On Saturday morning, I interviewed Martha (pseudonym), a spiritual care volunteer. As I walked to meet her, I was struck by the hospital’s peacefulness compared to during the weekdays when it is much busier. During our walking interview, Martha showed me the ward that she visits most weekends. This is where she comes to pray for patients, offering them a sense of comfort. While interviewing her, she told me about a woman in her 90s who said to her that morning that she ‘wanted die’. Sitting with the patient was her hairdresser who had known her for at least two decades. Martha was clearly moved and told me how she sat with the patient and told her that others from the multi-faith team would come to see her.
Upon hearing hers and other stories from people who work at and visit the hospital, I note the act of witnessing is significant to the work they do. Medical anthropologist Frances Norwood (2006, p.23) in her research writes that witnessing ‘is to listen, and to respond to whole persons in crisis, whether that means helping someone to pass the time or reminding her/him that fear, loss, and joy are relevant responses to illness and health.’ Witnessing also makes known one’s life – that they are/were among us, and here.
Later that afternoon, I stood at platform 6 waiting for a train. On platform 5, across from me, everything had stopped. A person was receiving emergency medical care. Through the crowd of transportation staff and paramedics that had gathered around the doors of the carriage and vestibule of the train, I could see that CPR was being given. A few moments later I looked over again and saw that the paramedic who had been giving CPR raise his arm to look at his watch. Was he noting the time of death?
On that Saturday, I pondered the spaces in which death happens. I take the train most weeks – it is part of my everyday life. The hospital is less so. It is a world of medicine, a distinct space, seemingly set apart from everyday worlds (Norwood 2006). The hospital because of its hierarchies, rules, technology and allocated spaces for illness, can seemingly put death neatly away (Foucault 1973). At a train station, with it’s own rules of engagement, medicine and death on a platform appear unexpected, out of place. People are rushing, walking, running for trains, sipping takeaway coffee, talking on their phones, reading newspapers and listening to music.
In the hospital that morning there were elevators to different floors, heavy doors to wards and beds behind curtains where some patients were ill, recovering or dying, ‘leaving this world not remarked upon’ (Back 2007, p.3). On platform 5, medicine and possible death, unbound, were near, people noting their presence, others moving on. Those who waited for their train, the atmosphere was subdued; most were quiet, some anxiously looking over to glean if the person was going to be okay.
As I stood there waiting, I also thought about the temporality of death – how it can be known, unknown, spontaneous, planned, longed for, desperately wished away. That day, I had listened to a story about a woman’s desire for death to come and then had been witness to a person unexpectedly close to it, perhaps in its grasp. In both instances, I was humbled by being able to listen and to be present, to have some link to their traces, their lives.
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Back, Les. (2007) The Art of Listening. London: Berg/Bloomsbury.
Foucault, Michel. (1973) The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. New York: Pantheon Books.
Norwood, Frances. (2006) The ambivalent chaplain: Negotiating structural and ideological difference on the margins of modern-day hospital medicine. Medical Anthropology, 25: 1-29.