Umeå 1: Hospitals and Hospitality

By: Catherine Kudlick


On my final day of a month-long visiting professorship at Umeå University, I returned to the hospital for the fourth time.

If you’re like me, reading a sentence like this makes your body clinch up with dread and worry. Oh no! Did she get sick or have a condition she’s been hiding? Or did she slip on the ice? Should I keep reading - I want to know but I don’t want to know….

Here’s the thing: I found myself in northern Sweden’s largest and best hospital because it occupies this unusual central place in the life of the university and the world around it. The first time, it was to buy ground coffee and a small press-pot in a popular place that everyone told me sells some of the best coffee in town.

The second time it was because a colleague had invited me and some others to dinner, and we took a shortcut through the warm maze of buildings as a brief respite from the wind and ice that swirled outside; we weren’t alone as we wound through modern corridors surrounded by people, some in groups, others walking bicycles (a couple riding), a wheelchair or two, chatting with friends, just a typical Saturday night in the hospital. 

The third time it was to buy a bus pass, followed by a delicious lunch buffet at the hospital hotel (one of the nicest in town I was told). I waited in real lines with real people doing real things, not stuck in that sterile hospital weirdness.

But it was the fourth time on my final day that totally blew my mind. I’d offered to accompany one of the post-docs who was anxious about a routine medical procedure that I’m familiar with. After she finished (greatly relieved to have it over with), on the way out we discovered a wonderful library with wood and plants and books and comfy chairs to read in. Since it was holiday season (and daylight lasted less than five hours), there was a class for candle-making. There were at least two actual librarians, and on their desk was a basket full of free small pins; on a rainbow background and in a dozen languages to choose from, each one said “It’s your right to be you.” If you were associated with someone who was staying in the hospital, you could check out one of the many novels or children’s books, and there was a room for watching DVDs. If art was your thing, there was a gallery attached to the library where local artists displayed work and sometimes give gallery talks. Just down the hall several people were lingering in a fascinating medical history museum.

A warmly lit library, with several patrons sitting around reading.Three rainbow buttons in Swedish, English, and Spanish say "It's Your Right to be You"

And if you pushed through the mixed crowd of people in winter coats and hats interspersed with health professionals in scrubs and janitors tidying up, you came to store that sold mobility equipment like walkers and grabbers and specialized eating utensils alongside wheelie carts to haul groceries, yoga mats, and other everyday stuff to remind you that — like a hospital itself —  healthy living isn’t just about what’s perfect and pure.

Sweden isn’t paradise. Indeed one of my take-aways during my month-long visit was the heartbreak of watching the disabled people I met discover that their country is afflicted with the disease of austerity which, while still less acute that what we have in the US and other western European countries, poses a growing danger to Sweden’s long-celebrated safety net. 

Still, Umeå University Hospital set me dreaming: if hospitals and more copious definitions of health were more integrated into the large and small of everyday life, maybe the people needing care — and ideas of care itself — would make it harder to turn away from people we falsely believe have nothing to do with us.