By Dr. Bernie Kastner
Editor’s note: In last week’s issue, the author shared some thoughts on his experience after recent back surgery and the various difficulties and challenges encountered. Below is Part 2 of the article.
Having a sense of humor certainly helps. It can help defuse tense situations. It can bring a balance in the minds of the staff if you were on the verge of becoming a bit too demanding. It also reminds us to be more gracious and polite, especially in our moments of greater need for service and attention.
The power of prayer also is immeasurable in this regard. Is it a time to be modest and private about your upcoming surgery, or do you let the world know? If privacy is compromised, so what? The power of prayer goes beyond any dimension imaginable. Visitors can bring a measure of comfort as well, but you have to have the strength to field such visits. Keeping well-wishers at bay may be the smarter option in those cases where being left alone is what you want. When it seems as if time is standing still while the pain is at its peak, for some, being alone may be the preferred method of dealing with it.
This segues to the opportunity to get acquainted with your roommates and others roaming the halls of the ward. I got to cross paths with individuals I would otherwise never have met. I was thus exposed to the inner worlds of others—their joys, pains, and frustrations. Bikur cholim visits from extended-family members provide another glimpse into the lives of patients. There is nothing like firsthand experience toward developing a healthier dose of empathy.
One of the guys in my room was to have surgery immediately after Shabbat. He was to have fasted until the surgery. An hour before the scheduled procedure, a nurse informed him that his surgeon would not be able to do the surgery and he was left to decide if the replacement was acceptable to him. What a predicament. Needless to say, he had to begin a process of inquiries. To his credit, under all that pressure, he first waited for Shabbat to end so he could use his cell phone.
From many years ago, when I was a hospital administrator in a well-known medical center in Manhattan, I distinctly remember the new version of the Patient’s Bill of Rights. After all, a patient has control over how he wishes to be treated and his sensitivities must be respected. For details, visit www.health.ny.gov/professionals/patients/patient_rights/docs/english.pdf.
This is nice, but in reality, as a patient you have no sense of control—you leave that part of yourself at the admitting office upon arrival. From that point on, you are in the hands (at the mercy?) of the staff assigned to your case. Whatever hopes and expectations you may have upon arrival are quickly compromised by the fact that you may be facing your own mortality here. Once surviving the treatment, there is a long, unknown period of rehab until you know if your full functioning will be restored. Complaints about cleanliness and noise or anything else may have an address, but in real time you are not in a position to dictate anything to anyone, notwithstanding the detailed Bill of Rights.
As my surgeon told me when I asked him about my prognosis: “Our job right now is to get you through this hospitalization.” That was a chilling statement, because it stopped me in my tracks and I could no longer think about any long-range planning. Iatrogenesis is the term used to describe complications and adverse effects of medical treatment. It could be an adverse drug reaction, picking up germs from another patient, or an accident caused by a wet floor. I was already thinking a few weeks ahead, while my surgeon was worried whether I might spike a fever during my stay. He was right. Making sure you do everything to avoid any unnecessary extended hospital time is of paramount importance. As I mentioned before, it is not always subject to our control. But it made me appreciate all the more that I had gone five full days after surgery without any significant complications.
One of the things that kept me sane at night was having at my fingertips a Galaxy Tab 2. Since Israel is seven hours ahead of Eastern Time, it afforded me the option of keeping myself preoccupied with Major League Baseball in the middle of the night in case I couldn’t fall asleep. I profusely thanked my brother, a physician, for sending it to me. He told me I was the first patient who thanked him for a tablet that didn’t have to be swallowed!
Finally, I became more aware of the toll my condition had on other members of my family. When you are the one who is going through it, there is less fear of the unknown because you have all the data about your plight. On the other hand, my 13-year-old daughter, for example, was looking at this whole episode as a possible worst-case scenario. She kept talking about how she didn’t want me to die and how worried she was if I couldn’t shoot baskets with her anymore or (worse!) couldn’t drive her to the mall. It is easy to downplay this with the wave of a hand, but the emotions and influence on others run deep. Just as a physician’s post-op philosophy can change a patient’s mindset with regard to becoming lazy or motivated in doing light exercise as a first rehabilitative step, so too do our words and actions play a key role in maintaining equilibrium in the family’s mindset.
My utmost and heartfelt appreciation and thanks go to all those who davened on my behalf. Likewise, there is nothing like close family to turn to in the hour of need. No words can express enough hakarat ha’tov to my family for all they did for me to help me get back to my feet. May Hashem bless all of them with supreme health—always. v
Dr. Bernie Kastner is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Jerusalem. He is also the author of “Understanding the Afterlife in This Life,” “Masa El Haor,” and “HaOlam She’acharei.” His upcoming book “Back to the Afterlife” is scheduled for release in October. Visit his website at drbkastner.com or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.