Tuesday, 23 May 2017


The title of this post is a medical phenomenon. Patients with dementia or delirium sometimes go through something called "sundowning." Towards the end of the day, they begin to get more confused, more agitated. Sometimes combattive. It's quite the challenging phenomenon to deal with, and it is hard for the patients.

I wrote most of this post late yesterday, when I had retreated back to my call room after a consult. The anticipation of the pager's shrill beep was keeping me awake during that precious potential sleeping time, and my mind would not shut off. I was agitated. I was frustrated. And I was so tired.

Usually, I find sundown to bring a lot of peace. The transition times of day - as I watch the sun fall off the edge of the horizon and as the earth rotates to reveal it once again - have always been my favourites. I'm someone who finds strength in quiet.

Years ago, I started making a habit of going outside at the break of dawn with a cup of tea, sometimes a cat, and breathing in the fresh, clean morning air.

I don't think that's likely in this city, but as I wrote the bulk of this post last night, I made plans to find a quiet corner high in the hospital to enjoy a coffee and watch the sun rise over the city. That didn't happen, as I slept through my alarm and was late to handover, but I intended to find my way to the hall outside the teaching room, where large windows look east. That meant first getting through the night.

Overnight, the hospital halls are hushed and still in a way that is so at odds with how people usually see them. I remember from the parts of my childhood spent in the hospital that it reminded me of an empty church. It still does. My father is a minister and so growing up I spent a lot of time in empty chapels; walking between the pews, hearing my footsteps echo off the angled ceiling. I was allowed places parishioners often were not. After the service, I'd get to drink the leftover communion grape juice from tiny glasses. I'd play with the organ. Knowing the church in emptiness felt like being in on a grand secret.

Most churchgoers only ever see the chapel at its height, teeming with life or celebration or clouded by tears and grief. Most patients experience much the same of the hospital; they have visited sick family members, they have grieved in the halls, they have perhaps celebrated new life in the one ward for functioning organs. But they have not known it in the stillness, even when they have stayed. Like the chapels of my youth, walking quiet corridors deep in the night feels like a privilege; a trip down the fairy way into a different world.

There is a certain smell and a particular acoustic quality to many churches. These are branded in my memory as markers of peace. While I left the faith in my teens, I do have pleasant memories of hours spent sitting on the carpeted dais and hiding in the secret places parishioners don't go.

The difference, of course, is that the hospital at night is far more populated than those chapels I explored. There are nurses walking as quietly as possible to and fro, people paging, monitors beeping, nighttime medications to give or vitals to take. The hospital is never still. It is never fully at rest. But like the churches I knew, is a place where families change and death and new life are both addressed plainly. It is a place of transition.

The room I spent last night in smells like an old church, which is what brought this all to mind. As I walked the corridor towards my nominally locked door, the soft thump of my footsteps echoed in just that right way to remind me of my father's steps down the annexe hall. I lay in bed in my call room, unable to sleep, but listening to the creak and grumble of unwilling pipes that were old when I was born. Like evenings spent in the sanctuary as my father fixed something or set up some new system, or as the women toiled at some project intended to help the world or the community, I rested without sleeping. As I child I would sleep anywhere, but my curiosity often kept me awake. That's still a problem. But as with then, I seek out the quiet places where my mind can settle.

I watched the sunset from the eighth floor windows yesterday. As I looked east, the sun behind me, I saw the broad brush of orange light paint this industrial city vibrant for a short time as houses nestled in the shadow of the hospital stared back at me with undressed windows.

For a short time, I found some peace, and I stopped to enjoy it. The hospital is both a cage and an endless world of new experiences for us. Life under the microscope of constant evaluation, constant assessment and reassessment of how well you are adhering to the plan for how things should go; whether as a learner or staff, it is challenging. But I found a moment yesterday, I stopped and for a time felt peaceful, and I thought about how hard I have worked to get to that eighth floor hallway, in my scrubs, my stethoscope heavy around my neck, the weight of responsibility in between the pages of the chart in my hand.

The sound of a siren in the distance reminded me I had a job to do. The papers in my hand, a dictation waiting. It came easier this time. It will keep getting easier, they all tell me.

When that was done, I made the pilgrimage back to my room, and listened to the silence, in search of peace, awaiting sunrise.

The juniors residence is visible in this photo. As is Miss M, who made my morning much brighter. 

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post! This actually made me nostalgic for being on call. A tiny bit.