Sometimes the very best stories seem to come at the end of the year and that’s true of NPR’s report on a Texas hospital—and many others across America—who found patients and their caregivers united in their obsession with… World Cup soccer.

    Instead of TVs tuned to the ubiquitous “Blue Bloods,” QVC and Fox, it seemed as if everyone was focused on soccer, cheering for an often newly adopted team through their oxygen masks, groaning from a disputed yellow card more than pain from a healing hip.

The soccer play-offs had an unexpected benefit: Patients saw their doctors as human beings, said Dr. Grace Farris, a hospitalist in Austin.

    “You might feel a little pinch…of, wait…. GOOOOOAAAAALLLLL!!!!” Everyone in the hospital, from housekeeping to heart surgeons took a minute. Patients across the nation “scooched” over a little to make room on their beds. The bloodwork was back but that could wait a while. Fives were highed. Conversations were had. All that other stuff? That could wait. Would France beat Morocco? Would Argentina beat France? (Yep and yep.)

    As a fan of UNC basketball and Panthers football, I know almost nothing about soccer, but I know a lot about trying to find common ground, particularly in 2022. It was tough out there.

    It turns out that soccer, of all things, provided common ground in the most depressing place to be in general, particularly during the holidays. Who’d have thought?

    Reading about the spikes of soccer fever spreading through hospital wards across the country, made me recall how the TV in the room could soften the blow –and provide a shared memory with a stranger–when I’ve had occasion to visit family members and dear friends in hospitals, nursing homes, even hospice.

    I have talked to doctors about how many days, not weeks, a loved one had left thinking: “I can’t believe we are having this conversation with “Friends” on in the background.” And because I’d rather concentrate on whether Ross and Rachel were on a break or listen to Phoebe sing “Smelly Cat” to exaggerated studio audience laughter than deal with death, I glazed over and looked at the screen. I was listening. But I needed to rest my eyes somewhere safe and familiar.

    These days, there are pillow speakers in hospitals, thanks be to God. Before that invention it was possible to emerge from a visit with a pounding headache from the cumulative clamor of the sirens of “Law & Order” and gunfights in “Bonanza.”

    I visited the nursing home where my mama died four to five days a week and marveled every time at how “Golden Girls” was on in almost all the rooms. I’d always switch it to “Days of Our Lives” because, well, you have your family traditions; I’ll have mine.

    Sometimes, a staffer would comment on the soap, lingering until the commercial break and I knew right away she was a lifer, just like me. Had her granny shushed her and said, “Sit down, honey, it’s time for my stories.” Most likely.

    Dr. Farris, who is also a published author and accomplished cartoonist (what a loser, am I right?) produced a series of panels showing ER staff checking the quarterfinals on their phones and patients sharing their stories: “I can’t walk anymore but growing up in Mexico, soccer was in my blood.” The playoffs brought staff together as well, as newbies learned about “offside” and “nil” finding kindred spirits in co-workers all over the hospital.

    During this third holiday season with Covid, soccer—a sport often mired in corruption and scandal, admits Farris–provided joy and communion in the most unlikely of settings.

    “From where I’m standing,” said Dr. Farris, “the World Cup (was) a slam-dunk, hole-in-one, home run, excellent hospital holiday set piece.”

    I’ll have to look up that last one.