Wednesday, October 30, 2013

2013.10.30 Book Review. God's Hotel.

For my beach reading last summer I’d Kindled God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet, M.D., PhD—hoping to read about how God practiced (was intimately involved with) medicine, maybe in a hotel? I wasn’t disappointed. Let me explain.

The bishop who ordained me had recommended the book. He’s a Gutenberg man who is rarely wrong about his books. God’s Hotel, published by Riverhead Books in 2012,  is a page turner. I finished it before I even got on vacation and to the beach, which was okay because, although my Kindle is named Fire, its glow doesn’t provide enough light to compete with the glare of brighter beach sun.  

The title comes from the French, Hotel-Dieu (God’s hotel, literally God’s hostel) the name for any charity hospital that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages.  Right away we get the flavor of ancient history.  A reader will learn about premodern medical practices and something about the utterly unimagineable mercies of le bon Dieu for the sick and the poor, poverty being a social disease. The book, to me, portrays medicine as ministry.

Because Dr. Sweet worked in an almshouse, Laguna Honda (sounds like a car dealership) she was able to practice what she called slow medicine. She had the luxury of time: being able to work part-time, spend an hour for a patient intake, and read Xrays on site herself!  Paradoxically, the penniless received top notch medical care for nothing. So much for idle assumptions about inferior care in clinics for THE poor. Such stereotypes are conditioned mostly by social shame and shaming.

In most religions God’s care is free— just like Laguna Honda’s was.  

Slowed down medicine was good for the doctor as well as the patient. Sweet learned she wanted to be herself with her patients, not so distant and guarded about professional boundaries. There was more time for relationships, a bit of humble mutuality without compromising her role or risking her patients’ emotional health. 

It would be easy to dismiss this by saying she knew these patients couldn’t sue her so it was safer to drop her guard a bit,  but that would do a disservice to this physician’s integrity, much of which she learned from patients. She recalls us to the spirituality of medicine through the cases she chooses to share, as well as her own evolution as a physician.  

God’s Hotel opens with an autopsy, the author’s first. When the face of the dead person is exposed Sweet suddenly recognizes one of her first-ever patients. It was Mr. Baker but it wasn’t Mr. Baker—really.  Where was Mr. Baker?  Spiritual questions immediately confront author and reader. What does and did medicine have to say about such obvious concerns?

Reading, I remembered my first—and last— autopsy. Autopsy comes from a Greek work meaning “eyewitness.”  It’s easy to see why this word evolved: no organ is left unexamined, no gall bladder unturned.  It went along all right until a hand dropped from beneath the sheet that covered the body and I jumped.  This was a real person, or had been a real person, or might be a real person—a woman I could tell from the hand alone, a woman who had lived and breathed, and was warm, and said “Hi.” It was such a startling revelation that we chaplain trainees covered up our nervousness with giggles, of all the adolescent responses!  

You grow up fast when you see the totality of death, when you know there is absolutely no life there at all.  And you wonder just as Sweet did, just as the early Jesus followers did. I bet they also used some gallows humor to cope.

After her autopsy viewing Sweet wrote: “I did tuck away in the back of my mind the image of his dead body as a crumpled suit of clothes, abandoned in the corner of a sterile white room.” Later she discovered that  premodern medicine did have words for what was so shockingly absent: spiritus (rhythmic breathing) and anima (soul). Medicine is so physical—and so not, all at once. 

Take Mr. X , a man who sat around all day every day looking blank and thinking nothing—demented (de +mentis, without a mind.) Mindless!  Absent? Yet one day Mr. X heard the music of Glenn Miller, his era, and very slowly he arose from his chair and began to dance, and dance well. When the music ended he sat back down, blank as usual. What IS a mind anyway? A soul?

The medicine of Christian mystic and saint Hildegard of Bingen, one of Sweet’s specialities, is interwoven into modern practices. Hildegard’s remedies are common sensical, sophisticated, and grounded in her religious faith and prayer.  You’ll love reading about  Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet and Dr. Merryman.  

Dr. Sweet’s patients tell astonishing stories of deep truth, just like the gospels. Readers also get to walk with Sweet on the famous pilgrim’s walk to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and follow the politics of medicine as it has evolved from the practice of medicine to the delivery of healthcare. The book is mystically empirical. 

Laguna Honda finally is moved and modernized, however its soul will linger on because of this lovely/loving book, and because Sweet leaves us to wonder more than answer. She is currently an Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Her students are lucky.

I have only one reservation about God's Hotel: you might have to re-read it to digest it well. I’ve bought myself a good old reliable paperback so I can dog-ear and mark up as I do with books too chuck full of wisdom to read once. 


Barbara Cox said...

Sounds like a great book, thanks for the preview! I like your verb "Kindled" :). We need more slow medicine.

Lyn G. Brakeman said...

Thanks Barbara. Let's "kindle" each day! Lyn

Lyn G. Brakeman said...

Thanks Barbara. Let's "kindle" each day! Lyn