Laguna Honda, God’s Hotel in the U.S.A.

27 Jan

Sweet, Victoria, God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage
to the Heart of Medicine.

Riverhead Books, The Penguin Group, New York, 2912, 416 pp., pbk, $16.00
ISBN 078-1-59448-654-8

Probably unfortunately, I don’t buy many hard cover books. This past year or so I’ve wandered into Browser Books, next to Peet’s at the corner of Sacramento and Fillmore. An independent bookstore , it wraps you in its ambiance for all the hard cover best sellers greeting you on a small stand at hip level as you enter. The website sports a charming watercolor of the Browser store front, informing the reader it has been in business since 1976. The water color, however, places the door in the middle of the footage; perhaps it was changed, because now the entrance is on the extreme right.

I usually head towards the book tables and low shelves, left beyond the recent best-selling paper backs where a title will catch my fancy; a purchase ultimately follows. I particularly want to mention my recent discovery and enthusiasm. It is marvelous and, God Bless It, the story is local, about Laguna Honda. I send it to friends as much as my pocketbook permits.

Laguna Honda is about half way across town from Fillmore and Sacramento, familiar to anyone taking the L, M, or K, Metro Muni street cars or buses, 43, 48 and 39. They all converge at Forest Hill Station; across from the station, Laguna Honda Hospital looms towards the crest of hills separating the bay side of San Francisco from the principally residential part which the tunnel and its street cars largely made possible. Laguna Honda is constructed on one of those hills rising behind the University of California, San Francisco, shrouded by Sutro Forest, cleaved by Clarendon Avenue and flanked to the north by one of the City’s reservoirs.

At various times during my workaday life, Laguna Honda was the butt of comments, whether the comment concerned insolvency, imbecility, or various states in between. I was aware of it soon after going to work for U.C.S.F. or traveling surface past it. Its physical changes also registered tangentially as they were partially recorded in the Chronicle or Examiner; the arguments, the stalemates, the construction. Until I read God’s Hotel, however, what the institution means to San Francisco and what it represents humanly never really penetrated my mental abstractions.

Laguna Honda is the last standing public almshouse in the United States; that it remains a public hospital, like the historic, now vanished Hotel Dieu in Paris, is startling. That Dr. Victoria Sweet chose to remain there, interspersed with her academic and physical adventures, is to credit it with a mysterious alchemy all too neglected in our juvenile 21st century.

Dr. Sweet arranged to work part-time while she studied the life of Hildegard of Bingen, a twelfth century num, a mystic, a composer and a healer who as a member of the Benedictine Order, founded her own convent. Interested in knowing the difference between pre-modern and modern medicine, Hildegard became the subject of both her masters and doctoral theses. With the aid of the remarkable records she left behind, Dr. Sweet was open to learning about medicine with the patients in her charge. Along with wonderful characterizations of staff members, Dr. Sweet walks us through the halls, takes us to the bedside of various patients, explaining what she learned from those under her care.

Dr. Sweet, in three stages, undertook the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela following completion of her dissertation and at a time when Laguna Honda’s future was being debated by those in charge of San Francisco’s Public Health Department, the Board of Supervisors, and some persuasive former staff members of the hospital. Accomplishing it in three annual stages, Dr. Sweet also visited Land’s End in Spain, mindful of its significance for pre-Columbian Europe.

Everywhere, Dr. Sweet is mindful, and absolutely delicious discussing changes by committees, investigative teams, modern-trained nurse administrators, making you chuckle before throwing up your hands at the funds wasted in the name of efficiency and modernity.

For certain souls, God’s Hotel is a page turner. I recommend it highly. Thank you, Dr. Sweet.

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