Hospitalization, like many experiences in life, is better in the abstract. Several years ago, at the behest of my thorough and avuncular physician, I had exploratory surgery to assess an ailment that caused me chronic pain. That routine procedure, expected to last 90 minutes, ended nearly four hours later.
The surgery saved my life.
Besides this most important fact, being hospitalized also reminded me of the immense responsibility that medical professionals assume for our well-being when we, for whatever reason, can't do it ourselves.
No disrespect to doctors, but for the first 48 hours, I saw my nurses every hour, minimum. I saw my doctor only twice.
Immediately after my surgery, the nurses made me, and my spouse, feel safe and confident in my quality of care at the height of personal vulnerability. As I was drugged and immobile, the nurses managed not only my medical treatment but also my morale. The care I received for the first two days was unmatched by any previous health care experience.
Then, Day 3 arrived. Several incidents made it clear to me why USNews.com recently reported that none of New Mexico's 60 hospitals have standards of strong performance. Meeting this standard means that a hospital is on par with the quality of performance of the top 25 nationally ranked hospitals.
It was on Day 3 that an unfamiliar nurse appeared in my room. She offered no introduction or acknowledgment that I was present. She was all business. That's fine. I get it. Nursing is work. But, before she could take my temperature or get any vitals, another rather flustered nurse entered my room to convey a laundry list of objectives that needed to be "accomplished" by 8 pm—none of which had to do with me.
In the span of about three minutes, I felt my blood pressure, and my temperature, skyrocket. Before both nurses whizzed out of the room, or my temperature was taken, I flagged down the first nurse and told her I thought I had a fever. She smiled and said, "Yes, I'll be right back to check on you." At which point, she let loose a beleaguered sigh at the second nurse and began a complaint about the number of "beds" she was assigned that faded in the distance as they both disappeared through the door.
This was the point at which my twinkling five-star hospital stay began to flicker. Despite my fever, pain and immobility, the mystery nurse's posture, manner and commentary conveyed the symptoms of the ongoing battle among health care providers, health care administrators and unions responsible for health care professionals, and the assessment of health care quality.
Here's the thing: These ongoing, behind-the-scene (and sporadically in the headlines) tensions and competing interests among District 1199NM of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, local hospital administrators and health care providers result in uneven, sometimes subpar and potentially tragic health care experiences.
Those on the front lines of these bureaucratic machinations—providers, patients and their families—suffer most. During my stay at this unnamed New Mexico hospital, I experienced quality of care from one institution that ranged from excellent to downright terrifying.
I witnessed firsthand how the good work of an excellent medical staff can be undone by what I can only assume are the effects of overloaded and unevenly staffed medical personnel. Their morale affected my confidence in care, which I am sure influenced my recovery.
If New Mexico's hospitals want to truly improve quality of care—the goal of all hospitals—the professionals need to take a scalpel to their bureaucratic bickering and place patient care at the forefront of their actions.
Andrea L Mays is a Santa Fean and an American Studies scholar who teaches at the University of New Mexico. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org