Review of “God’s Hotel” by Victoria Sweet


by Ellen Hedstrom

In Victoria Sweet’s God’s Hotel: a Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine, Sweet walks the reader through her journey as a doctor in the very unique Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. With its open floor plan, gardens, and farm animals, the hospital is a home for healing and long-term recovery for a range of patients.

While Sweet is dealing with difficult patients–some who sneak out to drink and use drugs, others neglected and suffering from unbearable bedsores–she is inspired to work toward a PhD in history and social medicine. Her work at Laguna Honda and her research into premodern medicine go hand-in-hand in her accurately titled “pilgrimage to the heart of medicine.”

In her text, we see her exploration of history through her dissection of common words used in medicine, such as “hospital” and “cure.” Her research into the origins of these words allowed her to understand – and explain to the reader — the meaning of a place or process, and often how that definition has shifted over time. The evolution of these concepts is seamlessly intertwined with her own journey, both in her studies and as a practicing physician.

Throughout her time at Laguna Honda, Victoria Sweet observes various approaches to patient care and administration, one of which is the practice of slow medicine. Because they are a long-term rehabilitation center, the healthcare professionals are not restricted by time. Because of the open layout, no one is pressed for space. The open-ward layout is in fact one reason the hospital fails inspection, but Sweet sees the benefits of the arrangement in allowing patients to be social, and permitting doctors and nurses to oversee many patients at once.

Dr. Sweet is able to help patients achieve dramatic and long-term improvements, a result of her ability to examine the whole patient without judgment or preconceived notions. Her work, however, is not without opinions, especially regarding the benefits of slow medicine. She describes some of the modern medical changes in the hospital as a loss, such as the isolation of patients within single rooms with beds directed at large, individual television sets.

By focusing on the whole person and long-term solutions, Sweet epitomizes the integration of pre-modern medicine into a modern medical society.  Through her story, it becomes clear that if a hospital equates cost-efficiency and shorter admission times with success, caring for the whole patient often takes a backseat. In describing Laguna Honda, Victoria Sweet presents an honest examination of a changing hospital: the perfect setting to focus on improving the future of medicine by examining the past.

EllenHedstromEllen Hedstrom is a Research Intern at the Arnold P. Gold Foundation Research Institute and an undergraduate at Boston College where she is an EMT, an editor of The Medical Humanities Journal of Boston College, and a philosophy and medical humanities major.