Medical Metta – My Hospital Stay

(Image info: Painting by artist Leslie Johnson as her way of sending metta during my surgery.)

Last week I spent three days in the hospital having a total hip replacement. There were many opportunities for sending metta!

In pre-op there were two children who were, like me, being prepped for surgery, and both were absolutely charming the socks off the pre-op staff. One was a little girl having her tonsils removed, the other a slightly older boy named Sam, who talked very knowledgeably to the girl, assuring her about her upcoming surgery. He spoke at such a high level of detail that I looked questioningly at my prep nurse.

“His fifth surgery,” she whispered. We exchanged a sad look. No small child should know that much about such a subject. Dinosaurs, asteroids, jelly fish – that’s the body of knowledge his bright mind might pursue. But for him, for now, it was all things surgical. Of course, I wasn’t privy to his medical history or prognosis, but I too was absolutely charmed by his warm generous bedside manner:

“That part’s not so bad, don’t worry about that,” he assured his smaller neighbor. “But that other stuff does have a funny taste. You get used to it.”

As Sam’s bed was wheeled out and down the hall to his operating room, I found myself wrapping his little body in healing light. And soon I was doing it again to the girl going in for her tonsillectomy, and then to her parents who lingered behind briefly, holding each others’ hands, waving anxiously, before being escorted to the waiting room. I remember what it was to have a small child going off to a simple outpatient surgery: scary!

Into this bustling hive of activity, beds were rolling in and out like trains. Soon I was surrounded with patients far less brave than Sam. I wished them well in their surgeries also, and sent metta to the pre-op staff as they did their jobs whenever I wasn’t, um, otherwise engaged.

I was struck by how the environment changed in response to the various personalities within it. Sam’s warmth was so radiant, the room had felt like a fiesta. There are no doubt people in the world who are just naturally able to conduct massive amounts of loving kindness, felt by all around them, and Sam may be one of those. Or he may be that bounteous out of his own hard-earned wisdom, having found light in the darkness and the deep desire to share it with all.

Finally it was my bed that was moving and soon I was in the icy cool pristine operating room looking up into the friendly faces of my surgeon and his staff. Those faces gave me anchor for the last little metta I could send before I went under anesthesia. May you be well, may you perform your job with precision, may you be fully in the moment.

Behind the circle of the surgery team, I sensed the loving kindness, prayers and good thoughts of friends and family in a widening circle of well being, all focused on the care of my body and the success of this surgery. I had requested these thoughts, prayers and metta, and I know many responded. I was not asking for their busy lives to stop and all attention to be directed toward me. I was asking that, if they happened to remember it during that morning to send a little thought my way. I trust that all the metta I needed is the metta that comes naturally out of our pre-existing loving connections. In that way, it didn’t feel too much to ask.

If anyone misunderstood my request and actually sat down and focused on the surgery for any lengthy time, I thank them for it and honor their practice, knowing that whatever they did is of value to themselves as well.

Anyway, all the metta and prayers and thoughts seemed to have worked very well. When I came out of the total fog of anesthesia I drowsily followed the activity in the post-op room. I saw the little girl in her father’s arms being taken home after her tonsillectomy. I inquired about Sam’s surgery and was told that all had gone well.

Eventually I was wheeled to a room on the fifth floor I would share with another woman whose leg looked to be held together by an exo-skeleton of metal rods, pins, screws and clamps straight out of a sci-fi movie.

I was thoroughly drugged and iced, and wasn’t feeling much of anything but exhausted, but she seemed to be in excruciating pain, and throughout the evening I sent her as much metta as I could muster as I wafted in and out of consciousness.

I also bathed myself in the loving light of healing, trying to keep my mind relaxed and unattached. Letting my breath rise and fall as deeply as possible, per instructions, I used the plastic handheld Spiro meter prescribed to counter the dangers of shallow breathing.

But I found it difficult to focus on my own healing with my roommate’s ongoing all night cries, screams, moans and general talking to herself. I got little sleep and was amazed that in the morning, I actually felt okay, thanks to morphine and ice packs.

And because I did feel all right, and because she was still in pain-filled anguish, and the nurses had repeatedly tried to get her to slow her breath down and relax, I asked if she wanted me to coach her, and she said yes, please! Soon she was breathing more slowly and seemed to relax a bit, but it didn’t last. She couldn’t sustain it, as a pain would rip through and she would scream again.

Overwhelmed as she was, her social skills were long gone. She became whiny, demanding, accusatory, blaming every person who walked in the room for her experience. The staff was even-tempered with her but every conversation became increasingly stressed. “If you would only breathe deeper, try to relax. You’re just making it worse with your shallow panting…” every nurse and aide reminded her, to no avail.

When the doctor arrived, he read her the riot act about doing what was required for her own healing, that if she didn’t take charge she would die, and this was a hospital not a nursing home. Here the patient is required to make an effort. This was a message she clearly had not gotten from the kind nurses, even though that’s basically what they were saying.

After the surgeon left the room, I could hardly believe it: She was finally quiet. Barely a sniff! Did the pain suddenly evaporate? No, I don’t think so. I think for her the doctor was a patriarchal authority figure to whom the whimpering little girl in her responded. Somehow what he said clicked.

Throughout my stay I continued to send metta to nurses and other staff who were in charge of my care, as well as to any patients I saw in my stiff ambulations with my walker. And I found that this little loving kindness practice served as a supportive net for me while I lived in that noisy sterile environment.

I’ll never know if the practice affected the quality of my care or healing. I think the staff members are caring people who want the best for every patient. But I hope that caring for me was not a challenging practice, like the practice of sending metta to ‘difficult’ people that is crucial for metta mastery.

Between little Sam’s warm hearted almost festive presence and the black hole of sucking misery of my roommate, I’d seen the wide range of energies they deal with as a regular part of their working lives, and I hope that in our time together they felt my admiration, gratitude, respect and good wishes for their continued well being. I hope I gave them at least a little something, since they gave me so much.

Upon reflection, I have to wonder how the course of my own hospital stay might have been different without my metta practice. At the very least, sending lovingkindness to others as well as myself offered me an active role to play beyond the very few things that were required of me as patient. Spending my time this way left little time for worrying, judging or elaborating ad nauseum on any wishes for things to be different than they were. Sending metta was the absolute most I could do for her, for the nurses and for myself.

So I am very grateful for this practice! It absolutely contributed to my healing. And perhaps to the healing of others as well. We will never know. But I hope so!

— With much metta and gratitude to the Kaiser San Rafael Medical Center orthopedic and ICU staff, as well as to my family, friends, students and sangha sibling, and most especially to my husband and primary post-op caregiver, Will Noble.

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