Learning to Wait

Waiting is hard. Waiting for something to happen is harder. Waiting while knowing that something has to happen, but not knowing when it will is worst. This afternoon I spent a few hours in the emergency room with someone else. This sure didn’t look like any episode of ER I’d ever seen. The pace was so slow, I saw glaciers whizzing by. Time began to move backwards.

In the face of emergency, I am unfailingly polite. I know nurses work hard. I am sure they have a lot of patients to take care of. But when the patient accidentally unplugged one of the EEG lines and the red lights began blinking and beeping, the only way it stopped was when I went into the hallway seven minutes later, and asked a technician to turn off the machine. And this was in the emergency room.Thank goodness it wasn’t a real emergency.

When I asked one of the nurses if she could give me an overview of what would happen next, she said, seriously, “Well, as soon as I finish typing in these notes, I’m going to have to catch up on my paperwork. After that, I’m going to eat lunch, and then I have a meeting.” When I rephrased my sentence to ask specifically what actions would be taken on the patient’s behalf, when a doctor would give us information she said, “I have no idea. You’ll just have to wait.”

And wait we did. I canceled appointments for the afternoon, and later, for the next day. The hospitalist (doctor who does admittings) came in four hours after we came in the emergency room. He said the patient would be admitted. They then rolled the bed into the hall, where the patient lay, without pain medication, for an additional 40 minutes, waiting for someone to move the bed upstairs. I volunteered to do it myself, but no, the official bed pusher had to arrive. Meanwhile people strolled by, sick and well, looking at the half-naked patient in a too-small hospital gown.

I’m bad at waiting. I think of all the times I was pressed to stay, to work last minute, to rush in my jobs. This afternoon, I saw a lot of people chatting about personal business, doing school homework, waiting for the coffee to be done. I read a book, I answered emails, I worked on being calm and letting life unfold on its own.

I hate being a health-care consumer. I want to be a patient. I’m so glad that the patient wasn’t there alone, and I hated being the squeaky wheel–even though I was a polite squeaky wheel. Nothing happened without my asking for it–no bedpan, no pain medication, no water, no blanket. I had to ask twice for everything. It’s hard to remain polite when you hear “Right away,” and then, 40 minutes later, have to ask again. If I ran my business this way, I’d be out of work in a week.

No one was rude, no one was short-tempered, but the general idea was that if you were in a hospital, your job was to wait. So now it’s night. The patient was admitted, but no specialist was ever called. The patient has received pain medication for almost 12 hours, but except for the ER doctor,  medical specialist has stopped by. The administrator did, though.

I think there is a better way. There must be something better in healthcare. I don’t live in some forgotten backwater, and I have insurance that costs me the same as my mortgage per month. But I’m saying right now, I’m scared of getting older in a society that turned us into healthcare consumers, but has no customer service center.