A few nights ago I took a shortcut through one of the hospitals on campus to get to my car, parked as usual in Outer Mongolia, a/k/a South Campus. As I trudged along, I felt my mood deteriorate. That's odd, I thought. I've been in a good mood all day. Then I realized the problem: I was in a hospital after dark. You see, one is rarely in a hospital at night for anything good. During the day you might be there for something fairly routine, like a mammogram or some other test. But if you're there at night, you're probably visiting a loved one, which probably isn't a happy occasion unless said loved one has just given birth. Or you're a patient. I have lots of unpleasant memories associated with being in a hospital at night: having my tonsils out (I don't care if you get to eat lots of ice cream. It hurts.), going to the ER with my dad, visiting various relatives before they died, visiting my mother while she lay seriously ill with pneumonia, sitting with my son in the NICU, wondering if he'd survive.
Then there's the almost eerie atmosphere. During the day, hospitals are busy places. Doctors rush up and down corridors on rounds, nurses hurry from room to room, patients are wheeled around, florists deliver flowers, and the cafeteria (my usual haunt) bustles with hungry and harried personnel, wolfing down their greaseburgers before their pagers go off. At night it's calmer, quieter, emptier. Exhausted-looking residents dine alone, and families of patients move through the place like zombies. They don't know their way around, they don't know what they want, and they probably don't care. They're eating because they need to, not because they want to. Every now and then there's an overhead page. Often a doctor is being called somewhere ("paging Dr. Valentine to the Coronary Care Unit..."), but sometimes it's more ominous. "Would the family of Mr. Gravely-Ill-Patient please report to the nurse's station immediately?" I say a prayer for Mr. Patient and his family, my sympathy mixed with gratitude that the page is for someone else, not me.
As I emerged from the building into the cool night air, my melancholy mood left me as quickly as it had come. I was just another employee, heading home after a long day. My family waited at home for me, healthy and whole. I would eat my dinner with them, chatting about the day's events, not picking at a plate of hospital food while wondering what the latest batch of test results meant for my loved one. Life was (and is) good. If I ever forget that, I need only walk through the hospital in the evening to be reminded.