The Atlantic, March 14, 2013
Over the past century, the architecture of the American hospital has undergone a dramatic transformation. At one time, patients were generally housed in open wards, where each was aware of what was happening with the others and conversations between patients were common. Then wards were replaced with smaller rooms, generally occupied by two patients. In both situations, privacy could be difficult to sustain, in part because doctors and nurses seeking to preserve privacy could often do little more than pull a curtain. Today, the ward is ancient history and the double room is fast going the way of the dinosaurs. Hospitals being built today feature private rooms. Nobody wants to lose sleep due to a roommate's television viewing or snoring. Yet sometimes our zeal for privacy gets the better of us, short-circuiting opportunities for compassion and community. It is hard to be ill and in pain, especially seriously so, but such burdens are often magnified when we shoulder them alone. When the poet John Donne famously wrote that "No man is an island," he was not making a purely descriptive statement. He was also highlighting our powerful need for companionship -- someone to talk to, a shoulder to cry on, and a human being to share our experiences with. Typically, the events taking place in hospitals represent experiences when we need one another most.