Thursday, February 16, 2006

Vulnerability

I made a hospital visit yesterday to Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown ATL. Grady is the largest public healthcare facility in the Southeast, and it treats mostly uninsured or "medically underserved" patients. The place is enormous, and I felt like I was wandering around an airport instead of a hospital. Laurie, my pastor, and I stopped and asked several people for directions, and while very nice, none of them was very helpful – sending us upstairs and downstairs, through crowded waiting rooms and buzzing corridors, but never to where we needed to be. We ended up leaving after 45 minutes without seeing the family we had come to see.

I did see plenty of other people, though, crowded into bare waiting rooms and spilling out into hallways where chairs lined the walls. People were sleeping, reading, staring at nothing, crying softly. One indignant woman told me that she’d been at the hospital for over 16 hours – she rode in the ambulance that brought her husband in after he "took a bad fall" – and had only just now talked with a doctor about her husband’s condition. "His brother," she pointed at the exhausted-looking man sitting next to her, "flew in all the way from Maine, and we got him here before I talked to a doctor!" Her anger could have easily given way to sobs.

Crowded and chaotic, Grady is certainly no portrait of efficiency. But something about the vulnerability of the people in those waiting rooms struck me. Uninsured and unprotected, their powerlessness extends beyond their inability to squeeze information out of doctors at Grady. They are, in many ways, at the mercy of the governmental bureaucracy that dictates where and how they can seek medical treatment, and forced to wait for hours on end to hear the results of those bureaucratic decisions.

We usually talk about vulnerability as a bad thing. We want to be in charge, to make our own autonomous decisions, to become independent and self-actualized. But at Grady, in the midst of all these waiting, vulnerable people, I sensed something more human than any sort of autonomous self-actualization I could ever engage in.

"Man, humanity is just GROSS when we all get together," remarked Laurie, a bit out of her element, as we left the hospital.

Yeah, we are gross. We’re dirty and confused and hanging on to whatever hope we find. We’re all trying to find someone or something, and slamming ourselves up against wall after wall in the process. We’re sitting in this waiting room, trying our hardest not to look at one another as we cry silently or stare at nothing, wearing our vulnerability on our sleeves but refusing to let on that we know it’s there.

At Grady, everybody knows.

As I left, I thought, "this is where we all need to be."

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