God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine

God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine

by Victoria Sweet


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Victoria Sweet's new book, SLOW MEDICINE, is on sale now!

For readers of Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a medical “page-turner” that traces one doctor’s “remarkable journey to the essence of medicine” (The San Francisco Chronicle). 

San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital is the last almshouse in the country, a descendant of the Hôtel-Dieu (God’s hotel) that cared for the sick in the Middle Ages. Ballet dancers and rock musicians, professors and thieves—“anyone who had fallen, or, often, leapt, onto hard times” and needed extended medical care—ended up here. So did Victoria Sweet, who came for two months and stayed for twenty years.
     Laguna Honda, relatively low-tech but human-paced, gave Sweet the opportunity to practice a kind of attentive medicine that has almost vanished. Gradually, the place transformed the way she understood her work. Alongside the modern view of the body as a machine to be fixed, her extraordinary patients evoked an older idea, of the body as a garden to be tended. God’s Hotel tells their story and the story of the hospital itself, which, as efficiency experts, politicians, and architects descended, determined to turn it into a modern “health care facility,” revealed its own surprising truths about the essence, cost, and value of caring for the body and the soul.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781594486548
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/02/2013
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 145,948
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Victoria Sweet has been a physician at San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital for more than twenty years. An associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, she is also a prize-winning historian with a Ph.D. in history and social medicine.

Table of Contents

Introduction. How I Came To God's Hotel 1

1 First Years 11

2 The Love of Her Life 34

3 The Visit of Dee and Tee, Health-Care Efficiency Experts 56

4 The Miraculous Healing of Terry Becker 77

5 Slow Medicine 103

6 Dr. Diet, Dr. Quiet, and Dr. Merryman 130

7 Dancing to the Tune of Glenn Miller 157

8 Wedding at Cana 188

9 How I Fell in Love 220

10 It's a Wonderful Country 251

11 Recalled to Life 281

12 The Spirit of God's Hotel 314

Acknowledgments 349

Notes 351

What People are Saying About This

Oliver Sacks

Victoria Sweet writes beautifully about the enormous richness of life at Laguna Honda .. and the intense sense of place and community that binds patients and staff there. Such community in the medical world is vanishingly rare now, and Laguna Honda may be the last of its kind. ... God's Hotel is a most important book. ... It should be required reading for anyone interested in the "business" of health care—and especially those interested in the humanity of health care. (Oliver Sacks, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and The Mind's Eye)

Jerome Groopman

This is a unique book about a healer and those in need of her healing. Charting her journey in God's Hotel, Victoria Sweet shows us that medicine is still fundamentally a sacred calling. By illuminating this truth, Sweet provides comfort and inspiration. (Jerome Groopman, M.D., Recanati Professor, Harvard Medical School, co-author of How Doctors Think and Your Medical Mind)

Rachel Naomi Remen

Victoria Sweet is a master storyteller and a consummate physician. Her beautifully written stories from the frontline of health care document the struggle of all modern-day healers, to hold fast to the immortal soul of Medicine despite the pressures of economics, the self-interest of politics, and the reductionism of science. God's Hotel reminds us of the fundamental truth that medicine is and has always been an act of love and brotherhood ... and of the vulnerabilities we share and the compassion we aspire to. (Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather's Blessings)

Julie Salamon

A profoundly moving account of a remarkable hospital and the people who inhabit it, God's Hotel reveals intimate knowledge of the shift in modern medicine, from personal tending to industrialized 'health care.' Author and physician Victoria Sweet embodies the traits of a persevering and compassionate doctor, while conveying the wisdom of a philosopher, and the instincts of a born storyteller. (Julie Salamon, author of Hospital and Wendy and the Lost Boys)

From the Publisher

A Barnes & Noble and San Francisco Chronicle Best Nonfiction Book of 2012

“Transcendent… readable chapters go down like restorative sips of cool water, and its hard-core subversion cheers like a shot of gin… God’s Hotel [is] a tour de force… Others have written about the relationship between time and medical care with similar eloquence and urgency, but the centuries of perspective that Dr. Sweet brings infuse the point with unforgettable clarity.” –The New York Times

“A radical and inspiring alternative vision of caring for the sick.” –Vanity Fair

“Engaging… You might not expect a book about San Francisco's most downtrodden patients to be a page-turner, but it is. With its colorful cast of characters battling the tide of history, God's Hotel is a remarkable journey into the essence of medicine.” –San Francisco Chronicle

"Victoria Sweet writes beautifully about the enormous richness of life at Laguna Honda, the chronic [care] hospital where she has spent the last twenty years, and the intense sense of place and community that binds patients and staff there. Such community in the medical world is vanishingly rare now, and Laguna Honda may be the last of its kind… God's Hotel is a most important book which raises fundamental questions about the nature of medicine in our time. It should be required reading for anyone interested in the 'business' of healthcare – and especially those interested in the humanity of healthcare." –Oliver Sacks, M.D. author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and The Mind's Eye

“A beautifully written and illuminating book… [Sweet’s] metaphors are poetic and hint at the mystical, but then she pulls back with the educated eye of a scientist… For both the agnostic and the believer, Sweet pinpoints the element of medicine that makes it a calling rather than a job: the unique and sustaining love that is sparked between a doctor and patient.” –Jerome Groopman, The New York Review of Books

"Remarkable… [Sweet] would appreciate that it took time for me to journey to and through her work since that may be one of the many compelling messages she so eloquently, yet simply by storytelling, conveys… permitting ‘tincture of time’ to also do its job." –The Huffington Post

"Sweet's warm, anecdotal style shines… The author's compelling argument for Laguna Honda's philosophy of 'slow medicine' will make readers contemplate if perhaps the body should be viewed more as a garden to be tended rather than a machine to be fixed." –Kirkus (reviewed as a Best Book of 2012)

“Captivating… with this humane and thoughtful work, Sweet joins physician-authors such as Oliver Sacks, Jerome Groopman and Abraham Verghese.” –The Dallas Morning News

“[A] watershed book ...Vital, exquisitely written, and spectacularly multidimensional, Sweet’s clinically exacting, psychologically discerning, practical, spiritual, and tenderly funny anecdotal chronicle steers the politicized debate over health care back to medicine and compassion. –Booklist (starred review)

“Visionary… thoroughly subversive in all the best ways… This book’s lessons and conclusions should challenge doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, and policy makers to stop and rethink their core beliefs.” –Journal of Health Affairs

“A remarkable, poignant portrait of a committed physician on a quest to understand the heart, as well as the art, of medicine… A marvelous, arresting read.” –Library Journal (starred review)

“[Our] healthcare system might function a lot better if every single American citizen, healthcare professional, politician and legislator would read Victoria Sweet’s insightful, beautifully written and moving book.” –Bookpage

Reading Group Guide


More than twenty years ago, Dr. Victoria Sweet arrived at San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital, intending to stay for a brief time. A descendant of the Hôtel-Dieu (God's Hotel) that cared for the sick poor in the Middle Ages, Laguna Honda was the last almshouse in the country. Ballet dancers and rock musicians, professors and thieves-"anyone who had fallen, or, often, leapt onto hard times" and needed extended medical care-ended up there.

At Laguna Honda, lower-tech but human-paced, Sweet had the opportunity to practice a kind of "slow medicine" that has almost vanished, and falling under the hospital's spell, she decided to stay. Gradually, her remarkable patients transformed the way she understood medicine. Alongside the modern view of the body as a machine to be repaired, they evoked an older idea, of the body as a garden to be tended. God's Hotel is their story, and the story of the hospital itself, which-as efficiency experts, politicians, and architects descended, determined to turn it into a modern "health care facility"-revealed its own surprising truths about the essence, cost, and value of caring for body and soul.



A member of the medical staff at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco for more than twenty years, Victoria Sweet is an Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and a prize-winning historian with a Ph.D. in history and social medicine. God's Hotel has been praised by Oliver Sacks, Jerome Groopman, and numerous other medical authorities; has won numerous awards; and has deemed "hard-core subversion" (The New York Times), "radical and inspiring" (Vanity Fair) and "subversive in all the best ways" (Health Affairs).


  • Throughout the book, Victoria Sweet talks about what she learns from her patients. How do their stories inform the author's vision of her profession?
  • With whom did you identify more as you read her account, the patients or the nurses and doctors? Why?
  • In many ways the workings of Laguna Honda go against modern medical culture and standards. Can you find parallels in your own life, in which you have had experiences that ran counter to the norm or to your own expectations? How did you respond?
  • In what ways does Dr. Sweet criticize modern medical practice? Are there ways in which her critique is applicable to society in general?
  • Sweet invokes two metaphors for the practice of medicine: the contemporary one, of a mechanic repairing a broken machine; and an older, "premodern" one, of a gardener tending a garden. What are the strengths and limitations of each? Which do you gravitate to, and why?
  • What is "slow medicine"? Have you had any experiences of a "slow medicine" approach in your own life? Have you experienced parallel "slow" approaches in other endeavors of which you have been a part?
  • What does Sweet mean by "the efficiency of inefficiency"? Have you encountered this phenomenon in your own life? Where and when?
  • A major theme that runs through the book is that of community. How is community created? Who creates it? How is it sustained? What parallels can you envision between a hospital and other settings-a school, a college, a corporate workplace?
  • Another major theme that runs through the book is hospitality. What does hospitality mean in the context of the book? How might this translate from a hospital setting to other settings?
  • Dr. Sweet makes a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. How does this pilgrimage play out in her life? What role does discernment play in her life? What role does it play in yours?

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God's Hotel: A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews.
PhilipMGoldMD More than 1 year ago
This book should be read by anyone interested in modern history, medieval history, medicine, sociology, religion or humanity . Victoria Sweet is an exceptional historian, great story teller, caring doctor and felicitous writer. Her message rouses emotions of triumph, pathos and anger. Those who practice medicine will yearn for the collegiality, common sense and humanity afforded by "slow medicine" and recognize the threats posed to a once sacred bond between doctor and patient by efficiency consultants, electronic medical records and the change of medicine from a profession to a commodity. Would that those responsible for Health Care Reform, could inform their intentions with Sweet's message. Doctors, patients and society would be better served.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm a physician who was fortunate enough to have received an advance copy of Dr. Victoria Sweet's "God's Hotel." This is the true story of an internal medicine physician and her experiences at Laguna Honda Hospital, a place where doctors aren't constrained by the economic stressors of practicing modern medicine. Patients often stayed for months at a time, as their medical problems were addressed by looking at all facets of their being, not just lab results or x-rays. Her book describes in wonderful detail the concept of "slow medicine," where doctors and nurses write their chart notes longhand and have the time to review all aspects of their patients' health, without worrying about the three patients in exam rooms still waiting to see them. Whereas current medical administrators may consider this idea archaic and unrealistic, the stories of the many patients who benefitted from this methodical, holistic approach to treating patients are truly moving and affecting. Unfortunately, like most things in life, Laguna Honda eventually succumbs to the pressures of modern medicine, as "Heath Care Efficiency Experts" are hired to come in and make the place more profitable and efficient. While they help make the hospital shinier and more modern, the care of the patients suffers, and this old-fashioned, loving approach to practicing medicine finally disappears altogether. Dr. Sweet writes about these changes in a sobering tone, yet it's a testament to her writing skills that the reader is always infused with hope. "God's Hotel" is a really nice, eye-opening read with writing that reflects the care Laguna Honda gave its patients. Overall, "God's Hotel" is one of my favorite recent medical memoirs. This past year has been great for fans of this genre, so if you like this book I'd recommend two others that would serve as great companions. In Stitches is an immensely entertaining read about one doctor's journey through medical school. It's one of the only medical memoirs that's made me laugh out loud, shed a few tears, and reminesce about my years as a young doctor-to-be. It's my favorite of the past year. Dr. Meghan Weir's Between Expectations: Lessons from a Pediatric Residency is a really interesting memoir about a young pediatrician and her experiences in residency and overseas. I highly recommend this book for readers interested in pediatrics.
efm More than 1 year ago
Great story of the way hospitals and doctors used to be,personable,caring,underpaid. I worked in healthcare for 42 years and saw all the changes she speaks about. She must be an amazing physician.Easy reading
Barbara2 More than 1 year ago
I thought this was a wonderful book. I grew up in San Francisco and remember going to the "Laguna Honda Home" where both my grandmother and uncle died. We were pretty poor and I never could understand how my grandmother received such good care when we had no hospital insurance. That was back in the 1950s and I can still remember how imposing the big old hospital was. Dr. Sweet has written a beautiful, loving book on patient care and the wisdom in using "slow medicine". The reason I gave it four stars instead of five was that I thought there was a little bit too much written about medical politics, but then I realize that those politics are what has gotten us into the HMO mess we have now.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Was a very interesting and good book. Very informative learned a lot about the medical profession and how they worked in the past. Dedicated doctor.
luv2readWI More than 1 year ago
Though this book focuses on changes at an almshouse in the San Francisco area, it highlights the trouble with the American health care provider system. I've been a victim of doctor's relying on technology when they should have listened to me, the patient and so I found the author's views refreshing. And the stories of her patients were interesting and entertaining, full of humanity.
MWgal More than 1 year ago
As a retired nurse, I think this should be required reading for all those who work, or have worked in the medical profession. It brings back the days of true compassion and caring before medical care evolved into a business of making money and disregarding the patients' needs and feelings. Tjhank you, Dr. Sweet for having the courage to tell it like it is, sad though that may be.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Victoria Sweet delivers a very readable medical book that sagely evaluates illnesses within the context of the "whole" person. She objectively researches the broad spectrum of historical and current medicine and their relationship while offering charming personal stories from her own practice.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really liked this book. It's an interesting combination including stories and history tied together with a personal journey.
Jonny_Brosh More than 1 year ago
Although for some reason it took me a while to get through, God's Hotel was an amazing book. It shows a a doctor's, and a hospital's journey and transformation, as they grow and change together. It's not often that I add a book to my personal library, I usually end up passing them on, but this one stays with me. It'd recommend it to anyone, but I'm definitely not sharing my copy, it's a book I could read over and over again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderful story that depicts the day in the life of a Doctor thinking outside of modern medicine.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dr. Sweet shares the fascinating chronicle of her personal and professional journey from a two-month commitment to be an admitting physician through a significant body of learning about the evolution of the health care industry, local government, business and management, and the fundamentals of community. Highly recommended for people who care and serve, those who manage or adminster in the public interest, and those who vote.
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KuduSF More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating look at the challenges that faced the author as a doctor at Laguna Honda. At times, a bit heavy on the hospital's administrative trials, but overall, very well written. Especially involving are the patient case histories. Above all, the book deals with one of today's most debated topics – the increasing dehumanization of medical care. Sweet's "slow medicine" offers an answer. Time will tell if the current medical system could ever adopt her approach.
pamelade More than 1 year ago
Excellent read and good insite into the evolving world of medicine with an interesting perspective of how it effects the providers of care.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Iloved this book. What a story of spiritual growth.
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jands More than 1 year ago
I personally found this book wonderful. I am a nurse and remember when health care before technology became the way to determine diagnosis. It was a heart warming story of a doctor and her patient's. It was also a study of evolving assessment of a patient. Because I am a member of the health profession I enjoyed the book. My question is, would it appeal to someone not in the health field?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"God's Hotel" Should be required reading for anyone training for any aspect of the medical field - for interns, Medical Asssitants, Nurse Practioners, you name it - not to mention political leaders.  After reading this book, I felt that I really knew and cared about each of the patients - as individuals - and I believe that's the most important lesson that "God's Hotel" has for us. The true mission of medical care is not about money; it's about caring for each patient  as an individual. This is, of course, easier said than done - as the realities of everyday life  (like keeping hospitals open, obscenely huge malpractice awards etc.) impinge upon the caregiving. But everyone who is any human services field owes it to their patients/clients, as well as themselves, to periodically take stock of motives, and attitudes, to try to remember that the bottom line is the care of each individual.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love this book! Reads like a novel and very informative for those interested in good healthcare. I'm still reading this book and have found it educational as I am in the healthcare field. Very insightful as to how to provide the best care for individuals.
MSanders12 More than 1 year ago
A reflective narrative about the last alms hospital in the US and how Dr. Sweet believes the practice of medicine there prior to its rebuilding could be an important and relatively inexpensive part of our healthcare system. Dr. Sweet provides several interesting examples of how she approached patients and their conditions that highlight the effectiveness of her work. Rather than repeated emergency room visits and acute hospital stays for individuals living in poverty who have serious chronic conditions and illnesses, Laguna Honda provided a safe, monitored recovery. Using her research into the premodern practices of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th c. nun and healer, Dr. Sweet calls on old ways of healing, including careful observation of and listening to the patient, detailed histories and the healing power of time to assist her patients. She laments that the US abandoned many useful old practices when the medical community went modern a hundred years ago. She noted that ome of those practices continue to be used in other modern countries, including a good diet, pleasant surroundings, herbal remedies, etc. She includes an interesting section on the role of economists and efficiency experts in medical planning and decision-making that questions the priorities in spending that go with their consulting itself and the advice they give. Over and over I thought about how our national conversation about the costs and methodologies of modern health care should include a close look at the potential role of the alms hospital as well as consideration of some of those premodern methodologies. My mother learned some nursing in her technical high school many years ago, and some of the ways she took care of us sound like the "old" ways rather than over-dependence on quick and expensive fixes of medications, surgery, etc. Less was often better in her mind.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a woderful book filled with inspiration and hope for all. The authors personal story is intriguing, i love this book!