Gray Sadness

Gray Sadness


Leonard Zwelling

In this piece in The New York Times on October 28, David Brooks notes the results of multiple surveys of the emotional well-being of people all over the world. To sum up a whole lot of studies, people are sadder, that is they are disappointed in their lives. The other critical observation is that the haves are happier than ever, but most everyone else is not. There is great “emotional inequality.”

Cut to my visit to Audiology at MD Anderson, one of the two clinics at the cancer center that I employ to document my physical disintegration in the hopes of flattening the slope of that inevitable decline. I was aghast as I entered the cancer center via the third floor of the LeMaistre Clinic. It was almost empty. In the past I usually had to wait in line to get my mask, clear the Covid screen, and head for the elevators to the Tenth Floor. Not today. It was empty at 11:20 on Friday morning.

I was also taken aback by the gray coloring of my surroundings. The carpets looked worn and darkened. The walls needed fresh paint and the staff was not as friendly as usual despite the fact that the clerks out-numbered me two to one as there was no one else in the waiting room. Fortunately, that meant that I did not even have time to sit down in the waiting area before being taken back for my hearing test and hearing aid adjustment. I was tested by an Audiology fellow and she was great. She exemplified the service I had come to expect at this clinic and she really improved my hearing aids with her careful refurbishing of them and their various parts.

On the whole it was a totally successful visit—five stars, BUT…

The mood in the place was as palpable as the halls were empty both on 3 and 10. I don’t know if the clinics are just not busy on Fridays, or this is a result of some quiet quitting, or the halls were slated for needed renovations, or people were just sad. I simply could not tell. The atmosphere was gray.

Behind the waiting room, things went on as normal and the care I got was exemplary. But the façade of the place seemed—well—sad.

I am willing to wager that the top 20% of the executives at MD Anderson are as happy as clams. They believe that all of these kudos from outside entities being received by the cancer center for its hiring practices and being a great place to work reflect excellence. They do not. The excellence of MD Anderson was never in the eyes of the outside world. It was in the eyes of the faculty and staff who knew excellence when they saw it and needed no outside awards to know they were doing important and meaningful work. And it was certainly in the minds of the patients. I wonder if it still is. This patient was not satisfied.

Working at MD Anderson, even at the toughest of times, always had an element of fun. Fun is pleasure, engagement and meaning. I wonder if it’s still fun for most people who work at MD Anderson. I know it’s got to be fun for the president and his immediate minions, but what about everyone else?

There is always some sadness in the world. There was sadness at MD Anderson because, after all, people who came there were very ill. But there was always hope and that hope was manifested in the best clinical care, the most daring clinical research, and the most cutting-edge basic science. Is that still true? Judging from the carpeting and the walls that greet patients as they enter the third floor from the parking garage, I would guess no.

Rather than worry about professionalism, perhaps Dr. Pisters should get out of his office and tour the facilities. He may not like what he sees. I suggest he start next Friday morning.

2 thoughts on “Gray Sadness”

  1. Had a similar experience at the Cancer Center last Thursday but across the street in the Mays and Duncan buildings. I have always believed that the front line staff at Anderson set the tone and exemplified the caring nature of the institution. There was a feeling that when the curtain was pulled back the physicians and their support staff would work their magic, their excellence would prevail. It’s different and, as someone who has been treated for the past 15 years, it’s very unsettling. Support staff is not focused on the patient experience as it has been in the past but their presence still sets the stage.

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