Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Hospital Mystery Cult

Going into hospital for surgery strikes me as an almost religious experience. It might well be expected, of course, that a serious event like heart surgery would focus the mind on mortality and suffering, which naturally bring up all sorts of other thoughts. If one is religiously so inclined one will also seek out the anointing of the sick, bringing a genuinely sacramental aspect to the event. Whilst these things are certainly the case they are not quite what I have in mind here.

Admission to hospital for a planned procedure has many of the hallmarks of some kind of religious initiation. One enters as a normal person in ordinary clothing, in my case in superficially reasonable health and, over the course of a few hours, undergo a series of ritual acts in preparation for an act of great significance, stripping away one's ordinary self and being immersed into a new and alien experience.

Upon admission, and daily for a few days prior to admission, there is a ritual cleansing. In my case it was a five day course of pink clorhexidine shower gel intended to prevent me bringing in infections with me, particularly MRSA.

There are other bizarre rituals. First of these, in my experience, was the shaving. Having various parts of one's body shaved by another person in preparation for surgery is sufficiently out of everyday experience to lend an added air of otherness to the whole process.

There is a night in which you attempt to sleep in this unusual, institutional place, and then you are awoken with the dawn or before, usually far earlier than usual (if you have sleeping patterns like my own). Here you leave your ordinary self well and truly behind, discarding ordinary dress and putting on a strange robe, which will not be comfortable or practical from the point of view of the wearer.

Various sleeping draughts are administered. The first will ease you into an unusually calm state of consciousnesss so that the next couple of hours, awaiting the summons to the surgeon's sanctum, are not too anxious.

The second is a draught of temporary death, during which you experience nothing and yet under the influence of which changes of the most tangible sort will be wrought upon you.

You emerge to life once again in the artificial brightness and noise of intensive care, reduced to a state of utter dependence. At first you are even reliant upon others for your own breathing. Life is stripped down to its essentials.

There will be at least a week of recovery in hospital. Life in hospital is regimented, austere and with plenty of time to think - it is almost monastic. The drugs, the experience and the after effects of the heart/lung machine effect the mind - the next few days will see introspection and mood swings between euphoria and a deep sense of connectedness on one hand and discomfort and discouragement on the other.

The whole weird experience, even though I've been through it before, reminds me a little of some kind of religious initiation, especially some of the weirder religious experiences of the ancient world.

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