Compassion Priceless

In my August post I reflected on the kindness of strangers with a couple of stories. And because the subject is so worthy, here is a dramatic example from 2010.

In 2010 my husband and I joined a group of high school students going to Bali to study art. After a month of music, painting, puppet making and dance –as well as sweating profusely and slapping mosquitoes –we headed for home, stopping in Japan for a few days. Our first morning there my husband woke with a fever of 103 and a full body rash. The hotel had a thermometer but no doctor. As the fever neared 104 we hailed a cab for the Hiroshima City Hospital. I had frantically pieced together shujinwa byoki des — my husband is sick from my pocket dictionary and blurted it out to the cab driver, who took one look at us and stepped on the gas.

Roberto’s name, lower right quadrant, on the door to his room at Hiroshima City Hospital.

In the large, orderly waiting room, we were the only Caucasians. Roberto was a sight, lobster-red and wild-eyed. Staff and patients politely averted their eyes. A nurse led us to the lab for blood work, and after filling several tubes, she withdrew the needle and pressed a gauze pad on the site. Roberto bent his arm and held the gauze in place until she motioned that he could take it off. But when he straightened his arm the gauze pad, red and soggy, fell onto the floor, and a fountain of blood squirted in the air. I was going to laugh until I looked at the nurse. Her eyes were wide with fear. She applied new gauze and whisked us upstairs where a bed and IV waited in room 575.

When the doctor came to report the test results, he began in broken English by saying that he was sorry we were in the hospital and he was sure we would be able to go home soon. I think that was a lie, but it did us a world of good. Unfolding the paper with test results, he said the Ultrasound, CT and stool sample showed nothing unusual, but that Roberto’s platelet level was very, very low – 20,000 out of a normal 200,000 – 400,000. There were cells that had become confused and were doing bad things, he said. They were eating up the platelets. He didn’t know why, but he suspected a virus. He sat by the bed with a lovely combination of confidence and humility and explained that Roberto would receive IV fluids and medication for fever and diarrhea, and tomorrow they would draw blood again.

The patient was expected to provide pajamas, towels, toiletries, Kleenex, drinking cup and utensils. This seemed both surprising and sensible to our Western minds. A nurse went to some trouble to find him a spoon with a wooden handle — understanding chopsticks would be asking too much – and a cafeteria-style plastic mug. We were both treated with the greatest respect and kindness by everyone. And remarkably everyone seemed to have plenty of time to spend with us. At first I thought we were receiving special treatment as foreigners, but I noticed that the caregivers had the same leisurely, encouraging, optimistic style with the three roommates.

The next morning the nurse came in with an IV bag in each hand. Struggling with English, she said, “IV? Do you… want… one? two?” We looked blank, and she tried again. “IV? One? two? OK?”  We realized she was asking our permission. “Of course, yes. Two, please. Dozho, dozho”, and she smiled with relief. Every time a nurse took Roberto’s blood pressure and temperature she showed him the reading, waiting patiently while he fumbled for his glasses. When he nodded approval, the nurse bowed and left with an “arigato godzaimas.” This respectful inclusion of the patient in every action was remarkable. There was a sense of shared responsibility. Doctors and nurses educated and made recommendations for treatment. Patients learned, approved decisions, rested and drank tea.

On the second day, the platelet level dropped to 10,000. Emails from medical friends told me how critical this was and the risk of internal bleeding. We were terrified, looking at each other, not wanting to say it. The doctor suggested a bone marrow test and a blood transfusion. Both procedures were done in the bed, with minimum fuss and maximum calm. The bone marrow, Roberto reported, was “not bad at all.” The doctor had explained each step carefully and together, as partners, they had done the job.

The next morning the count was back to 20,000, thanks to the blood transfusion, but there was no guarantee it would continue to rise. A dermatologist with a flock of medical students came for a visit and took pictures of the lobster rash. We suspected Dengue Fever, epidemic at the time in Bali, which can be hemorrhagic. The doctors were not interested; the point was to restore the platelets. And they did. On the sixth day, the reading was up to 80,000 and Roberto was released. The doctor wrote a letter explaining the condition and the treatment. At the bottom of the typed page he had hand-written “I think your health will be good in future. I wish you safe travel to your home.”

Before we left the hospital room, we wrote a card expressing our deep gratitude to all the staff, and left it with the cup and spoon on the bedside table. We headed down the hall to the elevator, and pushed the button. Simultaneously we turned to take a last look at the nurses’ station opposite the elevators. There, in front of the station was a semicircle of doctors, nurses and aides, bowing to us. I gasped and tears came to my eyes. We bowed, clumsy Caucasian bows, murmured “domo arigato godzaimashta” over and over. The elevator dinged, we stepped in, and then turned for one more look. The last thing we saw as the doors closed were the bowed heads, wishing us well.

Oh, and the cost of this care –IVs, lab work, bone marrow, blood transfusions, MRI, CT scan, Ultra Sound, many doctor visits and six days in the hospital — $ 2,500 US. The business office was so apologetic that they had to charge us the full cost because we were not Japanese citizens.

(Compassion: priceless, as the TV commercial used to say.)

9 thoughts on “Compassion Priceless”

  1. You are a consummate storyteller, Lucy. I’d heard a (very abbreviated) version upon your return from Japan, however the tale in your blog had me riveted. And I was struck by the contrast between Japan’s healthcare and costs and that of the US.

  2. Querida Lucy – como siempre … as always…. your storytelling is poignant and leaves me feeling… as all stories should. What an adventure that was and is. So glad Roberto is with us and doing well. Abrazos

    1. And you, dear friend, knoww more about the subject than anyone deserves. Sometimes we get a PhD in subjects we have no desire to be expert in. Love to you and those precious grandbabies

  3. What an amazing post – yes, we can learn so much from this type of care. Sad that’s it’s so hard to find in our country. Glad he is well and recovered!

    1. Thanks,Lori. Yes, sad it’s hard to find here ..for the patients and the doctors who would like to be able to spend more compassionate time with them.

  4. What a beautiful story about compassion, acceptance, and grace. While we don’t usually experience those characteristics in our own country, we are fortunate to come across exceptional individuals at our local hospital (though it mimics a third world country in sanitation).
    Thank you for sharing this great story, Lucy.

  5. This is a gorgeous story about Japan. We visited last summer (my second time, the kids’ first, Ellen used to live there) and it is exactly that gentleness and care for each other’s humanity that stays with me.

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