The Anguish Patient

“Oh-oh, that’s the hootchie cootchie,” my roommate called out at the top of his quavering voice.  “That’s naughty.”

I pulled the pillow tighter around my head, failing to stifle the noise from his running commentary on the Hip Hop Abs infomercial playing at a volume that would have done Godsmack proud.

In another 30 minutes, if I couldn’t get to sleep, I would call for another shot.  They might be unwilling to move me, but they’d give me all the morphine I’d let them stick in my arm.  God bless American healthcare.

So went the ninth hour – or was it the 9,00th – of my recent two days in the hospital with a mild case of Scrivener’s palsy complicated by effluvia.

My nonagenerian, stone-deaf, slightly confused, pneumonic roommate spent the whole time babbling, snoring and playing the TV at decibel levels to rival a jet engine with the throttle stuck wide open.  

All other times he was querulously questioning nurses and physicians regarding his diagnosis, treatment and release.

It all made for such an unappealing combo (with my own whining added in) that the staff kept our room’s door always closed. They minimized their interaction with him, since every contact had a Emily Litella-like quality. And when they did try communicating with him, you didn’t need Gene Hackman’s trick bag from The Conversation to hear the condescension in their voices.

Bottom line, as far as they were concerned, he was a pain that was obstructing the patient-care process they had set up – for their benefit and efficiency.

I’m not faulting them. I was desperate to get away from him, too.  But in quieter moments, like the time he got stuck for 30 minutes watching and commenting on the QVC Jewelry Showcase, I contemplated how liking the unlikable, and effectively working with them, may be one of the toughest challenges we face when building and managing coalitions.

(No. Really. That’s what I thought. Cut me some slack.  I had nothing else to do.  I sure wasn’t getting any sleep. And one of the first lessons I’ve learned from this blog is that you’re pretty quickly hoovering the universe for content for the insatiable, Borg-like demands of a regular publication schedule.)

After all, boiled down to basics, my roommate really only wanted a meaningful role in what was happening.  He wanted people to talk to him in ways that were respectful of his personhood and situation, in language that was clear and meaningful to him.  He wanted to know what the likely outcomes would be, when they would occur, and how he would be affected.

When none of that happened, he began “acting out” more and more from boredom, anxiety and alienation.  And the process – and the personnel – instead of refocusing efforts on meeting his not-unreasonable expectations, just excluded and ignored him even more.

That may be the lesson that I take away from this whole incident (oh – and the one about how it’s easier in a hospital to get narcotics than move 20 feet). That when building and maintaining coalitions, difficult or fringe constituents may be more than unlikeable souls.  They may be a symptom that the engagement process has become focused on the implementers, instead of on those it was designed to serve.

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