areas. These boundaries within the bubble seem to further distance us from those on the outside.

After a few days, the sound of the life flight helicopters coming in and out no longer draws my attention. The same goes for the beeping of monitors, the announcements over the public address system and the hush of voices in the hallway. The longer that we are here, the less I hear the noises around except for the cries of the infants and toddlers. Those cries are magnified and stay with me.

With this experience, I have a renewed appreciation for nurses. They are the lifeline to information, to comfort for my child and for managing the treatment plan. I’ve been so impressed with their attention to my son but also to me.

Offering a toothbrush, showing me the “nourishment room” for snacks or helping me make up the daybed in the patient room are among the ways that the staff has helped our whole family. The nursing staff – Courtney, Mallorie, Kim, Caryn, Maureen, Debbie – who have been assigned to us over these days have felt like an extended family.

It is that very process of being taken care of, of relying on others, of becoming focused on the clock and on the activities in this hospital that have made me realize how easy it could to become a part of the institution. It’s called institutional syndrome.

Patients and their families become lulled into the routine of the institution. “In here” is comfortable, predictable and safe. I haven’t worn make-up for days and my clothes look wrinkled and slept in. I’m learning the special language of this strange microcosm and feel like I’m becoming a part of it.

Like the other parents on the floor who I bump into in the kitchen and in the hallway, we are in and of this bubble to help our children recover. For those of us in here, little else matters.

Spending a week in Philadelphia wasn’t exactly on my schedule for this summer. Given the circumstances, it’s a good place to be.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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