Looking back on my most recent hospitalization – when I was feeling well enough to observe more than in the days right after my surgery – I’ve been thinking about the importance of the clothes people wear in hospitals.
The staff are mostly in uniform. Doctors wear white coats, usually with some kind of business clothing underneath. Some aides wear clothes of particular colors. The meal service people wear uniforms that make them look a bit like waiters. Only the registered nurses, if I’m remembering correctly, are generally not in uniform, though Teresa feels they wear “scrubs” of their own choice, and that many of them are wearing Dickie’s, a brand of work clothes. All of this, of course, makes it easy for everyone to tell who is who, and also to say where in the hospital hierarchy each group of people stands.
But I admit my focus was more on my own clothing. When I came in, I returned to the hospital gowns I’d been put in right after my surgery. These gowns, as I understand it, are designed to be as easy as possible to remove for purposes of medical care. The sleeves, in particular, aren’t actually sewn together; the front and back of each sleeve get snapped together as part of the process of putting the gown on, and they can get unsnapped as needed. So if, say, you have an IV in your arm, you can unsnap your gown so that the whole gown can be removed while the IV remains undisturbed; if you had on a regular shirt, you wouldn’t be able to get it off without first removing the IV. This easy access is probably very helpful, but the design is not intuitive: the first time I had to put one on, I had no idea how to do so!
The most important feature of the gown, however, is that it opens in the back. It’s cinched together with a couple of ties, but in my experience the cinching-together isn’t that firm. I assume that this feature too is part of ensuring ease of access for treatment, and I think it’s probably true that having the gown open in the back is less potentially embarrassing than having it open in the front. I should add that you can get a robe to put over the gown, unless no robes are available; in that case, your only option is another gown, which you put on, in effect, backwards, so that this second gown opens in the front. It’s fair to say that the whole arrangement isn’t particularly supportive of patient privacy.
When you come out of surgery, privacy is far from your top priority. Many patients, as they dutifully get out of bed and slowly walk the halls as part of their recovery, are still on urinary catheters. These tubes, and any others hooked up to you, are all visible as you walk the halls, and since other people have their own tubes, I think there’s a shared acceptance that this is just what’s involved in recovery.
But when I returned to the hospital with cellulitis, I felt much better than my fellow patients just out of surgery. In the days that I was there, Teresa caught on that I actually could wear civilian clothes instead of hospital gowns. So gradually I did. It took till nearly the end of my stay before I finally was wearing just regular clothes – for some reason I held on to the hospital’s non-slip socks the longest, even though I was wearing them inside shoes. But when I did begin to dress like a regular person, it felt great! Maybe the way to explain that is to say that I felt more like a person who happened to be in the hospital, and less like a patient – but all I’m really sure of is that it just felt good to be dressed in a normal way.
Dressed in my civilian clothes, a couple of times I accompanied Teresa from the 16th floor, where my bed was, to the hospital front door as she went out to get a meal for us (the hospital food, which I’d found quite satisfactory when I was just out of surgery, paled somewhat on my second stay). In fact I actually went out the door, with no one raising any objection at all, even though a close look would have revealed the IV hook-up still in my hand or arm. Someone more daring than I might even have gone out for a meal.
One more thought: as I’ve mentioned before, part of what I did while I was recovering from my surgery was to read South African anti-apartheid activists’ accounts of being held in solitary confinement without trial for prolonged periods. I don’t at all mean to equate a good, caring hospital like Memorial Sloan Kettering with an oppressive prison – and yet these institutions have some similarities, because in each the occupants (the patients, or the inmates) are so profoundly governed by the institutions’ operations, whether those operations are benign or otherwise. So I think it’s really striking that Albie Sachs, when he was detained without trial in South Africa in the 1960s, used to dress for his interrogation sessions. In far, far more trying circumstances than mine, he too was asserting his status as a person, and a person capable of grooming and self-presentation, and not just the subject of an institution’s attention. I do now understand, at least a little better, why it mattered to him.