Gary Kowalski

Morgan Timms/Taos News

Humans and canines observe Rev. Gary Kowalski as he gives a reading in 2018 during the Blessing of the Beasts ceremony at the Unitarian Congregation of Taos.

Nobody likes to be in the hospital, but my recent five-day stay gave me some important insights.  Surprisingly hopeful lessons came from lying flat on my back.  

On Friday, I went into the ER at Presbyterian in Santa Fe for shortness of breath and was taken by ambulance to the bigger facility down in Albuquerque early the next morning to treat a pulmonary embolism and get emergency surgery.

One thing I noticed immediately is that hospitals look like America in all its multi-ethnic complexity.  Of the half-dozen physicians who attended me, at least three were women.  Two had last names suggesting their families came from India.  Doctor Ben Chen was presumably East Asian or Chinese.  My night nurse Sarita was African American, like the tech who did my Echocardiogram.  The two “candy-stripers” who finally wheeled me out the door on my release were young white guys from Idaho and Georgia, doing six months of volunteer work as part of their church’s young adult ministry.  It wasn’t a perfectly egalitarian society.  The EMT’s who took my vitals and drew my blood were earning $15 bucks an hour, like burger flippers at McDonalds.  But neither did the hospital resemble a plantation model where white, male doctors ruled the roost, with women and people of color assigned to more menial chores.  It made me think that our country really has made progress in the last century

The second thing I learned was that I could get along with my roommate, even though he was a Republican and conservative Catholic while I’m a Democrat and theological liberal.  Gary was born in 1947, six years before me, but Gary was a popular name back then and one we shared.  We had other things in common as well.  We could agree that the food service pizza was pretty good, that our wives were gems, and that getting old was not for sissies.  We could encourage each other to get out of bed and use our walkers and laugh about racing each other around the nurses’ station.  On the first day, I told Gary that I thought our country would be better off if the average citizen were thrown into a room with a complete stranger and forced to be civil and polite for a while.  He agreed with that.  We agreed that New Mexico had problems with political corruption and that neither party had a monopoly on cronyism.  Gary did have some funny ideas about Roswell and aliens, but we steered clear of more contentious topics and managed to keep things friendly.  I wondered if our nation couldn’t do the same.

The third thing I learned (which my wife pointed out) was that I could leave my wallet and wedding ring in a duffel by the side of my bed for 120 hours, unmolested.  I was asleep, drugged and helpless most of that time, but my valuables and personal items were as safe as if in my own home.  Most people really can be trusted to do the right thing, most of the time.

It was initially hard to find a room at the big hospital in Albuquerque. They have been slammed with COVID.  But I must have been an urgent case because they admitted me and the staff gave me as much caring attention as if I were the only patient in the vascular ward.  

Here’s my take away.  There seems to be a sickness in our body politic lately.  Americans are angry, mistrustful and out-of-sorts. We are dis-eased and despondent about the prognosis for our democracy.  Maybe we need a collective visit to the hospital to restore our better, healthier selves.  

Reverend Gary Kowalski, of Unitarian Congregation of Taos, lives in Taos.

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