Soundings: The view from Room 214

War, said the wag, is how Americans learn geography. Qandahar and Jahalabad, Al Basra and Kirkuk — these are now part of our national vocabulary, thanks to our military’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On the first of July, I had a vocabulary enhancing experience, 30 yards from home on a 20-mile rollerblade outing across the Island. Braking for the turn into our driveway, I caught a twig in a skate, fell badly and fractured my right fibula, a bone whose name I hadn’t known until we were introduced by Keith, the ER physician who explained my X-rays that afternoon at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

Helping, as I do, to write the hospital’s newsletter, I’ve followed the construction of the new facility that opened for patients on June 22. But no amount of reporting and interviewing work could compare for detail and vividness to the experiences I’ve had, this past month, as a hospital patient.

My visit on July 1 — day 10 in the new facility — was filled with novelties. The first was the five minutes of fuss it took to get an outside line on the newfangled phone in the lobby, to tell my wife that I was at the ER. Then there was the wheelchair ride with the orderly, who seemed relieved when he found the X-ray room on just the second try. Then came the parade of doctors and nurses into the treatment room, with half a dozen polite variants on the theme of, “Oops. Wrong room, sorry!”

Clearly this staff was still in transition. But just as obviously, they were delighted with this new space. And the care I received was excellent. On that first day as a patient, and on my visits since, I’ve been reminded repeatedly that a hospital facility, no matter how bright and shiny, is essentially the vessel inside which the fundamental transaction — the delivery of care — takes place.

I had interviewed Dr. Willie Cater, the hospital’s new orthopedic surgeon, for the hospital newsletter back in April of 2009, and was struck then by his gentle intelligence. Riding to my first appointment as a patient with Dr. Cater, I remembered his observation that the cutting — actual surgery — is a tiny part of what he does. “We may see a hundred patients,” he told me, “and see two who come to surgery.”

An MRI later, Dr. Cater announced that I was one of those two. I’d sustained a high ankle sprain with syndesmosis (more vocabulary words!), which required surgery to install two screws securing the fibula to the tibia while new ligaments could grow between them.

This meant an immediate half-mile wheelchair circuit around the hospital for preoperative tests, including an EKG in the old building’s cardio rehab center with nurse M.J. Rogers, who chatted about the triathlon she planned to compete in that weekend. The contrast between our new, state-of-the-art hospital building and the shabby 1972 facility was stark, but the care dispensed in each was consistently the same.

I don’t remember my surgery — they put you asleep for that. I do remember Betsy, the nurse who prepped me, and her patience, plumping a shy vein in my forearm until she could catheterize it rather than use the more prominent veins in the back of the hand because, she said, I’d be inconvenienced by a catheter there. I do remember Laurie, the nurse on the acute wing, and how apologetic she was when it took even 30 seconds to respond to my call for meds because the ward was full and the nurses busy. And I remember the dietician who kindly gave my wife a meal ticket for the cafeteria, so she could stay closer the next morning.

We live in a world of medical marvels — just to read about the technology involved in magnetic resonance imaging and to think that we have such advanced equipment right here and not a day’s travel away, is to be amazed. And I must say that if you have to convalesce, the place to do it is Room 214 of the new hospital, with its views of the passing ferries and the schooner Alabama.

But I most appreciate the myriad small transactions that have brightened my visits to our community hospital. And I recall what Dr. Cater told me, a year and a half ago, about how patients decide whether to have their surgeries here or on the mainland.

“I think the expectation patients have,” he said, “is that surgeons are going to do surgery — they’re board certified, they’ve gone through the training, and the surgery is going to be okay. It’s the compassion part of it — they want their surgeries done here on the Island because of that.”

My sentiments exactly.