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The travel guides hype Washington Square or Bryant Park as the best places to people-watch in New York City, but I’m going to give you a big tip: For my money, the best people-watching happens in the 10-block radius New Yorkers call “bedpan alley.” There Memorial Sloan Kettering’s renowned cancer center abuts four other big-name medical facilities along leafy avenues near the East River.
Rain threatened as I waited at the entrance to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, but the weather had no hold on the people coming and going. A daughter (I imagined) crossed the sidewalk with a frail mother leaning onto her arm. A Yellow Cab pulled up and the driver came quickly around, unloading a wheelchair from the trunk, then gently easing his passenger from the taxi into it. A dark-haired woman stood unmoving, leaning on a walker, eyes covered in black patches. As rabbis in their hats and priests in their collars hurried past, a young pregnant woman crossed back and forth in front of me, pacing through labor contractions, tears streaming down her face. She wore a navy dress, pearl earrings, and a necklace—having clearly not planned to have a baby that day.
Into so vivid a scene came children in wheelchairs, balloons floating above them, awaiting discharge and a ride home. Taxis and limos circled and waited, unloading patients-to-be hunched over and limping, or taking on patients-that-were, some bandaged and one with an oxygen tank.
The kingdom is a hospital ward, not a resort. We forget the pageant of need is the business of God.
A man wheeled out of the wide rotating entry door with a young woman, bandages around her head, an IV bag still connected to one hand while the other held a scarf over her face. The man pushed her wheelchair down to a stoplight and across the street, apparently wheeling her home.
The horseshoe entrance to the hospital was a pageant of the world’s needs—the blind, the lame, the pregnant, the aged, and the lost. New York-Presbyterian sees nearly 2 million patient visits per year, and almost 15,000 babies are delivered there annually.
For sheer volume, there’s nothing like it for a place where the world’s needs meet a place of rescue, where people show up in body, mind, and spirit to be healed. We may be impressed by the stats, but we will only pay close attention when one of the numbers is our own. As I people-watched, the techs were wheeling my daughter Emily into an operating room. I saw the need in front of me knowing that up on the 12th floor behind me my eldest was surrounded by one surgeon, two robots, and a dozen attendants, a breathing tube down her throat.
Text messages beeped on my phone: “Your family member is now in the operating room,” “The procedure has now started.” All is the kind of high-level care we’ve come to expect, yet in many ways help only has to be small to be big: the kindness of the cab drivers or the care of a surgeon, who after 4½ hours of surgery took time to sketch it all out for me on the back of a file folder. When the glamour of a place like New York comes off, all that matters are kindness and skill, willing hands and willing hearts that heal.
Emily’s pastor, John Starke, had said the day before, “If you experience the gospel, you never get over the sense of relief, of being rescued.” But we do. We forget the kingdom is a hospital ward, not a resort. We forget the pageant of need is the business of God. Until it’s one of our own needing rescue. And for God the heavenly Father, that’s how it always is, one of His own laid out on a table, stumbling from a cab, or confined to a wheelchair.
Emily, you’ll be glad to know, is making a good recovery. And we are left to remember undeserved, unexpected kindness. In the cab going through dark, rainy streets on the evening of her discharge, the driver looked back at her through the rearview mirror and said, “I’ll be careful over the bumps.”