Control issues

I recently discovered that a tumor resided inside my stomach and was causing me to lose blood. In order to correct this situation, I would have to endure abdominal surgery. I am not unfamiliar with hospitals.

For a number of years I was part of a team that traveled around the country and the world inspecting military hospitals. We inspected hospitals for life-safety code deficiencies (fire safety) and gave hospitals a range of recommended fixes and cost estimates for these fixes. We also were requested to do this same process for prisons, but we decided not to do prisons.

Prisons and hospitals share some important traits; the people housed in them generally are "incapable of self-preservation." In prisons folks are locked in cells. In a fire, they cannot escape without some outside help. Likewise patients in a hospital often are sedated or attached to machines and they too depend on others to help them escape a fire. Perhaps this background influenced my reaction to a hospital stay.

My first look at my hospital room reminded me that there is a beauty that transcends normalcy in this part of the world. I looked out my window and saw Mount Baker towering over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I could look across the strait and see Victoria, British Columbia, across the water. This might be the most spectacular hospital room in the country! Yet later as I walked the halls, I noticed that each and every room along the hallway looked just like every other room; it was easy to get disoriented.

I had been blessed; I had never had to actually stay in a hospital since my birth or a youthful tonsils extraction. Ironically, at my birth I spent almost three months in the hospital to be with my mother as she died ... something that she never did.

On this stay I soon discovered that hospitals, like prisons, impose an onerous discipline on patients. The patient is no longer in control of even his most private body functions. Folks monitor your inputs and outputs with a fiendish attention to detail. I was allowed to order my own meals but their contents and amounts were vigorously monitored. I was roused from sleep to have my vital signs recorded and all of this was done on their timetable.

Years of being groomed to be a responsible adult were erased. Anyone in such a position for very long begins to lose brain cells and any will to fight back. You can't even decide when to wash your face because the tubes from various machines you are tied to don't reach the sink. It's hard to make the distinction between whether these folks are here to help you or to control you?

It's insidious. Outside your window you see the beauty and wonder of God: Inside you slowly and continuously and subtly lose control of the world surrounding you. Sure, you're involved in decision-making ... yet you have no knowledge to make these decisions except what they give you.

Still, there is the fact that most of the folks around you are very, very nice. They are sympathetic to your concerns; they understand that you have been removed from your normal world and tossed into an alternate reality. They want to help make you as comfortable as they can. They smile at you and are always quite polite.

It reminded me of when I'd pull up to the hospital and walk into the administrator's office and say that I was there to inspect their hospital. They weren't always sure that I was there to help them. My inspection usually was in conjunction with a scheduled Joint Commission inspection that could shut them down. And, on top of that, I was a fed after all; could I really be there to help them?

Richard Olmer's column appears in the Sequim Gazette the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month. He can be reached via e-mail at

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