The Hospital on Profanity Hill

Version 2When Harborview Hospital in Seattle opened its doors to patients in 1931, advertising posters portrayed the striking fifteen-story Art Deco building as a shining beacon of light, the great creme-colored hope on the hill overlooking the small, provincial town clinging to the shores of Puget Sound. “Above the brightness of the sun: Service” is what one poster proclaimed; in the bright halo behind the drawing of the hospital, were the smiling faces of a female nurse and her contented-looking (and either sleeping or comatose) male patient with a bandaged head.1

Harborview Hospital—King County’s main public charity care hospital—was built at the top of Profanity Hill, on the site of the former King County Courthouse and jail. Profanity Hill got its name from the steep set of over 100 slippery-when-wet wooden stairs connecting downtown Seattle to the Courthouse. One wonders if it also got its name from being at the top of the original Skid Road—now named Yelser Way—where in the early days of Seattle, freshly felled logs, mixed with a considerable number of public inebriates, skidded downhill together into the mudflats of Puget Sound.2 The term ‘skid road’ soon became synonymous with urban areas populated by homeless and marginalized people.

Counties are the oldest local government entity in the Pacific Northwest, and King County, which includes the City of Seattle, was formed by the Oregon Territorial legislature in 1852. From the beginning, the King County Commissioners were responsible for such things as constructing and maintaining public buildings, collecting taxes, and supporting indigents, paupers, ill, insane, and homeless people living in the county.3 Seattle, with its deep-water shoreline and rich natural resources, was built on the timber and shipping industries, which soon attracted thousands of mostly single and impoverished men to work as laborers. These industries, mixed with ready access to alcohol in the always ‘wet town,’ led to high rates of injuries. Serious burns came from the growing piles of sawdust alongside log or wood-framed houses heated by wood fire and coal. Then there were the numerous Wild West shootings and stabbings. As in the rest of the country at that time, wealthier families took care of ill or injured family members in their own homes, with physician home visits for difficult cases. The less fortunate relied on the charity of local physicians and whatever shelter they could arrange.

David Swinson ‘Doc’ Maynard, one of Seattle’s white pioneer settlers, was Seattle’s first physician and, in a sense, he opened King County’s first charity care hospital, an indirect precursor of Harborview Hospital. A colorful and compassionate man, Doc Maynard built and operated a 2-bed wood-framed hospital facility in what was then called the Maynardtown district—now called Pioneer Square—a Red Light district full of saloons and ‘bawdyhouses.’ Although she had no formal training, Maynard’s second wife, Catherine, served as the hospital’s nurse. Their hospital, which opened in 1857, closed several years later, reportedly because Doc Maynard insisted on serving both Indian and white settlers. Also contributing to the hospital’s demise was the fact that Maynard disliked turning away patients who could not pay for his services. Around this same time, Doc Maynard assumed care for King County’s first recorded public ward: Edward Moore, “a non-resident lunatic pauper and crippled man.”2 The unfortunate patient had to have his frostbitten toes amputated, and then once healed, was given an early version of ‘Greyhound Therapy’ and shipped back East.

But the true roots of Harborview Hospital began in 1877 in the marshlands along the banks of the Duwamish River on the southern edge of Seattle. There, on an 80-acre tract of fertile hops-growing land, the King County Commissioners built a two-story almshouse, called the King County Poor Farm. They built the Poor Farm in order to fulfill their legislative mandate. Not wanting to run the Poor Farm themselves, they posted a newspaper advertisement asking for someone to take over operation of the King County Workhouse and Poor Farm, “to board, nurse, and care for the county poor.”4 In response, three stern-looking French-Canadian Sisters of Providence nurses arrived in Seattle by paddleboat from Portland, Oregon. The Sisters began operation of the 6-bed King County Hospital facility in early May 1877.

In their leather-bound patient ledgers, the Sisters of Providence recorded that their first patient was a 43-year-old man, a Norwegian laborer, a Protestant, admitted on May 19th and died at the hospital six weeks later. The Sisters carefully noted whether or not their patients were Catholic, and in their Chronicles, they recorded details of baptisms and deathbed conversions to Catholicism of their patients. The hospital run by the Sisters of Providence had a high patient mortality rate, but the majority of patients came to them seriously injured or ill. Also, this was before implementation of modern nursing care: the Bellevue Training School for Nurses in New York City, North America’s first nursing school based on the principles of Florence Nightingale, opened in 1873.

In their first year of operation, the Sisters realized that the combination of being located several miles away from the downtown core of Seattle and the unsavory name ‘Poor Farm’ was severely constraining their success as a hospital. So in July 1878 they moved to a new location at the corner of 5th and Madison Streets in the central core of Seattle, and they renamed their 10-patient facility Providence Hospital. The Sisters designated a night nurse to serve as a visiting/home health nurse and they accepted private-pay patients along with the indigent patients, whose care was paid for by King County taxpayers. The Sisters of Providence agreed to provide patients with liquor and medicine, both mainly in the form of whisky, a fact that likely helped them attract more patients.2

The Sisters’ list of patients included mainly loggers, miners, and sailors in the first few years, later mixing with hotelkeepers, fishermen, bar tenders, police officers, carpenters, and servants as the town grew in size. Many of their early patients were from Norway, Sweden, and Ireland, echoing the waves of immigrants entering the United States. Diagnoses recorded for patients included numerous injuries and infectious diseases—including cholera, typhoid, and smallpox—along with ‘whisky’ as a diagnosis, which later changed to ‘alcoholism.’ Their patient numbers grew, from just thirty hospital patients their first year, to close to two hundred patients by their fifth year of operation. The Sisters expanded their hospital to meet the increasing patient population.

Growing religious friction between the Catholic Sisters of Providence and the county’s mainly Protestant power elite, contributed to the King County Commissioners assuming responsibility for re-opening and running the King County Hospital in 1887. The King County patients were transferred from Providence Hospital back to the old Georgetown Poor Farm facility. Then, in 1906, the King County Hospital was expanded to a 225-bed facility at the Poor Farm site. It remained there until 1931 when the new 400-bed Harborview Hospital on Profanity Hill was opened. The old Georgetown facility, renamed King County Hospital Unit 2, was used as a convalescent and tuberculosis center until it was closed and demolished in 1956.5 The area where the King County Poor Farm was located is now a small park surrounded by an Interstate, industrial areas, and Boeing Field.

Harborview Hospital, now named Harborview Medical Center, still stands at the top of Profanity Hill, although the area is now officially called First Hill and nicknamed Pill Hill for the large number of medical centers now competing for both real estate and health care market share. Harborview Medical Center is owned by King County, and since 1967, the University of Washington has been contracted to provide the management and operations. Harborview Hospital has served as the main site for the region’s medical and nursing education. Since 1931, it has been the main tertiary-care training facility for the University of Washington’s School of Nursing.

Harborview Medical Center continues to fulfill its mission of providing quality health care to indigent, homeless, mentally ill, incarcerated, and non-English-speaking populations within King County. It is the largest hospital provider of charity care in Washington State. In addition, it serves as the only Level 1 adult and pediatric trauma and burn center, not only for Washington State, but also for Alaska, Montana, and Idaho, a landmass close to 250,000 square kilometers with a total population of ten million people. Harborview Medical Center has nationally recognized programs, including the pioneering Medic One pre-hospital emergency response system, the Sexual Assault Center, and Burn Center. In addition, Harborview provides free, professional medical interpreter services in over 80 languages, and has the innovative Community House Calls Program, a nurse-run program providing cultural mediation and advocacy for the area’s growing refugee and immigrant populations.

Harborview remains a shining beacon on Profanity Hill, rising above the skyscrapers of downtown Seattle. At night, it is literally the shining beacon on the hill, with blinking red lights directing rescue helicopters to its emergency heliport, built on top of an underground parking garage on the edge of the hill. Sharing space with Harborview’s helipad is the narrow strip of green grass of Harbor View Park, with commanding views of Mount Rainier to the south, and of downtown Seattle and Puget Sound to the west. In the wooded area below Harbor View Park, extending down to Yesler Way, along the old Skid Road, are blue tarps and tents of the hundreds of homeless people living in the shadows of the hospital. Construction is underway to add a new public park, mixed-income public housing, and a new—and hopefully less slippery—pedestrian walkway connecting downtown Seattle to the Hospital on Profanity Hill.

Note: This was published in the “Famous Hospitals” section of Hektoen International: A Journal of Medical Humanities in Spring 2015. Since researching and writing this essay, I have continued research (including conducting oral histories) for my project “Skid Road: The Intersection of Health and Homelessness.”

References:

  1. Seattle’s First Hill: King County Courthouse and Harborview Hospital. http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_Id=7038. Priscilla Long, curator. Published March 22, 2001. Accessed November 5, 2013.
  2. Morgan M. Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle. New York, NY: Viking Press; 1951.
  3. Reinartz KF. History of King County Government 1853-2002. http:your.kingcounty.gov/kc150/service.htm. Published July 31, 2002. Accessed December 12, 2014.
  4. Lucia E. Seattle’s Sisters of Providence: The Story of Providence Medical Center—Seattle’s First Hospital. http://providencearchives.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15352coll7/id/1651. Published 1978. Accessed October 1, 2013.
  5. Sheridan M. Seattle Landmark Nomination Application—Harborview Hospital, Center Wing. http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/preservation/lpbcurrentnom_harborviewmedicalcenternomtext.pdf. Published May 4, 2009. Accessed November 21, 2014.

Medical Maze: Part III

IMG_2595Arrival

Late one November night in 2000, I drove myself to the ER at the UW Medical Center. I had left my twelve-year-old son sleeping at home. Still a single mother, I had called my boyfriend to come over and stay while I was gone. My legs had been tingling and getting progressively benumbed over the past week. The numbness started in my toes and now reached my butt and groin region, plus my toes were turning blue. I had no idea what was wrong. The weekend before I had run up the 2,400-foot Mount Constitution on an island in the Puget Sound. It had been cold on the mountain, but I hadn’t fallen or gotten frostbite. I was forty and in decent shape, was rarely ever sick, and had no primary care doctor. I worked as a nurse practitioner at a nearby community health clinic; I was used to diagnosing and treating other people’s health problems, but not my own.

“Take off all your clothes except your underwear and put them in this bag. And tie the gown in the back,” the ER nurse said, as she handed me a cotton gown and white plastic bag marked ‘University of Washington Medical Center: Patient Belongings’ in purple. Why did I wear black thong underwear to the ER? I thought, as I gazed down at my mottled blue toes.

My personal mantra at the time was, I can do this; I can do anything! I didn’t see the danger in that saying. I worked three jobs, trying to pay off school debts and save for a down payment on a house, as well as for my son’s future college education. I had been running on the tenure track, applying for and getting research grant after research grant, publishing a string of papers, collecting teaching and peer evaluations. The faculty had recently met to decide whether or not to grant me tenure. I didn’t yet know the outcome. If I did not get tenure, I would lose my main job. So there in the ER I did as I was told, stripped to my underwear, donned the gown smelling strongly of bleach, and then endured a series of tests and examinations. At some point, although I don’t remember when, a plastic hospital ID band was strapped to my left wrist over the spot where my silver bracelets had been.

Covered by a white sheet up to my chin, I was now lying flat on my back on a black plastic-encased gurney, perhaps one that has recently delivered a dead body downstairs to the morgue. Can I feel my legs? Are they still there or have they been amputated? Or is it just that they are frozen, because I’m so cold? What time is it and why are we going through all these hallways?

The air around me was cold—refrigerated morgue cold—and filled with the low murmuring of disembodied voices, accompanied by white noise whooshing of the building’s ventilation system. Overhead, flashing, blindingly bright rectangles of fluorescent ceiling lights marched along in single file. I began counting them, memorizing the pathway so I could find my way back out again. Lines of closed doors whirred past on either side. No windows. No wall clocks. I can’t feel my legs.  What time is it? I tried to lift my head up off the thin pillow to look at my legs, to look for a clock, but I was too tired. Have they given me medication to knock me out?

A burly male orderly was behind my head, pushing my body on the gurney through the hallways. I could see long nose hairs in his cavernous nostrils and smell occasional wafts of stale coffee breath. He didn’t speak. As we passed people in the hallways, white-coated and blue scrub-wearing staff members, they all stopped briefly, turned sideways, backs against the walls, in order to let us pass. They furtively glanced down at my face, but their eyes always flitted away, never making eye contact.

I thought of Kafka’s Metamorphosis’ as I lay flat on that hospital gurney being wheeled through numerous hallways, then wheeled into an extra-wide elevator lined with rubber bumpers, and then upstairs to the neurology floor of the hospital and checked in by a sweet young nurse who greeted me as Dr. Ensign and I realized she had been one of my students in a health systems course taught the previous spring in a large auditorium I think I was rolled past on this gurney on my way up here—but that can’t be right. I had started thinking in run-on sentences. This young nurse, my student, handed me a tiny plastic cup filled with lilac-colored liquid. I looked at her, trying to remember if she was the sort of student I could trust to give me the right medication. Then, I swallowed the sick-sweet syrup with a metallic aftertaste. I awoke in a darkened room with a spotlight directed at my right arm, some young man thumping my veins and then drawing tube after tube of dark red blood.

After three days of hospital MRIs, X-rays, spinal taps, more blood draws, nerve-conduction tests on my legs, and totally annoying flashing light tests in my eyes, the grey-bearded senior attending neurologist appeared in my hospital room, accompanied by a fluttering group of neophyte short-white-coated medical students. He told me that the good news was that they had ruled out a spinal tumor, but that the bad news was that I had autoimmune transverse myelitis, meaning my body was allergic to itself and was causing a swelling of my lower spine.

“We’ll have to wait and see what it develops into. It can take a year or so before it progresses enough to make a definitive diagnosis,” the neurologist said, peering at me over his rectangular wire-framed glasses.

So I went home and waited. I desperately wanted a diagnosis, a unifying name for the bizarre collection of symptoms that kept sneaking up and sprouting into new signs—the concrete objective markers—and the symptoms—the soft subjective could be all in my head; could be just female hysteria. Symptoms such as my favorite: malaise, a general feeling of being unwell. Malaise, from the Old French mal= bad and aise= ease, space, elbowroom. I was in a bad space. I had not understood what it felt like to be in a body that betrayed me. I thought a diagnosis could bring me back into my body, bring me back into a good space.

The numbness slowly resolved, although my toes continued to turn blue, as did my fingers. Then, all of my joints began to swell. I spent the next year going to various specialists and sub-specialists, one of whom drew fourteen tubes of blood all in one visit, in order to run a panel of obscure and insanely expensive tests, of which the results were inconclusive. Another specialist drew my blood, extracted the serum and injected it into my forearm in order to measure my body’s allergic reaction—to myself. I tried complementary medicine and went to an acupuncturist who had been an internal medicine physician but had burned out on working within the medical system. He told me the story of his final days in medicine: “I told the administration that I wouldn’t take it anymore and I walked out,” he said. “Now don’t move because I’m going very close to your heart,” he added as he jammed a large needle into the middle of my sternum. A large purple bruise bloomed on my chest for weeks afterwards, taking my mind off my blue toes and swollen joints.

I was grateful for my university-sponsored health insurance, but was tired of all the medical encounters that seemed only to lead to more medical encounters. What I dubbed my ‘mystery illness’ morphed into a diagnosis of mixed connective tissue disorder (MCTD), which is really something that can’t make up its mind between being lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis, or the totally freaky-scary scleroderma, where your skin and internal organs thicken and petrify while you are still alive. MCTD is a rare autoimmune disorder that attacks the fibers providing the framework and support for the body. Rare, as in I’m special? Or as in I’m cursed? I thought, as a specialist explained my diagnosis, my dis-ease, my mal-aise. As he told me my diagnosis, my world closed in, like the bedroom doors closing on Kafka’s man-turned-beetle.

Today my medical chart still lists a diagnosis of MCTD, but none of the freaky-scary petrifying stuff has occurred. I no longer run the medical circuit in search of more tests, more tubes of blood, more diagnoses, more jabs to the heart, more promises of a cure. I live with it as you would live with a curmudgeonly, truth-telling friend. It tells me when I’m falling back into the inhuman I can do it; I can do anything! mindset. I listen to my body, even as it continues to get lost in the impossible hallways at work. Most of the time, I embrace the stalactites, the career limbo of nursing ambivalence, and the bewildering staircases. Recently, I cleaned out my university office and recycled all my papers, academic books, and grant reports. I prepared to slow down my tenure track conveyor belt, step into a sabbatical, search for that tranquil courtyard that doesn’t exist on any map.

I chose a soft, calming color for the walls of my office. Then, after the maintenance crew had re-painted the walls, I realized I had picked a version of hospital green. I’ve decided to live with it, and to see what fine details of life it reveals.

*****

Addendum:

It is a year or so since I wrote this essay. My office at the University of Washington is painted the same hospital green. While on sabbatical last year I continued to search for that tranquil courtyard and I am happy to report that I found it—outside my own home. I have survived another (and last) academic conveyor belt bid and have been promoted to full professor. And it is based on this sort of ‘real’ (to me) writing, on public scholarship, on my work in health humanities and social justice. My UW office is now filled with shredded promotion material in preparation for making a paper mache academic mask that I will hang on my hospital green office wall. I firmly believe it is these sorts of things that are helping keep me sane and healthy.

Medical Maze: Part II

IMG_4965
Harborview Medical Center, Seattle. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015

Threshold

The modern hospital traces its roots back to Greek temples of healing, which were often caves set near streams or pools of water. There was an elaborate set of initiations that ill people went through in order to enter the sacred space of healing from the outside profane world. Bathing and the donning of clean, flowing robes. Going barefoot and ridding oneself of rings or other jewelry. Then, being given a pallet in a large, communal sleeping space, an enkoimeteria, where patients slept side by side as they were to do centuries later in open hospital wards. The Greek temples of healing had stone tablets, iamata, set outside the entrances. The tablets were inscribed with healing narratives—testimonials—in the form of poetry or brief prose, all written in third person. Ancient Greek healing practices included bathing, exercise, special diets, dream divination, and bloodletting. Prayers at an altar at the threshold, the entrance to the healing space. Sacrifices of animals and offerings of food.

The business of hospitals, in Ancient Greece as well as now, is life, illness, and death. Everyone who enters the hospital as a patient emigrates—at least temporarily—to the land of the sick. It is a shadow-land, a liminal space where tides ebb and flow, a place that offers glimpses of the abyss. As the surgeon Richard Selzer points out, a hospital is alive: “The walls palpitate to the rhythm of its heart, while in and out the window fly daydreams and nightmares. It is a dynamism that is transmitted to the hospital by the despair and the yearning of the sick.” (p. 33).

*****

Quote above is from: Selzer, Richard. “Down from Troy, Part 1” in The Exact Location of the Soul: New and Selected Essays. New York: Picador, 2001, Print.

Medical Maze: Part One

IMG_2595.jpgA sigh of relief for me this past week that our crazy mess of a so-called health care system is not made crazier and more mean-spirited. A break from politics here to share my story of getting lost in the medical maze. Part one of a three part (triptych). This was published last year by Columbia University’s The Intima: A Journal of Narrative MedicineThe photos are of the stranger than fiction building where I work.

*****

MEDICAL MAZE

Wayfinding

I work in the world’s largest university building: the Warren G. Magnuson Health Sciences Building at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. The building, which includes the 450-bed UW Medical Center hospital, has close to 6,000,000 square feet of space, the equivalent of more than thirty Walmart Supercenters under one roof. The building is comprised of over twenty wings, whose hallways are connected, but in an Escherian, disorienting way. Besides the hospital and its associated specialty clinics and administrative offices, the medical complex is home to five health science schools—medicine, nursing, dentistry, pharmacy, and public health. Ten thousand people work or are hospital patients in this building; many spend at least some time lost in the medical maze.

The UW medical complex is sandwiched between two busy streets and one busy ship canal. The building’s courtyards are covered in concrete, with a few scraggly rhododendrons in containers. There are numerous entrances and exits to the building. Inside, the hallways have exposed guts—tangles of wires and pipes—and metal carts filled with glass test tubes, flasks, boxes of fruit flies, and cages of rats. The air is uniformly cold, with an acrid-medicinal, disinfectant smell. The bathrooms are tiled—floors and walls all the way to the ceiling—and are painted a jaundiced yellow. Some of the oldest rooms retain remnants of the original pale “hospital green” so popular in the twentieth century.

“Spinach green” is what Harry Sherman, a surgeon in a San Francisco hospital in 1914 named his invention. Using color theory, he distilled this green to counterbalance the hemoglobin red he encountered in his operating room. He claimed that this particular tone of green helped him discern anatomical details, resulting in better surgical outcomes. At around the same time, a leading American hospital architect, William Ludlow, advocated the use of color therapy: “…the convalescent needs the positive colors that nature has spread so lavishly for her children…soft greens, pale blues…but above all, the glorious golden yellow of the sunshine.” (p. 511). Perhaps the pale yellow tiles and paint in the UW medical complex bathrooms started off the shade of sunshine, but they have not aged well.

Color-coding of medical center hallways and units helps people navigate the complex physical structure of the modern hospital and clinic. It is a form of wayfinding, which is a dynamic relationship to space, a continuous problem-solving process: knowing where you are and where you are headed, knowing and following the best route to get from here to there, and knowing when you have arrived at your destination. Large hospitals are a modern urban common space like no other. The closest are probably busy airport terminals. But in hospitals, the business is not simply travel; the business of hospitals is life, illness, and death. Susan Sontag points out that we all hold dual citizenship, “in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” (p. 3).  In hospitals, she states, patients are “emigrating to the kingdom of the ill.” (p. 3).

The first time I entered the UW medical complex was in February 1994. I was visiting Seattle from Baltimore, where I was finishing my doctorate in global health. As a single mother of a seven-year-old son, I needed a stable, well paying job—something global health did not offer. On a whim, I contacted the UW School of Nursing about a tenure-track academic position they had advertised. Teaching nursing was far down my list of desirable careers. I have long viewed nursing as old, stale, and a hindrance to my ambitions—yet when I am feeling more humble, I can’t imagine a higher calling than being a nurse. I was, and still am, a nurse. Despite what I term my nursing ambivalence, I was curious about this job possibility. It helped that Seattle was as exotic as a foreign country to me.

“There’s a courtyard on your right. You’ll see a sculpture of people hanging on the outside wall of a brick building—go past that and enter the doors to your right.”

These were the directions given to me by the professor with whom I’d set up an informational interview. I found her office, had a series of interviews, was offered and accepted the job. So in December of that same year, after moving across the country to start my new job and new life in a new city, I went to my first official day of work. I parked in the cavernous underground S1 parking lot behind the medical complex. I followed the cute little tooth signs out of the parking lot, through a tunnel, and into the Dental School entrance. Knowing the general direction I needed to go in order to get to my new office, I took the stairs up one floor, and then decided to take a shortcut through a small internal courtyard. I suddenly found myself locked inside a 10’x10’ barren cement courtyard that was surrounded on all sides by six stories of brick walls. I stood there for several minutes, gazing up at the walls, contemplating possible escape scenarios, contemplating the possible deeper meaning of this space, awed by its quiet peacefulness, before a woman passed by and opened the door. I have never been able to find that courtyard again—it doesn’t exist on any map.

Today, I am a tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Psychosocial and Community Health in the UW School of Nursing. No one knows what ‘psychosocial’ really means, including me, so I tell people I work in the Department of Community Health. As of December 2014, I have officially worked here for twenty years. My office is in the ugliest wing of the medical complex. The wing’s hallways are painted the same sick yellow as the bathrooms. There is a 6-inch wide grey rubber seam that bisects my office. It runs up one wall, across the ceiling, down the other wall, and across the floor. This rubber seam is the building’s earthquake shock absorber. I often wonder what it would be like to stand on the rubber fault line during an earthquake. Would I be safer there rather than under my fake-wood desk or trying to find my way out of the building?

The particular part of the Health Sciences building I work in, the T-wing, was built in the late 1960s and is a prime example of Brutalism. It is also a prime example of why Brutalism is not an architectural style suited either for Seattle weather or for being attached to a hospital. Brutalism was an architectural movement that espoused the use of exposed concrete and other functional elements. It focused on the ideals of a better future through the use of technology.

Outside and inside the T-Wing, the building appears to be made of crumbling, damp and moldy concrete. In one staircase I use frequently, there are arm-sized stalactites on the ceiling, with liquid perpetually oozing from their pointed ends down into a black and green puddle on a stair landing. It has a bizarre beauty. Every few years, someone from the maintenance crew removes the stalactites and paints the ceiling. I watch as the stalactites slowly return.

The land that the UW medical complex is built on had been salmon fishing ground for the Lakes Duwamish people before white settlers claimed it as pastureland for cows. As the town of Seattle grew, and the UW moved from its original downtown location, north to its current location, the 40-acre parcel of land became a nine-hole golf course, then the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition’s Pay Streak section with carnival rides, then briefly the site of a WWI Navy training camp, and finally it became the site of the expanding Health Sciences and University Hospital. On October 9, 1949, Governor Arthur B. Langley laid a ceremonial cornerstone for the official opening of the Health Sciences Building. Inside the cornerstone was a lead box containing a stethoscope, a set of false teeth, a nurse’s cap, and a mortar and pestle: artifacts representing the Schools of Medicine, Dentistry, Nursing, and Pharmacy, which were housed in the new building. The box with the artifacts is still there, buried in the side of the building.

Cornerstone, foundation stone, quoin-stone: the first stone set for a new building. The stone that all others are placed in reference to. The stone that determines the strength and future stability of the building. The stone that holds the genius loci, the guardian spirit, of the place.

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The Role of Trauma-informed Care

IMG_1055Time to revisit and review trauma. Trauma-informed care is health care provided within the framework of an understanding of the various neurocognitive, psychological, physiological, and social effects of trauma on individuals. People who are homeless have particularly high rates of trauma—both before and during their experience of homelessness. And, of course, homelessness itself is a type of trauma, a type of deep illness, as sociologist Arthur Frank refers to an illness that casts a shadow over your life.

Trauma is an event that is life threatening or “self” threatening. Serious accidents and medical mishaps. Drug and alcohol addictions. Natural and manmade disasters. Wars. Rape. Intimate partner violence. Childhood neglect, physical, and sexual abuse. Complex trauma is trauma that occurs within key caretaker relationships and that is pervasive and enduring. Complex trauma is, well, more complex to live with and to treat.

We use the phrase scared speechless to describe fear that overwhelms and suppresses the speech and language area of our brain while we’re in the midst of a traumatic event. As Bessel Van Der Kolk, a physician and expert on trauma puts it, “All trauma is preverbal.” (p 43) Trauma bypasses these higher order areas of the brain and goes straight to the more primitive fight and flight fear area—the amygdala, two almond-shaped areas deep inside our brains in the primitive limbic system. Trauma is not stored as a storied memory with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end, but rather as fragments of experience, images, smells, sounds, and other bodily sensations. That is why people who have survived a significant traumatic event—even years and decades after the trauma is over—struggle to tell the story of what happened. Yet their bodies bear witness to the event through terrors, flashbacks, numbing, and stress-mediated physical problems like migraines and auto-immune diseases—diseases in which the body turns on itself, as if in slow suicide. If the trauma happened to the person as a child before the firm development of a sense of self, that person’s memories of the event can remain visceral and largely inaccessible to verbal processing.

Van der Kolk states, “Almost every brain-imaging study of trauma patients finds abnormal activation of the insula. This part of the brain integrates and interprets the input from the internal organs—including our muscles, joints, and balance (proprioceptive) system—to generate the sense of being embodied.” (p 249) He points out that the flood of activating neurochemicals from the fight or flight response to trauma effectively cuts people off from the real origin of their bodily sensations; the fight or flight flood numbs people, and is the reason for dissociation and out-of-body experiences many trauma patients deal with. Van der Kolk goes on to declare, “In other words trauma makes people feel like some body else, or like no body. In order to overcome trauma, you need help to get back in touch with your body and your Self.” (p 249)

Art, music, and dance are often used as treatments for trauma patients because these expressive modalities do not depend on language. They do not depend on—indeed, they are better off without—the use of our rational minds both to create and to experience. As psychiatrist Laurence J. Kirmayer writes, “And if the text stands for a hard-won rational order, imposed on thought through the careful composition of writing, the body provides a structure to thought that is, in part, extra-rational and disorderly. This extra-rational dimension to thought carries important information about emotional, aesthetic, and moral value.” (pp. 324-325)

In the late 1990s, in a Seattle area community health clinic where I worked as a nurse practitioner, many of my patients were Bosnian and Ukrainian refugees. One of my more heart-wrenching patients was a 4-year old Bosnian girl whose teeth were rotted to the gum line because her mother had given her a sugar-soaked rag to suck to keep her silent as they tried to escape the civil war. The language interpreter told me that the child’s older brother had ben killed, and that her mother had been raped. I referred the child to our children’s hospital where they surgically removed all her baby teeth and then fitted her with child dentures until her adult teeth appeared. I was hoping to refer the mother for talk therapy to deal with her traumas, but soon realized it was best to refer her for massage therapy with a trauma-informed female therapist. I worked with our clinic social worker to petition the patient’s health insurance (which happened to be the state Medicaid office) to pay for this—what we typically consider slightly frivolous and self-indulgent treatment. Medicaid paid for the massage therapy and it seemed to lighten her depression. This wasn’t art, music, or dance therapy, but it was body-based therapy.

The body remembers. Maddy Coy, a UK-based researcher who works with survivors of prostitution, maintains that especially for women who experienced childhood sexual abuse (a startlingly high percentage of prostitutes worldwide), the use of appropriate body work such as yoga and massage is oftentimes crucial for recovery. Body work helps traumatized people reestablish a focus on what the body can do instead of what is done to the body.

Early in my career as a nurse I worked for a year in a safe house emergency shelter for women who were escaping intimate partner violence. Before my work there I did not understand the concept of trauma mastery and how this played out in the lives of women caught up in the cycle of abuse. I sided with the common misperception that the reason so many women return to their abusive partners is because they are psychologically damaged and weak. There is the not insignificant role of addiction to the thrill of trauma and danger—to the effects of the activating yet numbing fight or flight neurochemicals—which can bring at least temporary relief to the bouts of fatiguing depression that often accompany trauma. Then there is the unconscious attempt to return to the site of previous trauma to get it right this time, to do what we wish we could have done the first time, to master our trauma.

As social worker Laura van Dernoot Lipsky points out, these unconscious attempts to master our traumas often backfire and simply reinforce our old traumas. Lipsky goes on to say that many of us in health care and other helping professions often are using our work as a type of trauma mastery, and that by doing so we may set expectations for ourselves and others that are “untenable and destructive.” She advocates ongoing efforts aimed at self-discovery and self-empathy, and points to the many positive examples of “people who have been effective in repairing the world while still in the process of repairing their own hearts.“ (p 159) Eve Ensler and her personal, combined with world repair, work that she describes in her powerful book In the Body of the World, is one of my personal favorite role models for this sort of balanced approach.

University Student Mental Health

Version 2In these uncertain and anxiety-provoking times, our universities have an increased responsibility to support student mental health and wellbeing. This is not about the issues of “spoiled and coddled” Gen Xers, helicopter parents, and the endless debates over the use of trigger warnings in higher education. This is about having a positive impact on not only our future workforce, but also our future leaders and change agents.

William Pang, a second-year student at McGill University in Montreal, wrote a moving NYT op-ed piece “The Season to Be Stressful” (December 19, 2016). He discusses his experience of learning to deal more effectively with overwhelming anxiety exacerbated by the highly competitive atmosphere of his university. He states, “I don’t think we should demonize an entire generation as reliant and narcissistic. We should instead celebrate a generation that is coming to realize the importance of initiating conversations about our mental health.” It is dismaying to read through the NYT comments to Pang’s op-ed piece with so many people basically telling him to buck up and become an adult.

The photo above is of me with the amazing UK nurse and PhD student Josephine NwaAmaka Bardi  with her social media campaign, “Raise Awareness of Mental Health in Higher Education” (#RAMHHE)  I met NwaAmaka Bardi this past September in Seville at the 5th Annual International Health Humanities Conference: Arts and Humanities for Improving Social Inclusion, Education and Health. She also works in the area of mental health cafes as an effective alternative community mental health service. London’s Dragon Cafe is a good example of a creative, welcoming, and supportive community cafe with a focus on mental health and wellbeing. It would be great to have a similar community cafe open to university students.

Universities UK is developing a mental health framework for universities to embed mental health and wellbeing across all university activities with the goals to decrease stigma and increase access to a variety of mental health and wellbeing services. (See: “New Programme to Address Mental Health and Wellbeing in Universities” December 2, 2017.) They point to the need of “getting universities to think about mental health and wellbeing across all their activities, from students and teaching, through to academics and support staff.” It doesn’t end with the provision of mental health and support services for students but needs to permeate the entire campus.

Doris Iarovici, M.D., a psychiatrist at Duke University Counseling and Psychological Services has written a book titled Mental Health Issues and the University Student (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Although geared towards college mental health professionals, it includes useful information on the variety of mental health issues that our students face in universities—from anxiety, drug and alcohol problems, sexual assault, eating disorders, and relationship problems, to depression, suicide, and schizophrenia. She concludes by stating, “If we provide a range of services, including individual, group, and community programs, we will be in step with the goals of health care reform to focus on both prevention and optimizing outcomes.” p. 219

Home Is…

p1020046What is the meaning of home to you? What is the one essential ingredient of home? These are questions I pose to people in my workshops and talks on homelessness. I’ve adapted “The Meaning of Home” values clarification exercise that I learned from the (sadly, now defunct) Bay Area Homelessness Program, which was a dynamic collaborative of Bay Area universities and homeless-serving agencies. As they put it, the goal of this exercise is “to help participants understand the connection between home and humanity. It builds empathy for homeless people, shows the range of reasons why a person can become homeless, and shows the interconnectedness of human needs.” (Source: my copy of the exercise directions, dated September 1998).

Part of my adaptation of “The Meaning of Home” exercise is to give participants strips of colored paper (the size of a large bookmark), crayons, colored markers and pencils, and I ask them to write or draw (or both) their most essential ingredient—or essence—of home. And, if participants agree, I add their responses to a growing public art project I’ve named The Blue Tarp Tapestry. This is part of my ongoing digital humanities transmedia project, Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins, funded, in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities, Jack Straw Productions, and 4Culture. (A special thanks to all of these.)

I highlight some of the participant responses here and today because they are especially pertinent to the season, the climate of our country, and the sort of community that people in Seattle seem to desire: safe, diverse, compassionate. Their responses also highlight the fact that, unfortunately for too many people, home is not a safe and cozy place. The photo above is a weaving I made out of responses to “The Meaning of Home” exercise. The photos in the slideshow below are some of the responses from recent workshops.

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