When Sweet went to practise medicine at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, the last almshouse in America, she signed on for a two-month contract. She fell under its spell, however, and stayed for 20 years, through administrative coups, city politics, lawsuits and budget crises. God’s Hotel is the bittersweet story of Laguna Honda’s transformation from an almshouse into a modern health care facility, for better or worse, and how the decrepit Hôtel-Dieu (God’s hotel) forever changed Sweet’s approach to patient care.
While her style isn’t overly literary, there is magic in Sweet’s description of Laguna Honda. She’s smitten by the Romanesque building, with its on-site lab, barnyard, aviary, beauty salon and greenhouse sitting on 62 unkempt acres. There are a thousand patients sleeping in open wards for the chronically disabled and destitute. Doctors keep cue cards on each patient and medical charts are written by hand. While working at Laguna Honda part time, Sweet also pursed her Ph.D. in the history of medieval medicine—specifically studying a Benedictine nun and healer, Hildegard of Bingen, who approached medicine like a gardener, not a mechanic. The combination of these influences lead Sweet to believe in the power of “slow medicine,” with an emphasis on “Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet and Dr. Merryman.” She even builds a convincing argument for its cost efficiency, noting how slow medicine pre-empts incorrect diagnoses, unnecessary medication and repeat trips to Emergency. Yet Laguna Honda was doomed. City consultants were appalled by the hospital’s inefficiencies and the Department of Justice launched a 10-year investigation. Read the footnotes for the mudslinging. Laguna was partially demolished and merged with the county hospital.
Sweet has an ear for dialogue (mostly spoken by destitute patients) and she does a wonderful job tracking the machinations of the public health officials. This is a true story with villains and angels, charming patients, miraculous recoveries, a wedding, a funeral, and a plucky female doctor. In a theatre near you soon?