Hospital, Cafeteria, and Sanctuary

I was in charge of the ICU that day and it was quite busy. Though it was not that up-to-my-eyeballs hectic for I still had time to go down to the hospital’s cafeteria for lunch. Many times I would grab meal to-go and head back to the ICU work station and inhale my food while doing some computer charting. That day I had the luxury of eating my lunch more leisurely in the cafeteria itself.

Our hospital’s cafeteria is by no means a fancy place to dine in. It is after all a cafeteria serving hospital food. Nothing against hospital food, but if I have time to spare, I will eat somewhere else. Our cafeteria though has a section that has glass wall and ceiling that gives you an atmosphere of being outside. Yes it is still winter and there’s snow on the ground, but the sun was shining that day, so I went there so I could soak up the sun for a change.

However if the hospital cafeteria is as inviting as the photo below, once I settled there they have to pry me like a barnacle from my seat for me to go back to work.

(photo taken in the Philippines at Manila Bay, a few years ago)

Besides the obvious of getting food to eat, there is another reason I stay a while in the cafeteria. That is, it gives me a chance to be away, even for a short time, from ICU work and from the constant hounding from the patients, residents, nurses, and other doctors. Though almost always, when I’m on a lunch break that is when I am called to the Emergency Department for a new admission.

But that day was different. I was enjoying my lunch alone and my phone was unusually silent. I guess the cafeteria gods were smiling at me. I consider these lunch escape my sanctuary – away from the chaos and the harsh reality of the ICU.

The hospital has a chapel too. But that is not the kind of sanctuary I am talking about here. I just needed a place to take a breather.

Then while I was savoring my food, but more so my silent interlude, a man approached me at my table. How dare him interrupt my break time? Who was he to disturb my lunch? Of course I did not react that way and instead I looked up and gave him a smile. It may be forced, but a smile nonetheless.

The man introduced himself and said that he recognized me from a previous ICU encounter. I learned that I took care of his mother in the ICU several months ago. After he gave me some details, I remembered her mother – she had cancer and became septic after receiving chemotherapy. She got very ill very fast and stayed in our ICU for several days. But she recovered.

The man then pointed to his mother, my previous ICU patient, who was sitting in a table a few paces away. They have an appointment with their oncologist at the Cancer Center and that’s why they were in the hospital.

How many patients have we taken cared of in the ICU who was as sick as she was, and have a chance to meet them later after their discharge and were doing relatively well? Sadly to say, that is a rarity. For many of them even if they get out of the ICU, they were never the same. And some don’t even get out at all, I mean not to the world of the living.

This man just stopped by to thank me. It was an interruption that I would appreciate after all.

Then when I was about to leave, a man that I met in the ICU earlier that day sat in a table near me. He was absorbed in his thoughts while eating by his lonesome. Like me he was also taking a break. Perhaps the cafeteria was his sanctuary too, an escape to the sobering truth in the ICU.

Though this man’s predicament was much different than mine. His daughter was our patient in the ICU, and she was not doing well. She had a tumor in her brain that was surgically removed, but even after more than a week post surgery, she remained on life support. Her life was hanging in the balance with uncertain future. Worse part is, she was only 20 years old.

It is very understandable for her family to be heartbroken. No wonder her father rarely leaves her bedside, except for a brief cafeteria break. As a father who has a daughter with similar age, I can only imagine the agony he’s going through.

I needed to go back to the ICU. We needed to help this young lady and her distraught father.