Someone drew two googly eyes on the hospital lift. When I see them I start to laugh, deliriously – perfect maniacal-supervillain-alone-in-an-elevator laughter. The black eye, which is visible from the blackboard on the lift wall, is a relief from the hospital canteen menu and a reminder for doctors to draw insulin for discharged patients – medical language with a medical message.
Different eyes, a welcome infusion of something unheard of in the corridors of Irish hospitals: personality. I wonder how long they will survive as the only living creatures on the steel wall of the third floor elevator that often breaks when transporting patients.
I’ve been helping train doctors since I could talk. My series of Marcel Marceau gestures, which help guide agitated medical students without overwhelming their examinees, are legendary.
Medical students at Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, in Dublin, know this lift. It’s a hangout, in the old part of the building. One day I stood behind three young men who sounded so optimistic about the future of medicine that it brought tears to my eyes. I have to tell them one last thing to remember: your chronically ill patients know more than you think, so listen to them. The three beat. I feel like an elderly neighbor who got lost on the way home and thought they were his grandchildren. A maniacal laugh would definitely get me out of this. They retreated, gently, in response.
I’ve been helping train doctors since I could talk. As a six-year-old I made a tidy living presenting myself as a case study for a junior doctor’s examination. My series of Marcel Marceau gestures, which help to guide jittery medical students without disturbing their examinees, are legendary. I rubbed my wrist to show why they would fail: no watch! I stroked the chin: check the gland! I rolled my fingers over my knees: check reflexes! Most of the time watches are the most frustrating factor, especially when they have everything else: bed manners, eye contact, enthusiasm, no fangs. But without the watch it immediately failed.
The elevator was broken for three weeks all new. I saw no enthusiastic faces bright and beaming against the steel. I wonder why it took so long to fix the elevator if the hospital knew it was transporting dialysis patients as well as medical students. Both elevators go to the third floor, but one will not go there unless swiped with a valid ID. I dream of an Ireland where patients are prioritized and simple access requirements don’t require a PhD titled Escape the Maze. I dream of an Ireland where a “new” dialysis unit is not opened in a building that dates back to the 1800s and where thought is given to the future development of multidisciplinary lung transplant and kidney care in the new Mater building underneath. development.
In the oldest part of the hospital, where ghosts of nuns weave and heckle, the eyes are a comforting reminder that someone is witnessing, trying to make sense of things. I hope they are not deleted
The next time I entered the elevator I saw a faint line below the googly eyes: Banksy of Mater had added something that could be called a smile. I want more. We need art on every centimeter of hospital wall, especially in these old buildings. We need artists-in-residence in every medical room in Ireland, to provide nonsecular, open-hearted warmth. We need to change the way the system stands and how we go about it. When I talk about art, I mean hope: some kind of reflection that comments on and celebrates the humanity of the people who work in the space and those who attend. A cocreation with care and community.
In the oldest part of the hospital, where ghost nuns loom and heckle, where brown mucky walls and long faux-ornate windows and endless nondescript corridors run into each other, the eyes are a welcome change. It’s a comforting reminder that others are witnessing, trying to make sense of things, and talking about them through these small acts. I hope they are not deleted.
We need to find a way to keep this energy going in Ireland, or the junior doctors, overworked and undersupported, will be gone. Blank consultant posts will remain blank. Patients and staff will continue to be desperate, anxious and alone, as if left to plug the hole as the ship sinks deeper and the lift remains broken for three weeks at a time.
Perhaps the eyes, uneven and unclear, are a cry for help, an expression of chaos trying to be the best as a health worker inside a very demanding system. Or maybe they were just a few seconds of pure pleasure in the elevator ride.