First-Year Column: Unexpected Kindness and Hope in Hospitals

I want to write a few words on the kindness of strangers.

I’m sitting in a hospital room right now with a sprained ankle. I say sprained because I’m not supposed to swear in a newspaper column and I don’t know if the bones are broken or the ligaments are torn. Either way, it’s not what I would describe as a walk in the park, mostly because I won’t be doing any walks in any parks any time soon.

The hospital is not a particularly warm or welcoming place. The lights find that tired place behind your eyes and squeeze it, the TV is set at the perfect volume to be incomprehensible but still disruptive and the vending machine ate my dollars even after I hopped all the way outside. For a while, the cheeriest thing in the room was the neon pink hospital bracelet they gave me. It was so neon that the 80s would have been jealous. Unfortunately, the hospital staff gave it to me just long enough for me to become attached to it and then snapped it off.

While waiting in pain in a hospital room isn’t my favorite way to spend a Sunday night—though I know it’s some of yours—the one good thing about the experience is the people I am spending it with. You would expect a situation like this to generate an apathetic if not competitive atmosphere. After all, if the zombies came now, they’re going to get at least a couple of us. But surprisingly, what this hospital lacks in charm, it makes up for in small kindnesses. 

There is a man sitting next to me covered in tattoos that read FIRE and FORGET in gothic letters Jane Eyre would have been proud of. He and his son are tickling each other’s faces with rubber gloves and sporadically bursting into giggles. Later, he pretends to give his sick son a tattoo with a rubber glove, making silly drilling noises that manage to drown out the abs workout on TV for a while. (Why they think anyone in a hospital would be interested in an abs workout, I can’t imagine.) 

But thanks to Mr. Tattoo and Jr., I couldn’t have asked for better entertainment. Then there is both my nurse and physician’s assistant who asked me to explain how one goes about playing “ultimate Frisbee,” and is that really a sport? And if so, is it like dodgeball?

But back to the main point of this article, which is that bad times make people band together. The tired man comforting his young daughter with heart murmurs in the corner has offered to help me carry my backpack at least three times even if it means leaving her for a minute. When I hobbled into this newest of waiting rooms, an older woman scrambled up to give me a seat next to the door. While I waited to get X-rays, a woman cradling a sobbing baby boy came out the door and managed to take a second to give me a real smile, one that said, “I see you. And it sucks. But you’re going to be OK.” 

A boy my age supporting a broken arm held open a door for me; I can’t remember the last time a teenage stranger did that for me. The male nurse—yes, they exist and no, they’re not all hot—pushing me around in a wheelchair even let me pretend for a minute that I was pushing the wheelchair myself when I asked if I could. His hands were, of course, on the bars the whole time. But it’s the small things that transform what could have been a terrible experience into a bearable one.

I think I’ve finally solved that silly debate between Hobbes and Locke: people are inherently good. You would think that after all we’ve gone through to end up in this room, we would have abandoned all pretense at niceties and slumped into apathetic lumps. But no, here, people rush to open doors for others and can still spare a second to smile despite their own problems. All of sudden, we are so much more aware of how we want to be treated and so much more willing to treat others—even complete strangers—that way. 

I’ve walked past people I know before without waving or smiling and definitely allowed a few doors to close on people behind me. But if fathers and mothers with sick kids in their hands can spare a few seconds to throw me a sympathetic smile or offer to help me in small ways, so can we. So that’s my challenge to you all this week: go out there and perform a random act of kindness for someone you don’t know. And maybe if you do it enough times, it won’t be random after all. 

A nurse just asked me, “Do you wish you’d worn Dorothy’s red sparkly shoes here instead of your silver ones?” The answer is an unequivocal yes. Yes, I would risk crushing the Wicked Witch of the East with my house if that meant I could fly over the rainbow to a warm bath and my collection of Beanie Babies back home. But the politeness of the people here at the hospital has made this experience a relatively pleasant surprise.

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