Sunday, December 05, 2010

Cold Comfort

Recently visiting my father in the hospital and participating in his transfer to an acute rehab facility, it brought home the ironic fact that hospitals and other inpatient facilities are often the last places where one would want to be in order to recuperate from illness.

Although hospitals offer an essential service, they can often be comfortless, cold and unwelcoming places that are polluted with noise, unnecessarily bright lights, the constant interruption of patients' desire to rest, and a dizzying array of providers with whom patients sometimes have little or no personal connection as they are poked, prodded and otherwise examined.

Observing my father in his room in the rehab facility, the first thing I noticed was the fact that he was being constantly barraged by noise that intruded on his well-being and his ability to rest. Staying in a two-person room, a patient is always subject to the vicissitudes of having a roommate, and my father was unlucky enough to be at the mercy of his roommate's intermittent groans of pain and complaint, and also the high volume of his television that was on from the moment he woke up in the morning until he turned out the light at bedtime.

To add insult to injury, nurses and aides laughed and talked loudly in the hallway, carts with squeaky wheels were pushed down the hallways at all hours, and intercoms and buzzers continuously added to the nauseating medical din.

My father, sitting with his head in his hands, accepted the offer of foam earplugs procured from the nurses station, but they sadly did little to block out the constant noise that infiltrated his world and rattled his already troubled brain. The poor guy just wanted to rest, and the very facility promising him "healing" offered an environment completely unsuited to that end.

In my mind, most hospitals, nursing homes and health facilities are built with the convenience and ease of its employees in mind. While the physical layout does indeed need to take the efficiency of health care delivery into consideration, the lack of consciousness around patient comfort is nothing short of appalling.

When it comes to noise pollution, every patient bed should be equipped with wireless (or wired) headphones connected to the television, eliminating the cacophony of two televisions tuned to different channels blaring simultaneously in every room.

Next, every cart and wheeled conveyance used in a health care facility should have the most state-of-the-art solid rubber wheels that provide the most silent movement possible. From mop buckets to gurneys, wheels should be as silent as a whisper.

Regarding nurses and other staff, voices should be as quiet as possible, and while laughter and joviality provide for a more lighthearted work environment, I have observed that many staff frequently seem oblivious to the fact that their place of work is also a place where patients come for rest and healing. Staff do not need to take a vow of silence, but conversational voices can convey information more readily and efficiently than raised voices loud enough to wake the dead.

And then there are the lights and the environment. Where are the full-spectrum bulbs, skylights, picture windows, fountains, options for soothing music, and views of the outdoors that are conducive to healing? Why are rooms not designed in a manner wherein each looks in upon a central courtyard of beauty? Where is the research on the use of color and light to induce a feeling of calm? So many hospital walls are adorned with awful colors reminiscent of the dull and uninspiring hues of vomitus and stale urine. Hospitals are not meant to be prisons.

Watching my father react to the noise, interruptions, bright lights and cheerlessness of the hospital and rehab facility, I was struck by the readily visible fact that many facilities simply ignore the creature comforts of patients, creating environments that neither inspire nor engender restful recovery. Feeling powerless to help him to be more comfortable, my visit came to an end, and it was little comfort leaving my poor sick father at the mercy of an environment ill-suited to his overall well-being.

While there are indeed some superlative hospitals out there that embody the very heart of the nature of the healing environment, most mainstream hospitals offer a pedestrian and uninspiring atmosphere that does little to assist the sick in their process of recovery. Those hospitals that do provide optimal care and a healing environment should be held up as an example to those who simply take the path of least resistance.

Leaving my father sitting alone in that rehab was one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I hope to never again be in the position to leave someone behind who is receiving care in a facility in which I do not have the utmost confidence. While there was one nurse who took a special interest in my dad, that was cold comfort in light of the suffering that he was experiencing, and I'll sleep better when he is safe and sound in his own home once again.

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