Warren R. Johnson —
Having lived in Germany for many years, I’ve had the opportunity to get acquainted with hospitals from Landstuhl, the military’s largest hospital outside the United States, to Bad Aibling, where there never was a military hospital, only a civilian one.
To outsiders, hospitals are almost always odd places. Patients themselves only get used to them because hospitals run on schedule. In the hospital I was just in, breakfast was a roll with jelly, lunch had soup, and dinner included sandwich meat and a pickle. Is it possible for patients to gain weight in hospitals?
In keeping with their schedules, nurses and doctors make their own reliable rounds, and guests arrive at regular intervals before the day is over. Some stay a bit too long obliging patients to race past them in their skimpy hospital gowns.
Recently, after being admitted with pneumonia to the local University Clinic, I caught one of the flu bugs just then making the rounds and was hustled off to isolation.
Things change swiftly when you are in isolation. Visitors, doctors, and nurses arrive in what amount to hazmat-lite protective suits. Fetching in their own way, the tops, gloves, masks and one-size-fits-all bonnets reveal very little and conceal much.
When you cannot see faces or even name tags, you soon notice that listening is better than seeing. The ear is faster than the eye and adds layers to what you hear. If you want to know who is visiting, you must depend on the subtle sounds of their voices, for you have nothing else to go by.
The doctor whose grammar is as impeccable as his bedside manners is a Kurd. The nurse who speaks four languages is Romanian. Another nurse is surprised that anyone knows her accent is that of Kerala, India. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited a high school there. The principal introduced him to the children of former untouchables as “a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.“
Isolation doubtlessly made me think of that. Out of isolation, I watched the Kurdish doctor listening to the complaints of a cranky, old patient as if he wasn’t cranky at all. The doctor spoke a soft, pleasant Turkish, replying attentively to his patient. Did doctoring always run in his family all the way back to Avicenna?
Down the hall, an otherwise kind male nurse rubbed his jaw and lamented loudly about receiving an upper-cut from a disgruntled patient.
The only local doctor, born where the Magyars were defeated in 955, wondered if I understood his dialect. As it turned out, he had relatives in a suburb of Chicago—in Oak Park to be exact. He was amazed to meet someone who actually grew up there. His thoughts turned to famous names associated with the village, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemingway and how they each made much of wide lawns. Wright needed plenty of space for his Prairie Style Homes. Hemingway thought suburbs were places of wide lawns and narrow minds. My thoughts went to Percy Julian, another resident of Oak Park, the chemist who synthesized cortisone and made it affordable to all of us.
Just as doctors and nurses come and go, so do patients. The last patient with whom I shared a room reminisced. He escaped from East Germany and at the first opportunity emigrated to the United States where he served in the Indiana National Guard. He did so at the same time I went overseas with the U.S. Army to serve in Germany. Whether something can be made of that, I don’t know. At a University Clinic where patients, staff, and visitors come from around the globe, the world is indeed a small place full of fortuitous events.
Warren R. Johnson served in the U.S. Army in Germany in the late 1960s. He returned to the U.S. and attended Northern Illinois University under the G.I. Bill, earning his undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s degree in sociology. He then repatriated to Germany and taught college courses through the University of Maryland-Europe, mostly to U.S. service members and their families, for 40 years. He currently lives in Bavaria.