God’s Hotel

I, most likely, will be several weeks late for the Second Coming, so, it should come as no surprise that I am only now reading God’s Hotel, a book published in 2012. I sat down with this remarkable piece of creative non-fiction yesterday morning and finished it around two this morning. While I suspect Dr. Victoria Sweet would prefer her book be read at a slower pace, I found her simple story so compelling that I could not put it down. If you have not yet read the book, do put it on your must read list.

It is, among other things, the story of a remarkable journey and the lessons learned as Dr. Sweet, one of the Santiago de Compostella pilgrims, undertook the 1,600 kilometer walk that is called The Way. The Way is a journey of body and soul that affects how pilgrims view the world and helps them find the purpose and connection that are essential to a well-lived life.

The focus of her story, however, is her work and interaction with patients at the very last alms house in America, the Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. She planned to work there for two months, but ended up staying 20 years while she completed a masters and doctorate in the historical roots of pre-modern medicine. When she began, Laguna Honda had 1,178 patients whose medical conditions were so severe and persistent that there was no other place for them to go, and it was here she began her investigation into the merits and need for “slow medicine” in modern patient care.

God’s Hotel tells the stories of patients and their caregivers, with all variety of chronic neurological, heart, lung and liver conditions, strokes, cancers, AIDS, and psychoses sent from acute care facilities to Laguna Honda for what might be a chance to find life again or to die with dignity.

Dr. Sweet does not disavow fast or modern medicine: A broken bone still needs to be set, a heart attack must be kept from killing someone, and appendicitis requires surgery. However, once acute care has done its job recovery needs the right environment, a different form of medicine, where the barriers to healing are removed, including unnecessary medications, abuse of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, inadequate nutrition, and fear and hopelessness.

Having studied the writings of a 12th century German nun, Abbess, philosopher, writer, composer and medical practitioner named Hildegard of Bingen who regarded the body as more like a plant than a machine, Dr. Sweet looked for ways of removing barriers to recovery and fortifying a person with the basics of healthy sleep, nutritious food, and protection from toxic substances and people while allowing time to also do its job.

The irony of this book is that slow medicine is actually efficient! Sometimes doing less is actually more, and it can save a lot of money. Dr. Sweet’s book is not a religious tome. It is a beautifully written argument that examines how slow medicine can co-exist with modern practice and medication to better the life of patients. Do read it!

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