It was 2:00 P.M. Visiting hours were just beginning at the hospital where my wife was recovering from surgery. As a minister I had often visited the hospital as one of my pastoral duties. Now the situation was reversed. We were to be on the receiving end of well-wishers and visitors. It took just one day for us to change from the commonly held position that visiting hours are a vital, therapeutic part of the healing process. We learned to prepare for the twice-daily onslaught like soldiers going into combat. "Lord, save us from our friends!" became almost a daily prayer.
Finally the physician ordered a sign placed on the door to my wife's room. Her illness was neither contagious nor critical. However, without that sign, rest and recuperation could not be achieved. It read simply: "No visitors." As we looked at it—the symbol of our desperation—we began to wonder what the many patients we visited felt and saw when we arrived at their bedsides. Generally speaking, objectionable visitors fall into at least six distinct categories.
First is the hale-and-hearty type. He bursts into your room like a cyclone, beaming and booming a lusty greeting. He often appears just after you have been wheeled from the recovery room, or the day after surgery. You look terrible. You feel terrible. You blink dazedly out of the stupor and smile through your nausea.
Who can forget the visitor with "squatter's rights." She comes early and stays late. The victim may feign sleep, coughing attacks, sinking spells, or highly contagious disease, but nothing frightens or speeds her on her way. You are reduced to the role of a helpless, if indignant spectator. She takes in your every pain, every symptom, every treatment. Nothing escapes her observation.
Then the indulger appears. He will present a huge and tempting box of candy or other smuggled goodies. It has been days since such gastronomic delicacies have come within sight or smelling distance. Then you are tortured by the memory of your doctor dictating a thousand-calorie, salt-free, sugar-free, fat-free, almost food-free diet. This visitor is akin to the one who brings bouquets of flowers and other pollen-loaded hazards to the asthma patient.
No illness is complete without the prophet of doom. She stands by your bedside solemnly shaking her head. "Yes, your symptoms are exactly those of my great aunt who lingered on for a little while before her horrible end." As she recites this melancholy dirge your mind begins to respond to her suggestions. "Yes," you think, "I do have the same kind of pain! She is so sure.- Under your visitor's lamentation you break out in alternating cold sweats and burning fever. You are regaled with the whole story from slight headache to brain tumor; from upset stomach to ptomaine poisoning; from faint rash to smallpox. Before she finally leaves you may almost feel like calling for the last rites.
Perhaps the most indiscreet visitor is the one that pries for details. No area of the patient's medical history or anatomy is sacred or secret as the most embarrassing and personal questions are asked. While some patients are eager to talk about their operations, others do not like to share an intimate stitch-by-stitch account with all the known world.
Finally, the sick visit the sick. I will never forget the student nurse who came to visit us the very day we brought home our firstborn child. Being sensitive new parents, we had the apartment house as far as the curb as sterile as humanly possible. Even so she insisted on holding our awesome and precious infant. Imagine our dismay when she sighed: "What a relief to sit down. I have been on my feet all day in the tuberculosis ward!"
A similar feeling of utter despair and helplessness overwhelms the hospital patient as he receives the visitor who comes a-blowing and a-dripping up to his bedside with a handshake, or perhaps a kiss. "The kiss of death!" thinks the patient.
And the near relative to this type is the visitor who fails to notice or take seriously the sign warning: "NO SMOKING, OXYGEN EQUIPMENT IN USE!" He either wants to live dangerously or die violently. As he lights up, you begin a mental countdown within your oxygen tent. Blast-off will come any second.
Visiting the sick is a historic and universal tradition filled with moral implications. For none may depreciate the Biblical injunction to visit the sick (Matt. 25: 36). On the other hand, the patients are legion who have inwardly groaned: "I was sicker after ye visited me." Note this counsel:
It is misdirected kindness, a false idea of courtesy, that leads to much visiting of the sick. Those who are very ill should not have visitors. The excitement connected with receiving callers wearies the patient at a time when he is in the greatest need of quiet, undisturbed rest.
To a convalescent or a patient suffering from chronic disease, it is often a pleasure and a benefit to know that he is kindly remembered; but this assurance conveyed by a message of sympathy or by some little gift will often serve a better purpose than a personal visit, and without danger of harm. —The Ministry of Healing, p. 222.
While the minister should often visit the bedside of the sick, would we not do a greater service by a candid self-analysis of our own bedside manners and revamping our approach to the sickroom? As we minister in this way we should disturb as little as possible the peace and dignity of the patient. For is not a broken spirit as serious as a broken bone? Is not the healing of the body hindered or enhanced by the morale of the patient?