God’s Hotel: A doctor, a hospital and a pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine

A book review:

I stumbled onto this book in the public library and I guess the title first attracted me.  But fear not, the book does no proselytizing and contains no fantasy stories, nor stories of religious delusions, nor superstitions.  Rather, the story is a learned critique of modern scientific medicine, has a glimpse into Hildegard of Benign – the 12 century patron saint of holistic health types and nova spiritual seekers, and it provides a wealth of personal and informed insight into the politics of American health care for the poor. Add to this mix, an account of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage and you have a great auto-autobiography.

This is the story of a Victoria Sweet, a modern physician, experienced in American hospital care, who embarks on a PhD study  of  the “slow medicine” and the Four Humours that constituted medical diagnosis and treatment throughout the middle ages up until the mid 19th century, when modern ideas and doctor supremacy became “best practices”.  Dr Sweet of course doesn’t get to, nor does she aspire to turn her back on the many diagnostic and treatments provided by modern medicine, yet she describes her growing awareness of the need for compassion, hands on physical examinations and just sitting with patients.

God’s Hotel, is a euphemism for the charitable almshouse, first established by medieval monks and nuns for the care of those not able to care for themselves and with no family to care for them.  These low tech county hospitals have all but disappeared in America, but were once an established part of social care giving in each county in the USA.  Dr Sweet shares  insights as a ward doctor at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda hospital as it is transformed from a long term, but active rural treatment hospital complete with gardens and barns into a modern public hospital. As you might suspect, the transformation is not all positive!

Two things I most enjoyed about the book were the way Dr Sweet recounts the lessons that individual patients (and the occasional hospital administrator) taught her as her job as a hospital doctor evolved. Secondly, was the etymological references that are sprinkled through the text, reminding me of how much our language, in addition to our practices are influenced by older understandings of medicine, politics and the world.

This book will make an ideal read (or a gift) for anyone involved in health care –either traditional or “new age”. For those outside of health care, like myself, it helped me to appreciate the lessons of life taught by the ‘bad girls and boys’, (patients with long histories of substance and life style abuse),  the administrators, the terminally ill and those with nowhere else to go. Highly recommended.

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