The Menagerie: Observations in a Waiting Room

Two years ago my 89-year-old father had minor surgery on his leg to remove a cancerous growth. The dermatologist had to scrape so many layers before eliminating diseased tissue that he recommended my father visit the wound care center to speed healing. In this organization, wound care was part of the Physical Therapy department on the lower level. My father and I made our way down, and scheduled two appointments per week, Tuesday and Friday, for what would be a total of six weeks. Then we transitioned to only once per week as the wound healed.

My father would wait only a minute or two before being called back. Richard and Mark took turns applying topical anesthetic, debriding the wound, and wrapping up gradually diminishing wounds on my father’s leg. This took about 15 or 20 minutes, and I’d bide my time in the waiting room.

It didn’t take long for me to recognize the regulars. Despite my best efforts to pass the time checking e-mails, the stock market, and my never-ending Scrabble matches, I couldn’t help but to glance around whenever there was action in the reception area or waiting room. I made mental notes of the patients I saw most often.

The young college-aged soccer player on crutches and her equally blonde mother who have permanent grins as if to convey the temporary nature of their predicament.

The knitter who waits with unwavering patience for her appointment time, only to abandon her knitting most willingly once she hears her name.

The burly older Polish man with the thick accent who brings plastic bags and the newspaper every time he visits. He sorts through the paper, separating the wanted from the unwanted, throwing away or sometimes leaving behind the inserts, ads, and undesirable sections. The staff knew to circle back after he left to check for trash.

The elderly gentleman with the walker, who without exception goes to the men’s room just before his therapist comes to call for him. And his wife who always rolls her eyes to the therapist, which is enough said.

The older couple who graduated from the university at which I teach, who one time engaged me in discussion about my affiliation based on my logoed sweatshirt. Since then, they haven’t even met my glance; perhaps time has diminished their recognition of me, particularly since I haven’t worn identifying clothing since then.

I’ve also observed the staff, both the ones who are affiliated with the department and those who pass through. I began to notice an almost metronomic tendency for actions to repeat themselves. The employees, who walk and talk through the waiting area as if there was no silence; who wait for the elevator as if no one will get off when the doors open; who whisk past and stare at the floor while listening to music through ear buds; who call everyone who checks in or out “sweetie” or “honey”; who listen to various iterations of almost scripted check-out conversation (“be gentle with the bill, I’m sore…”) and then feign interest and laughter. Initially annoying, it became familiarly amusing after a while.

Physical therapy and radiology share a common check-in desk, long enough to spread from one patient entry to the other. There are always more PT patients than radiology patients, so PT knows to check for their patients in waiting room chairs on both sides. And radiology knows not to question anyone wandering over to their circle of chairs that doesn’t look over. The PT patients are recognized and instantly checked in upon emerging from the elevator. On the other hand, for every eight or so PT patients, there is one radiology patient who pops out of the elevator, pauses to read the signs, and then nervously walks over to the receptionist.

Most of these patients are one-and-done; a simply x-ray or sonogram to eliminate something from the list of potential diagnoses. On a rare occasion there is a patient who walks in emitting stress and angst to suggest that she is in the midst of a life-changing event. The mother who pushes a stroller with a baby who wears a mask; the middle-aged woman who checks in for an MRI of her chest; the elderly woman and her daughter who are silent except for the simple word or two of direction from the daughter. These are the cases I noticed the most, for they are a brief glimpse into the potentially horrible world that is theirs alone to inhabit.

After all the trips, and time spent, and weather tolerated, I’m glad my father’s leg has healed. I’m also grateful that I don’t have to make the time to pick him up from his apartment at his independent living facility and drive him to and from the clinic. However, I’ll miss seeing him so frequently, even though I see him at least once a week. Surprisingly, I’ll also miss the observation, the regulars, (some of) the staff, and the routine. It seems that the wound care clinic transformed from a treatment facility to a Cheers-like venue where I expected the next man out of the elevator to be greeted with a chorus of “Norm!”.

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