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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Everyone needs to be needed

Rika Kayama

This year's rainy season has started in most parts of Japan. There are patients coming to my clinic complaining that they usually don't feel well around this time of year. I don't think it's just in their heads; I believe humidity and changes in atmospheric pressure are affecting them both mentally and physically.

    When the rainy season starts it reminds me of a patient I met when I was younger and working at another hospital. The patient had been hospitalized for a long time, and he was in charge of taking care of people's umbrellas when it rained. He would come to the entrance hall and take hospital visitors' umbrellas, hand them number cards and return their umbrellas in exchange for the cards when they left. The first time I went to the hospital after I was dispatched there by a university hospital, the patient came to me out of nowhere and said, "Where's your umbrella?" A bit dumbstruck, I handed him my umbrella.

    After working at the hospital for a little while, I came to learn that there were a number of patients doing various jobs at the hospital, just like the umbrella man. It would make sense as part of a rehabilitation program if those people were scheduled to be released from the hospital, but there were no prospects of them leaving the hospital anytime soon. Then, I thought, the hospital was using them as free labor. The young hospital staff, myself included, argued that it was wrong that those people were given jobs without pay, and told them that they didn't have to work anymore. For those who kept doing their tasks despite our suggestion, we told them, rather forcibly, "Please stop doing this."

    The umbrella guy was one of those patients. I myself had repeatedly told him not to continue working and thought, "I freed him from unfair labor practices."

    One day, I found him sitting on his bed and chatted with him. "Are you feeling a little better now?" I asked. He then replied, "I don't like rainy days. I have nothing to do now since my job was taken away."

    I was taken aback by his response. I realized that even if it looked like an unfair labor practice from my perspective, he took pride in it and it had motivated him to live. If we were going to ask him to stop working, we should have given him another role to fulfill.

    Being "right" doesn't necessarily mean we get to know how patients feel. That was what I learned from him.

    Everyone, from kids to the elderly alike, wants to have something only they can do, and to feel that people need them, even if they are hospitalized. Every time it rains, I remind myself of that. (By Rika Kayama, Psychiatrist)

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