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John Florez: Hospital stay brings reminders of how people care

Alone in my room at the hospital, facing a serious illness, I had flashes about life, how people treat each other and a deeper appreciation of what was important. It's not about things, but about relationships, about caring for one another and knowing that someone cares. It's what my parents taught me, and it's the greatest gift.

A week before Father's Day I traditionally send out reminder letters to my kids about the upcoming date and at which local hardware store I am registered for gift-giving. It's really just to let them know how much I love being their dad. This year, however, I wrote a serious letter. The gift I asked for was that they love and look after each other, just as my parents taught us. And this year, just before Father's Day, I was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital where I remained for the next 14 days, and I now continue my recovery at home. Why I wrote a serious letter this year, before I took ill, I'm not sure, but it was an opportunity for me to see that my kids understood the message; one of them wrote, "In unexpected ways Dad becoming ill is giving us an opportunity to be better human beings … among the most important things in his life is that we love and look after each other — forever more. Quite simply this is all he is asking for."

And during the lonely hospital nights, my mind would wander, thinking about life, society and about what keeps people from reaching out to each other; the sense of obligation to strengthen our society; why we get caught up in labels and are quick to judge rather than accepting each other as we are; and the dignity of every individual. It made me wonder why people are so judgmental about other people's life situations, why some harshly judge people who are struggling to survive, and why we spend time arguing over differences rather than relishing in the things we have in common. That particular thought came to mind as I saw the faces of the team of doctors at University Hospital as they did their morning rounds. It appeared to be a gathering of members of the United Nations. And yet we argue about limiting immigration.

It was the hospital staff who treated me as a human being, not as a "lung" or a "kidney," who made the difference. It was the surgeon who smiled — yes, smiled — and explained what had happened and what was going to happen. It was nurses and aides who anticipated my needs, and housekeepers who cheered me up.

The best medicine was to see my loved ones by my side laughing, joking, talking with each other, coming together and cheering me on. They brought arts and crafts and made woven bracelets for all of us to wear as a show of unity. "You can't measure it on an oxygen monitor or chest X-ray," one of my kids wrote, but they could see my healing was greatly accelerated by their showing love for each other.

It was the kindness of neighbors and friends in the Utah tradition, showing up with meals, offering to help, running errands and providing rides. And it was seeing my brother- and sister-in-law from Wisconsin — my own personal in-home health team — waiting to greet me on the front porch when I arrived home from the hospital. It is then one realizes the greatest gift is the joy of giving, to look after one another, and the obligation to try and make the world better.

It's the gift I wish for everyone.

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net.