I come to under a violet light; the hour uncertain. A thousand strange things are whirring and humming. Red and yellow sparks flicker on and off, transparent greenish vines hang down from above. The space is crawling with life, human beings and other, non-human things. There is great calm, but also a note of urgency.
My reason is slow, numb. By my watch it is 4 o’clock, presumably morning. Where am I? What’s all this energy, this pulsing and thrumming? The American in me foggily deduces that this is Grand Central Station, where all the ways of the world meet. A busy hub in some great city inhabited by men and women of many tribes, everyone very alert and courteous.
Well, you could call it that. I’ve somehow landed in the intensive care unit of a major London hospital. The previous day, I was rushed into emergency care, laid low by a sudden infection that had set off something like the Battle of Stalingrad. It was sepsis, caused by a spirited bacillus of the Streptococcus pneumoniae clan—one that, luckily for me, was also quite responsive to antibiotics.
While my poor brain is struggling to process this news, across the way in the opposite bed, a man with dark skin is staring in horror at two boxing gloves of fluffy white cotton covering his fingers. He cannot take in what has become of his poor hands, so white and deformed. Like me, he does not remember how he came to be in this ward. He’s shocked to learn that the nurses put on the gloves to keep him from ripping out the IV line last night. He’s just off the plane from Ghana, and the nurse who explains the gloves to him is also Ghanaian, from Accra. I know that because a few minutes earlier, while he was taking my blood pressure, we spoke about his native city.
In the next week and a half, I will understand this is not just an ICU, but a kind of utopia. We are inside a London public hospital, part of a venerable but now deeply threatened national health system. Government-provided healthcare in itself is utopian for us Americans; I live in Italy, where my medical needs are covered by the Italian health system, which in turn will repay the British system for the 12 days I will spend in this hospital. When I say this is a utopia, that’s true in more ways than one.
Sepsis is life-threatening, but in this excellent hospital, the emergency-room staff diagnosed me correctly within 15 minutes. The hospital also used a pioneering method to identify the strain of Streptococcus and the appropriate antibiotic within hours, rather than the usual five to seven days. I know this because later, a doctor came around to get my permission to be part of a study of this experimental method. Accustomed to a gruffer breed of doctor in Italy, I was charmed by the way this one took time out to explain things to me. But in fact every staff member who came into my cubicle was unvaryingly polite and competent. All made it a point to explain some element of the treatment.