Where Am I?

Chapel Hill News logoSeptember 21, 2008

When I saw a man come walking out of UNC Hospitals with a large watermelon on his shoulder, I thought I had to be dreaming. Then came another man, lugging his own watermelon, and a woman brandishing a big bunch of swiss chard.

Wait, I thought. Is this a hospital or the Farmer’s Market?

Both, I discovered.

As I entered the hospital’s spanking main lobby, my eyes first wandered up to the calming soft pink and purple hues cast by spotlights onto the high white ceiling.

Then, off to my right I saw what looked exactly like an outdoor market. And it was, only indoors, in the lobby of the N.C. Children’s Hospital. A farmer’s market … in the hospital.

“We’re here every Wednesday morning,” said a farmer while selling me fresh eggplant and tomatoes. But there was more.

Nearby, folks were selling Dansko shoes, “the number one choice for nurses,” a smiley woman told me. Racks of colorful nurse outfits were also on sale.

I walked through the “shopping” area, past the dozens of potted trees and comfy clusters of chairs, to the coffee shop and bought a latte. I had come to visit a friend, and wanted to get upstairs, but I couldn’t resist spending a few minutes in the hospital’s verdant interior courtyard, sitting on a bench while listening to birdcalls and watching butterflies.

What a great idea, I thought. Humanize the hospital. Make it … well, hospitable.

My mind wandered back to other hospital experiences — other times, other cities. The only place to unwind was often a dismal cafeteria, featuring lumpy casseroles and anemic coffee. If I wanted fresh air, the only option was to leave the building, stand out near a parking lot, and watch the traffic.

Here I could relax with my sushi and fresh salad in either of two comfortable gardens, while sipping a tasty strong latte. What a difference.

As I walked to the elevators, past the butterfly garden and circular children’s chapel, I began to hear live music coming from a grand piano somewhere near the information desk. I looked over and saw a young man fluttering out jazz variations sprinkled with classical music. Several people lingered around him, listening. Enjoying.

Something’s definitely happening here at UNC Hospitals, a place where I’m no newcomer. I’ve served hard time here over the past 15 years — three major abdominal surgeries and two stints of pneumonia — and I’ve visited countless friends. This lobby used to be an instant bring-down. It reminded me of a dreary inner city bus terminal. Not anymore.

“All I have to do is think of a hospital and my blood pressure goes up,” my friend Donnie Mae says. I used to agree. But now? I actually like coming here — well, to visit, that is.

I remember a dream I had some years back in which I look out my bedroom window and see earth movers and cement trucks tearing up my yard. “It’s a hospital addition,” a hard-hatted construction worker says. “But that’s my back yard,” I shout, and then, fortunately, I wake up.

Well, though I do live near the hospital, it isn’t in my back yard yet. But over the years, the constant construction has been a nightmare; inside and out, UNC Hospitals too often has looked like a war zone. But. things are never as simple as they seem.

The hospitals are also part of Planetree, a select group of hospitals dedicated not only to making environments more friendly, but also to expanding health care options to include alternative medical approaches and creative expression. That’s amazing.

I watched people walking in and out — so many different types, shapes, nationalities; so many hard, sad stories. So many folks whose health coverage is either inadequate or non-existent.

I stuck my nose in the bag of veggies I had bought, inhaled the sharp scent of tomato, and tried not to focus on the coded PA announcements, calling physicians to a floor and a room where somebody might just be dying. Now, in the midst of all this, I had options, a piano to listen to, places to relax and be comfortable, and colorful life going on all around me