The Tale of Two Waiting Rooms

standing room onlyRecently I had the opportunity to spend time in two different medical waiting rooms on the same day. Waiting areas of any nature are an interesting study in human nature and people watching. Usually there’s a diverse sector of people waiting – like the lines in your local market or the DMV – that represent a decent cross section and various segments of the socio-economic-ethnic-cultural heritages of the community. Medical waiting rooms, however, are a different story.

Medical waiting rooms are a microcosm: those with health insurance and those without. The disparity continues by gender, age, ethnicity, marital status, and lifestyle. It didn’t used to be that way. Sadly, I think medical waiting rooms are but one manifestation of the widening gaps in America today.

As with all tales, this tale of two waiting rooms has a very interesting twist.

My husband, Saint Sam, is very wary of the medical profession and pretty much has to be scared into going to any doctor. He finally had a swallowing episode that scared him enough to make an appointment. He has health insurance so getting an appointment as a new patient for the next day in a prestigious medical group was not a problem. The referral to and consultation with a specialist, the approval for and completion of an endoscopy all happened within one week. (A very different experience than mine.)

I spent the morning of his procedure in the waiting room. The facility is located in a new development catering to the upscale community nearby. The entire facility was new, open and spacious. A large waiting area had plenty of seating and current magazines on the tables. There were a handful of other spouses waiting while their spouses were having colonoscopies and endoscopies and whatever other technologies they put up, in, or down. Interestingly, the other spouses waiting were all older men who also managed their wife’s handbag while she was having her procedure.

Among the patients I observed going in and coming out for office visits, most were individuals by themselves and a few families with children. Everyone was white! No person of any color. I didn’t quite expect that.

Later that afternoon, I had a return visit to the [indigent] clinic of which I am now a patient. I need to be referred to a specialist, but the out-of-pocket costs for tests and treatment are prohibitive even if your have a decent income, so I first had to complete a ream of paperwork to determine which indigent program I was eligible before I can be referred. It will take about 60 days.

I began using the term “indigent” just to make a point, but all of these forms use “indigent” as part of their title! The caseworker and I were laughing about social worker stuff, including the pejorative and unclear language used by bureaucrats who design these forms. But that’s beside the point.

The clinic’s waiting room was almost a complete polar opposite of the waiting room I spent my morning. The clinic recently expanded from treating solely HIV/AIDS patients and the colorful population within that strata to becoming a community health center for a broader population.

The clinic is a few blocks from the state capitol and medical patients are seen in the basement of an older building. The clinic has made the most of their limited, dungeon space by making it well-lit and cheerful. The seating is very limited, but healthier patients thoughtfully relinquish their seat for another. I was the oldest person there both times, the only white person, one of the few women, and the only married person. There were no children.

Here’s the interesting twist: no one talks to anyone else in one medical waiting room and no one is left out of the conversation in the other. I brought something to read when I went to both clinics. I got a lot read while waiting in one and nothing read while waiting in the other.

I shared my observation when I met with the caseworker. I told her that Cares is the most social waiting room of any medical environment I have ever seen anywhere, and I’ve experienced many! I remarked how people smile and greet you all along the way from the street to the basement. They offer their seat and they engage you, and everyone around, in a meaningful conversation. They are respectful, but they will comment about something, like your handbag or what you’re reading, and that opens up the conversation that truly is engaging and interesting, bringing in others who are also in the waiting area. No judgment. No unease. Just people talking to people.

Then I told her about the other waiting area that morning. A doctor got in the elevator with us. “Going up?” was the only thing said. No one sat near anyone else and certainly no one talked to anyone else in the waiting area. In fact, no one made eye contact with anyone. If I wasn’t there with my husband, I would have had no human interaction whatsoever.

She said they get told that all the time. Most people say it’s like a family. And it is. As I was leaving, a guy (dreds, tattoos all over including his forehead, and a mint in piercings) held the gate to the stairs open for me. He recognized me from last week and wanted to know if I finished my book. I told him I did. He said that our discussion inspired him to read the book so he went to the library and checked it out. He’s now reading it and hopes we’re there at the same time sometime soon so we can talk about the book! A.Maz.Ing.

I may not have health insurance. I may be receiving my health care at an indigent clinic with other indigents, but I am continuously blessed. Thanks be to God.

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