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Healthcare in the hospital in 1639

Healthcare in the Hospital of Geel, 1639
A painting that dates from 1639, in which an unknown painter pictures the everyday life in the hospital, belongs to the patrimony of the Augustinian Hospital nuns of Geel. The painting shows the sick ward that was situated in the back of the chapel. Disease was seen as a consequence of man’s sin. Therefore, patients were always lodged in a sacred room: a place of worship. This remained a habit in Geel until 1905.

The sick ward at the back of the chapel was separated from the place of worship by a wall of oak with doors and shuttered windows. These were opened during mass so that patients could follow mass from the back of the chapel.

In the left upper corner of the painting we see can see, through the open doors, the altar with a triptych on top. The patients lie in six alcoves and at the right there is a box bed. The capacity of seven beds did not change until 1840. Notable is the absence of a doctor or a chirurgeon. Their visits to the hospital were rather exceptional. The care of the sick was in the hands of the Augustinian Hospital sisters. Not until the end of the 18th century, doctors and chirurgeons were increasingly called upon.

The painting is a beautiful reproduction of the sick care, as defined in the statutes. All poor patients, men and women from Geel, had to be hospitalized. When a sick person came to the hospital, he was encouraged to confess. Then he was washed and put in a bed with clean sheets. During wintertime the bed was warmed with a bed warmer. Twice a day the beds were made and the pillows shaken up. There always needed to be one of the sisters in the sick ward. Before meals, the hands of the patients were washed and they had to say the Lord’s Prayer and a Hail Mary. We can only guess to what they got served for dinner. Probably it will have been simple meals, considering the Hospital sisters were always struggling with a lack of money. After the meal, the sick were urged to pray for the benefactors of the hospital. The poor sick were taken care of for free.
We do not know how many patients there were in the hospital. From the beginning on, also paying patients were hospitalized. Their number too remains unknown. Presumably that number, considering the periods of epidemics of plague, was not very high. The local authorities sometimes admitted patients from other towns and soldiers to the hospital and also paid for them. Sick persons with a chronic illness or a contagious disease were usually denied.

The archives do not tell us the nature of the diseases that needed to be treated. But we can tell thanks to some scarce records that it was often about the caring of arm, legs, head, hands and chest injuries.

Thanks to the list of deceased sisters that is being preserved in the hospital archives, we know the names of the sisters who lived in the hospital in 1639 and who are shown on the painting. The figure in the center of the painting, behind the soup kettle, is mother superior Joanna Donckaerts. She is not shown in work clothes like all the other sisters, but she is wearing a black gown and a white veil. She is distributing the food. That was a very important task to stop any arguments, the mother-superior carried out this task. Joanna Donckaerts was the oldest sister. In 1639 she was about 70 years old and on the painting she is shown somewhat bent forward. Besides Joanna Donckaerts there are seven more sisters.

Postulants and novices did not wear a white veil but a tight headscarf, like the sister holding the bed warmer and the sister washing a patient’s feet. This one is probably Dimpna Everaerts, born around 1620, professed in 1639 and deceased in 1677 at an age around 56. In the year 1639, she was about 19 years old. The sister with the bed warmer, Dimpa Raeymaekers, was probably the youngest of them all. In 1639, she was a postulant or novice and charged with simple tasks like warming the beds. The only thing we know about her is that she was still at the hospital in 1687.

The four other sisters are helping to take care of the sick. Two of them are assisting mother superior Joanna Donckaerts with the food distribution; the two others are nursing a patient’s head. In the sisters list of that time, we further find Maria Vander Veken. Although the maximum number of sisters in a convent was seven, she was admitted by the bishop in 1632. The same thing accounts for Barbara Verlinden, who joined the sisters one year earlier. However, the number of seven sisters defined by the statutes could not be kept because of the rising number of patients. Mayken Bocmans, joined in 1609 and deceased on 20 June 1665; Joanna Dauwen, of who we only know that she was a hospital sister in 1639; Anna Janssens, joined on 10 January 1608 and deceased on 26 May 1653 and Lysken Peskens, born in Geel, professed on 10 February 1609 and deceased on 10 February 1657 complete the convent population at that time.

For ages, the treatment of the sick was aimed in first place on food and shelter. Afterwards, the attention for the spiritual welfare of the patients came. When we talk about sick treatment, we spontaneously think about doctors and chirurgeons. Doctors were academic people whose job was merely theoretical: examining face and tongue, feeling the pulse, examining the belly and studying urine samples.
After the diagnosis, a doctor prescribed a treatment or medicines. When a treatment was needed, the patient was referred to a chirurgeon or a surgeon.A surgeon served his apprenticeship with a qualified local master. As an apprentice, he was trained in pulling out teeth, bandaging and nursing wounds, fixing fractures and bleeding. In practice, the surgeon actually determined a patient’s welfare. Starting from the beginning of the 17th century and especially from the beginning of the 18th century, some files were found mentioning names of doctors or surgeons from Geel, although they only came to take care of ill sisters.

We do not know if they also came for the patients in the hospital since the city council assigned one or several masters to examine the sick. Consequently, they were paid by the city and not by the hospital itself.