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The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Location: San Francisco, California, United States

Friday, June 22, 2012


God’s Hotel
By Victoria Sweet
Riverhead Books, New York, 2012
$27.95

This interesting book is a traditional doctor’s view of our hasty current practice of medicine, what she learned from medieval medicine and San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital. She set out a tall task for herself.

Dr. Sweet sees the practice of medicine as hasty and impersonal, driven by tests, machines and money. She contends a well-trained doctor should spend an hour with her patient and will discover very soon what is wrong with the patient. The vast cost of tests, machines, MRIs and evaluations of them could be saved by simply spending time with the patient. She calls it slow medicine

She works at Laguna Honda Hospital for indigent and long-term care patients. She gives great credit to the church, monasteries and nunneries who were first to take into their institutions sick people who needed medical care and especially those who were poor and destitute. The church’s care for the sick developed and changed over time. The almshouse is where people went when they had no money and were no longer able to take care of themselves.  In France these palaces were called Hotel-Dieu, God’s Hotel. Laguna Honda had been founded as an almshouse.

Sweet became fascinated with Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval nun who was a healer using medicine, herbs and drugs and had a whole theory of how the body and nature all hung together. Hildegard‘s way of doing medicine held for many generations until the discoveries of science and modern medicine changed healing. Dr. Sweet got a doctorate in the History of Medicine, specializing in Hildegard’s theories and practices.

Her writing on love is fascinating. The medieval sense of charity is “a personal action evoked by dearness and contributes to the well-being of its giver as well as receiver.” Caring for the sick poor was a spiritual good for the giver. That view inspired people to build hospitals for the sick poor.  Many of us feel pain at the undeserved suffering of others. That feeling is why Laguna Honda got built in the first place and why it survives.

This book’s real treasures are the remarkable stories Dr. Sweet tells about her patients at LGH. She found wisdom, splendor, humor and intelligence among the poorest, most deranged, filthy human beings who were her patients. She is generous in her praise of the hard-working underpaid nurses, orderlies and janitors who are all part of what makes healing happen at Laguna Honda Hospital.

She points out that healing happens in community not in isolation. She approves of open wards where patients congregate, chat and relate to each other. She opposes small rooms, pods and “neighborhoods” which now take places in houses of healing.

She spends a large part of the book describing the attempts to close, rebuild and redesign Laguna Honda.

She describes her pilgrimage to St. James of Campostela in Spain as a time of change, discipline and grounding for Sweet. Her time, thinking and desire to change and improve ways of healing are Dr. Sweet’s pilgrimage.

This is a valuable book that opens our minds to looking at healing, medicine and hospitals. We see the stories of amazing human beings made whole by slow medicine and by new ways of looking at our system of medicine.

Robert Warren Cromey



6 Comments:

Anonymous Fred Fenton said...

Thank you for that review, Robert. It sounds like a fascinating book. My wife and I have concluded that whereas we have the finest medical staff and procedures available to us in the Bay Area, we have precious little time with area doctors. They all seem to have too-large practices and to have gotten into bad habits when it comes to time spent with their patients. My parents, both M.D.'s of an earlier generation, got to know their patients well, made house calls, and were more interested in healing than in making a big income. They never used a bill collector and treated many patients for free. Yet they lived well and were dearly loved. They also were people of faith.

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