William F. Buckley

I note a stray statistic: that hospitalizations increase during holiday seasons. One lightly assumes that this is caused by incontinent celebrations -- but apparently not. In fact, many people check in for hospital treatment before the holidays themselves, and lo! exactly this happened here, giving rise to speculation about what to do when, suddenly, you are a "patient." Much depends on whether you are a willing patient or a conscript. But the following applies in either case.

(1) Food. Hospitals, like prisons, have the reputation of being providers of sustenance guaranteed only to keep you alive. But things are truly different in many modern hospitals, as with the Stamford (Conn.) hospital where they are dithering with my pneumonia.

What you do have to watch for is substance. People who are not feeling well often compensate by eating, if not wantonly, at least zestfully. And what you can run into, after the dinner is consumed and the tray removed, is sheer hunger .

Happily, there is one solution entirely adequate and, mercifully, easily effected. The answer is a jar of peanut butter and a box of crackers. These slide easily into the cabinet alongside your bed, and nobody's feelings are hurt when you ingest two or three crackers heavily coated with peanut butter (the world's primary contribution to health and pleasure) to chase away any lingering sense of deprivation.

(2) Drink. Now here is a problem. If you are in the hospital for treatment of alcoholism, the question is closed, and total abstinence is obviously in order.

But most people who are in the hospital for a few days are not looking to magnify discomforts, but to assuage them. The majority of adults consume a ration of alcohol on a typical day. The glass of wine with dinner is a matter of both sensuous pleasure and psychological buoyancy.

Now hospitals do not serve wine, so the consumer needs to infiltrate it in alongside the peanut butter. There are certain practical considerations. Since the wine will need to be served inconspicuously, you don't want a bottle that requires a huge wine-opener, let alone one that requires the cooperation of an orderly or nurse to operate it.

Well, your wife can send up the bottle uncorked and swathed in gold paper with jingle bells.

But there are those of us who live dangerously, and there you are, at about 6 p.m., your dinner on the tray before you, and your favorite doctor is suddenly there to chat for a bit about your health. In your hand is the bottle, from which you have poured a little libation. You look him in the eye: "Doc, could I give you a bit of this? It's a little Medoc sent over by my wife."

The doctor is in visible pain. He can be the Awful Avenger ("Mr. Buckley, we do not permit alcohol here") or, at the other end, the Great Mediator ("It's not on the hospital menu, of course, but" -- maybe a little wink here -- "we can't control everything a patient does").

But you worry that you are embarrassing an official representative of the hospital by requiring him to seek a balance between his roles as institutional enforcer and as genial caretaker of the health and comfort of his patient. The middle road is to decline the proffered glass with a look on his face that is neither reproachful nor indulgent. It is a look that says to you: "Please do not continue on this subject. Let's get back to your pneumonia."

(3) Scheduling. Even hospitals that manifestly care to be reasonable manage to be unreasonable four or five times a day. The principal offense, of course, has to do with scheduling. If you are bent on discovering why it is necessary to be awakened at 6 a.m. when breakfast is not served until 8, the wisest thing to do is: abandon intellectual curiosity. Say nothing. Submit. And, at dinner time, toast silently all those nice people who care about your health, with a glass of your Medoc.


William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

Be the first to read William Buckley's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.