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About More Voices

Every month More Voices invites readers to contribute short nonfiction prose pieces of 40 to 400 words on a healthcare theme.

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The Waiting Room

The Real Patient Encounter


In the simulation lab where we trained as medical students, all we had to do was grab a tissue and hand it to the patient. Then, like magic, they would thank us. As if that's all it takes to suddenly make things better!

We also learned to say empathic things like “I know this tough,” “I’m here for you” and “What’s wrong?” And in the simulation lab they worked like magic, too.

But now I'm with a real patient, and I tried all these things, and they just didn’t cut it. She seems so disconnected and isolated.

Stories on Hold


Ms. Darcey had been my patient for over four years. She was one of those fortunate few who made it to the doctor’s office only for their yearly physical exam. One day she showed up unexpectedly, in a wheelchair, her head tilted to one side. She had arrived at the diagnosis before I could make an attempt.

Coffee and Miracles

I am sipping the foam off my café latte, holding the cup with both hands because they're shaking so much. It is early morning and very cold, even for New York, but the waiting room at Mount Sinai Hospital is warm and open to a 10-story atrium courtyard. The Starbucks on the ground floor seems to be the hub of the hospital, as, from the balcony of the waiting room, I watch doctors in scrubs, patients in wheelchairs, Hasidic Jews (identifiable by their curls) in black coats standing in a line that snakes through the lobby.

The Transition


As a medical student, I would show up to clinic the first day of my rotation and introduce myself to the receptionist. Standing there in the waiting room, conspicuous in my short, white coat, and referring to myself as "the new medical student," I'd feel the patients' gaze. The receptionist would wave me to the clinic, and I would sigh with relief.  

Pity Party

Following eye surgery, I was "sentenced" to two weeks of lying face down. But five days in I know without a doubt that something has gone horribly wrong.

Desperate for Change

 
It is a mild Sunday afternoon in October, and I am standing in front of a closed reception window, desperate for change. It is the early 1990s, and we don’t yet have cell phones. I have already exhausted my supply of coins, making calls on the public phone hanging on the wall in the ER waiting room. 

Hope

 
Who knows how many voices created the cacophony that filled the waiting room that night? Words, wails and whispers gave sound to the gamut of human experiences and emotions. But as I listened, I heard one clear, unwavering note that floated above the clamor.

Green, White and Sterile

 
The young, black-haired waiting-room receptionist, in a voice that is pleasant and professional but too loud, instructs those of us who are waiting--grey-haired and balding, strangely like me--where we should go for the next phase of our lives. So many are told to go to the critical-care waiting area that I worry that young black-hair knows no other destination. I have an urge to educate her about the “everything’s fine, no need to worry” waiting area and to speak a little more softly, but I think twice about it since, like all the people working here, she seems so powerful, and we, right now, are just weak, worried wait-ers.

"Hug Lady, Pretty Dress, Crying?"

 
I am sitting in the all-too-familiar waiting room of my local emergency department on a Saturday night in July. I am here with my daughter, Ashley, who is nineteen but could pass for a typical twelve-year-old—until she starts to talk. Ashley has a rare genetic disorder. On the good days I laugh and say that she will make a great ventriloquist because she talks without ever moving her lips. This is not a good day. She has a fever, a wet cough, and she snuggles up against me.

A Simple Song


When my mother doubled over with belly pain, my girlfriend and I insisted on accompanying my father to the emergency room. There in the waiting room we sat, deep into the night, waiting for news about my mother.

Seeing is Believing

 
For months I spoke, but no one listened. Not my dad’s primary care physician. Not the physician’s assistant. Not the nurse. I described the “attacks” my ninety-six-year-old dad was experiencing: loss of awareness of his social and physical environments; inability to stand on legs that had turned rubbery; skin that looked pasty and felt sweaty. “Give him orange juice,” I was told. “His sugar has probably dropped a bit. And don’t worry.”

Time Bomb

 
A lot of waiting goes on in hospitals, and not just in the so-called "waiting rooms."
 
I lie in bed waiting for the next day to arrive. It is a small room with an eraser board where, on the next day, I can mark the estimated gestational age at twenty-four weeks and two days, far short of a normal forty-week pregnancy. The bleeding that brought me here has stopped, and now I've started my "count up" ritual toward the day of delivery.
 
I start the next few days with a good attitude. I plan to use this forced bed rest to study for my board recertification and to catch up on friendships. It is hard to understand why each day ends with tears, feeling crazy and watching QVC, thinking that makeup is the thing I need to survive this maternity ward.

Crying Booth

 
The waiting room is bad enough. But it's what comes after the waiting and after the appointment that can be worse. I think there should be a second waiting room--I'd call them "crying booths."

Waiting for Godot

 
The Scene: The crowded waiting room of a busy, university hospital dermatology practice on a day when Mohs surgery and other treatments of skin cancers have been scheduled.
 
As a patient, you go to one of the business-like receptionists. After giving your name, date of birth, and insurance information, you are told that you can now sit down. No information is available about waiting times.

Joyce

 
I head out of the emergency department of our local tertiary care hospital. The waiting room seems pitifully small, probably twenty chairs, with the security desk, check-in desk, triage station and the entrance doors in close proximity. There's no space for pacing here, and sometimes not enough chairs.
 
I notice a familiar figure, dressed in bright red, who stands out from the others. With a start, I realize it’s Joyce, one of my heroes. Joyce is the nurse practice manager at our sister health center, and she's transformed the place into one known for its engaged staff and team-based care. Her warmth and enthusiasm are contagious.

Normally, seeing Joyce fills me joy and anticipation of what great news or interesting question she has for me. But quickly my anticipation turns to dread. She shouldn’t be sitting here, not at 11 pm on a weeknight.

A Date with Mom

 
I rush into the waiting room, trying to make it on time. Mom is sitting in the chair, patiently reading her romance novel with her ninety-nine cent bifocals. Calm and relaxed, in contrast to my frantic entrance as I juggle my schedule to try and make her appointment.

Cartoons and Shots

 
I have vivid memories of the HIP (Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York, a prepaid health plan) waiting room on East 23rd Street in Manhattan, which I often visited as an elementary school child. I most remember two things about that room: the magazines, and the anticipation of a possible shot.

Vinyl Cushion

 
I arrive in the waiting room nearly a half hour early and confirm my existence with two insurance cards and a questionnaire that asks me yet again to list my illnesses, allergies, and medications. Most seats are occupied by old people, older than me. Or maybe the same age. It’s difficult to say who is with whom because those who are not making love to their cell phones are paging through OK!, People and Star. Nobody’s eyes are on anyone.