Every Saturday night in the winters of my formative years I listened sympathetically as Hockey Night in Canada’s Foster Hewitt gave a shout-out to hospital patients and shut-ins who couldn’t make it to games.
Images formed in my impressionable young mind of the infirm sitting in the pale light of their black and white televisions taking small comfort from Foster’s recognition.
I was well into my thirties when I watched my first hockey game from a hospital bed. I had toiled at numerous manual labour jobs and travelled five continents without so much as a broken bone or a stitch, oblivious with the arrogance of youth that the health gods would eventually get their due.
One stay at St. Paul’s in Vancouver had me yearning for words of comfort and normality from someone like Foster. Vancouverites will be familiar with St. Paul’s as the hospital that services the Downtown Eastside, often referred to as Canada’s poorest postal code.
While there are plenty of good people and do-gooders in the Downtown Eastside, and many unfortunates with mental health issues, the postal code reference reflects the sundry derelicts, drunks and drug addicts whose dangerous habits often cause them to need medical attention. I once glanced up an alley while driving on East Hastings on a sunny afternoon and saw a naked man casually strolling along as if he were walking the sands of Wreck Beach. Nobody took notice.
The first day at St. Paul’s, I was woken from a groggy afternoon nap by a doctor with a hostile bedside manner. He was remonstrating against an unseen patient on the other side of my curtain who had injected himself with drugs not prescribed by the hospital. A search was undertaken for the illicit substance and the disruption and subsequent ravings emanating from behind the curtain unnerved me enough to ask for a room change.
After multiple moist pleadings to hospital staff, I was shifted to a room with three female patients, one of whom talked endlessly on a phone at her bedside table, loudly lamenting the shortcomings of a boyfriend who had not yet found time to visit. The stillness of the elderly woman directly across felt ominous. She showed no signs of life and received no visitors. Late in the night I heard the patient behind the curtain next to me direct the nurse in whispers to a spot between her toes to insert a needle for a blood test, the veins in her arms and legs having long since collapsed from overuse.
I discovered during that visit and on subsequent stays in medical establishments that an institutional green bathroom, while providing momentary refuge from hospital roommates, is the world’s loneliest place at three in the morning and was always much relieved to return to my pre-hospital life.
I relate this not as a ploy for sympathy, as some who know me will undoubtedly suspect, but instead to illustrate my creds when wishing those in hospital encouragement as they lay in bed eating mass-cooked meals of bland mush, their only distraction the various pokings and proddings administered by hospital staff.
Even in private rooms, with the green bathroom all to yourself, the hospital experience is less than dignified and invariably involves the attachment of various bags and tubes transporting liquids in and out; the awkwardness of bathroom visits while attached to a pole; insertions and extractions of cold sterilized implements in nether regions; the barbering of dank private places.
Fortunately, all my hospital stays ended with positive outcomes and the professionalism and caring of the nurses and hospital staff, with very few exceptions, inspired everlasting respect.
But not even dedicated front-line workers want to be in the hospital during Christmas in the Time of the Pandemic, with virus droplets seeping through the air vents and patients stacking up in hallways.
So, in the spirit of Hockey Hall of Famer Foster Hewitt, I offer a shout-out to all the hospital patients and overworked staff tending them, from a shut-in watching CNN and Netflix on Saturday nights and pretty much every night. And some afternoons, too.
As a shut-in of Canadian privilege, I’m thinking of you as I keep my lonely vigil in the soft but colourful glow of a big screen TV, soaking up the visual warmth of the Christmas Fireplace Channel. Your struggles become mine as I mope about home in T-shirt and sweatpants, the stains upon which tell the tale of recent dinners, snacks, and drink choices. (Does red wine come out easier if you put soda water on it right away? So many important questions.)
Yes, you are in my thoughts and prayers as I swig alcohol and carbonated juice injected with gas from a personal countertop machine. I feel your pain as I pig out on pizza and wolf down butter tarts and shortbread. Staying home is a great hardship for those among us who have never experienced the privations of war, a Great Depression or famine.
Needless to say, the Last Great Generation we are not when it comes to sacrifice and pulling together for the common good at personal cost. Still, I feel confident readers will support me in this shout-out to fellow shut-ins in the Time of the Pandemic, which is to say everybody, this holiday season: “Stop whining and be happy you are above ground and living in Canada.”