Hospital Smells Trigger Deep Memories of Past Treatments

Megan Hunter avatar

by Megan Hunter |

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Last week, I visited my doctor because I could feel my health slip-sliding down a waterslide and didn’t want to end up back in the intensive care unit.

When I walked through the clinic’s double doors and pumped hand sanitizer onto my hands, I felt like I was immediately transported back to the hospital isolation ward. My heart pounded and I felt queasy. I gripped my husband’s hand tightly as we made our way through the clinic’s hallways. I felt as if I were being swallowed alive by the fear that had engulfed me.

Why did that happen to me? How could such a simple scent transport me back to a year ago? Later, I started looking into the link between smell and memory and came across this article, which refers to our sense of smell as something of a superpower.

Whenever I need to have blood drawn for tests, my veins seem to run away. I always thought that this was psychological, as I am a huge wimp who is terrified of needles. But now I know that my reaction might be related to the scent of the nurses’ rooms, which transports my brain back to every blood test I have had. I relive the pain, the fear, and every stressful moment.

I was admitted for another round of chemotherapy last Friday. And as soon as an alcohol swab came near me, I remembered all of the moments during my previous hospitalizations when the same scent filled my room. As the nurses snapped on their rubber gloves, I recalled my isolation and that “hospital smell” that seemed to have seeped into my pores for weeks. I remembered the loneliness, the uncertainty, and the trauma.

The smell of particular experiences can also bring happy memories. For example, guava juice reminds me of my first meal following ventilation and induced coma. Salt and vinegar can ease a headache and nausea. A certain apple pudding reminds me of baking with my granny when I was little, and mothballs remind me of exploring her cupboards and discovering the magical white balls stuffed between her jerseys.

We may take our noses for granted, but they can hold a magic key to many memories, both good and bad. If you have been in the hospital often, you probably know that hospital smell. Others might not understand, but ask them what the smell of fresh bread reminds them of or whether their stomach starts grumbling when they walk past a bakery.

Do certain smells trigger memories for you in a way that others might not understand? Please share in the comments below.


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Joseph Phillips avatar

Joseph Phillips

The smell that lingers for me is the stench of my own mucus. I was intubated for four of the first six days of my ten-day stay in ICU, and when the tube was removed, I was obliged to continuously spit into tissues to clear this thick mucus from my throat -- tissues that went into a barrel placed immediately alongside my bed. The stench of my own mucus, a whole barrel of it, combined with my own stench, owing to not being able to take a real shower while attached to all the tubes and monitors and IV's, stuck in my nostrils, and I will never forget it.


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