A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine
San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital is the last almshouse in the country, a descendant of the Hôtel-Dieu (God's hotel) that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages. Ballet dancers and rock musicians, professors and thieves-"anyone who had fallen, or, often, leapt, onto hard times" and needed extended medical care-ended up here. So did Victoria Sweet, who came for two months and stayed for twenty years.
Laguna Honda, lower tech but human paced, gave Sweet the opportunity to practice a kind of attentive medicine that has almost vanished. Gradually, the place transformed the way she understood her work. Alongside the modern view of the body as a machine to be fixed, her extraordinary patients evoked an older idea, of the body as a garden to be tended. God's Hotel tells their story and the story of the hospital itself, which, as efficiency experts, politicians, and architects descended, determined to turn it into a modern "health care facility," revealed its own surprising truths about the essence, cost, and value of caring for body and soul.
-Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and The Mind's Eye
"This is a unique book about a healer and those in need of her healing. Charting her journey in God's Hotel, Victoria Sweet shows us that medicine is still fundamentally a sacred calling. By illuminating this truth, Sweet provides comfort and inspiration."
-Jerome Groopman, M.D., Recanati Professor, Harvard Medical School, co- author of How Doctors Think and Your Medical Mind
"Victoria Sweet is a master storyteller and a consummate physician. Her beautifully written stories from the frontline of health care document the struggle of all modern-day healers, to hold fast to the immortal soul of Medicine despite the pressures of economics, the self-interest of politics, and the reductionism of science. God's Hotel reminds us of the fundamental truth that medicine is and has always been an act of love and brotherhood ... and of the vulnerabilities we share and the compassion we aspire to."
-Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather's Blessings
"A profoundly moving account of a remarkable hospital and the people who inhabit it, God's Hotel reveals intimate knowledge of the shift in modern medicine, from personal tending to industrialized 'health care.' Author and physician Victoria Sweet embodies the traits of a persevering and compassionate doctor, while conveying the wisdom of a philosopher, and the instincts of a born storyteller."
-Julie Salamon, author of Hospital and Wendy and the Lost Boys
The Patients at God's Hotel
An essay by Victoria Sweet
I came to God's Hotel to escape.
It was twenty years ago, and the hurried, efficiency-obsessed model of medicine we now take for granted was just beginning to take hold. I didn't like it much, and God's Hotel—Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco—seemed just the place to escape it. Although it was on sixty two acres in the middle of the city, it was literally over the hill to the poorhouse, and no one—regulators, economists, or budgeters—paid it much attention.
But that wasn't why I stayed. I stayed for the place and the patients.
The place was old and ramshackle, spread out high on a hill overlooking the ocean. Outside it looked like a medieval monastery, with bell tower, turrets, and a red-tiled roof. Inside it was the 1930s, though the long, open wards went all the way back to when a hospital was still a hospice, where monks took care of the pilgrim, the traveler, and the poor for free.
It was also fascinating. Originally it had been the city's almshouse, what the French call a Hôtel Dieu (God's Hotel), and it still was the city's almshouse, despite its name. That meant it took in anyone and everyone who fell through the cracks in the medical system. It had murderers from San Quentin and dancers from The Royal London Ballet; failed stock brokers and the West Coast fat model for artists; merchant marines and rock musicians; telegraph operators, professors, poets, and thieves. They had one of just about every kind of disease, too, so I saw almost everything in the 2260 pages of my Harrison's Textbook of Internal Medicine.
The patients taught me a lot. They were always themselves, for better and for worse. Which is not to say they were all good. Mr. Dennis, for instance, was a convicted rapist who hid out at the hospital with a fake paraplegia. But he was the purest, the most evil Mr. Dennis there could be.
They were utterly attuned to cant, hypocrisy and falsehood and if they sensed it, they would turn their backs and walk or wheel away; shout or even throw things; close their eyes and refuse to answer. They responded to the truth and withdrew at the false, and the only way I could take care of them was to meet their true selves with mine.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: