A week ago I found myself being rushed to the hospital an hour's drive away from our home with a numb left arm and gripping pain in my chest and shoulder. It was 3:30 a.m. and my husband was amazingly cool driving me there. Granted it wasn't our first time making the drive. The trip wasn't a total surprise as I was scheduled to go in for a catheterization that morning anyway, after experiencing angina symptoms during a stress test the day before at the doctor's office. Still it was more than a little disconcerting to have the symptoms remain all the way to the hospital even after taking nitro tablets on the way. I was travelling with my camera and toiletries I'd packed the night before, since I'd originally thought I would be in the hospital overnight for the cath appointment.
I was bringing the camera along because of my growing interest in the impact of thoughtful aesthetic design (or lack thereof) in aiding our wellbeing. I wanted to study the hospital experience from the combined perspective of designer, photographer, meditator and patient. We were driving to Maine Medical Center. The hospital is in the midst of a major remodelling of the cardiac units. I wanted to document and study my experience of the hospital to consider what I would design, if given the opportunity. As a patient, in a very real life threatening scenario, my perspective would be different than a designer, working in the hypothetical or even the health care professionals working on-site. In truth, my perspective would be unique from even the other trauma patients in the Emergency Room (ER). Yet it might be of value.
ER's are triage sites and waystations for incoming patients on their way to either quick repair or a room in the hospital, so the barest of comforts are provided. You are asked to disrobe, put on a hospital gown (that grows larger with each year as our population gets more obese) and lie down on a cold gurney with a thin blanket for warmth. Whether it is to keep down the spread of germs or for the equipment, these spaces are always frigid. I was grateful that a heated blanket was provided when I asked for it.
The view from the bed was white on white minimalist ceiling tiles, a sterility that added to the chilly atmosphere. The nurses, doctors and technicians did add a warm human touch to the experience through humor and genuine concern, but in the gaps between tests and examinations, I felt the barrenness of the environment draining life away. In addition, because of the chilly temps, every technician who handled me had ice cold hands, for which they were forever apologizing. I kept thinking, "How pleasant could it be for them to be working in a ice cold environment all day?"
I felt a certain annoyance as the nurse and my husband continued to question me every few minutes about my symptoms, "What level of pain are you experiencing from 1 to 10?" In spite of their concern, I felt a familiar sense of detachment creeping in as my body became a "thing" that was poked, prodded and hooked up to monitors to be statistically "read" and hopefully "fixed." The camera was a useful tool to keep me connected with the outer world around me and not totally retreat into my shell, despite the dehumanizing environment.
For his part, my husband, the artist/engineer was fascinated with the technology, taking pictures of the monitors and commenting on the elegance of their design. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For me, I was just grateful that they were capable of giving the doctors the info they needed to treat me. However, his interest was another reminder that everything in our world is touched in some way by the design process. One that incorporates some aesthetic, as well as utilitarian decisions. Making the choices consciously not only aids in functionality, but also impacts the energetic power of the object.
The one warm spot in the ER experience (besides my husband's concerned face) was the curtain used for privacy in the glass walled room. It was a pleasing shade of beige with a minimal horizontal tuck pattern that reminded me of grass cloth used to cover walls. It reminded me of tropical or Asian interiors. The combination of the texture and color felt comforting to me, while serving it's purpose of privacy. Was it because it reminded me of something natural in the hi-tech sterility of metal and white?
The ER is purely functional, mostly devoid of any decorative elements, let alone artwork. Without aesthetic stimulus, I felt a greater sense of alienation. It made me wonder how the employees feel in this colorless and in some ways lifeless environment, when they are dedicated to saving lives. I noticed that some of the nurses wore colorful patterned scrubs, possibly in reaction to their monochrome world.
There is growing interest in integrating the arts into hospital settings as treatment, both in work with patients, health care providers and hospital design. I recently learned about Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida which has an Arts in Medicine program that is setting the standard for work in this field. I met one of their artists in residence at an Applied Mindfulness Conference this summer. I was presenting a program on designing Contemplative Space at the Conference.
After several hours in the ER, I was moved to the cardiac unit and prepped for the catheterization. A blockage was found that explained my symptoms so I would be staying through the weekend as it was a Friday and any repair work would have to wait until Monday. That would give me plenty of time to study my hospital room and the rest of the cardiac unit. I'll write more about the hospital stay in my next post.