There is no once-through user manual for what to do while your parent, or anyone you deeply love, is seriously ill in the hospital. Really, there isn't. But THE THINGS THAT NEED DOING comes pretty close.
As Sean Manning quickly discovered when complications from a heart attack landed his mother (herself a former nurse) in intensive care, life in the other-world of a large and internationally acclaimed hospital rarely follows predictable patterns. Susie Manning's cardiac recovery was soon overlaid by gastric trauma, cancer, respiratory complications, more cancer, hospital-borne super bugs, and a host of collateral issues --- literally, one-damned-thing-after-another. Her numerous setbacks and rallies over a period many times longer than the average hospital stay surprised even seasoned specialists and kept her devoted family hopeful for an eventual recovery.
That recovery was not to be; after more than a year of dealing with too many infections, complications and necessary but invasive procedures for one human body to handle, Manning's mother quietly slipped away. Her release from emotional and physical torment was perhaps overdue, but this is not just one more medical care "nightmare" story designed to feed the talk show circuit and popular magazine exposés. Far from it.
Manning acknowledges often throughout THE THINGS THAT NEED DOING that his mother continually received the best medical and support care available anywhere, despite the unusual complexity of her case and constant revisions in her treatment plan. In fact, the collaborative skill and empathy of the many professional caregivers that moved through his mother's life becomes a meaningful theme throughout this honest and frank memoir. Of course there are moments of criticism, but they take a very low rank on the scale of things that became important to do and remember during this year of life-in-suspension.
Having been a hospital chaplaincy intern for a year, I came away from the experience with as much admiration for many of the regular family visitors as I had for the patients themselves. Among them, a very few were dedicated and helpful to the remarkable yet modest degree of Manning; like him, some made the difficult choice to put their own lives and careers on hold indefinitely so as to be there for their loved ones in ways that no medical or chaplaincy personnel could ever do. I rarely found myself dealing directly with patients who had such devoted kin because they did the job better than I could.
When I had the opportunity to talk to these "well" people who came in nearly every day without fail, I couldn't help asking how they coped, what they thought about while passing long hours with loved ones who were asleep, comatose or unable to respond. Some were better able than others to express their inner journeys and the vast disruption of reorganizing their personal lives around the schedules and priorities of hospital care. But in THE THINGS THAT NEED DOING, Manning nails it, capturing the experience so vividly and intuitively that I deeply wish he had written this book five or six years ago.
I learned from one chapter to the next that a memoir such as Manning's could not be all about an unremitting succession of medical descriptions, patient status reports, or emotional turbulence. In between documenting the insulated world of the hospital, he recounts several decades of American social history as seen through memories of his childhood and family experiences, in which his mother's role took on new clarity and impact.
With two-way verbal conversation usually impossible due to his mother's frequent need for a breathing tube, he shared much with her through the ubiquitous hospital room TV set, connecting with vintage shows that evoked happier times, watching present-day sports, and agonizing over victories and defeats like fans everywhere. I have new respect now for those cantilevered noise boxes; Manning reminds us that they can be a lifeline to a person who hasn't even experienced outdoor sunlight on their skin in months.
I could wish that everyone who does hospital work in any capacity would encounter a Sean Manning on their floor. But he's one in 10,000. Instead, I would urge them to read his book. It's real, and it helps.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on March 28, 2011
The Things That Need Doing: A Memoir