My older daughter, Kim, makes her living as an artist. Specifically, she makes glass beads, melting colored rods of glass at a torch and manipulating the molten glass to form designs. She's been doing that for more than a dozen years, ever since she left her writing career in New York City and moved back here. The hours and hours of repetitive motion required by bead-making have taken a toll, causing her right thumb (the one on which she was coincidentally wearing a band-aid in the photo below) to become stiff, painful, and sometimes unusable.
She went to an orthopedist a couple of weeks ago for a diagnosis and treatment, got a cortisone shot directly in the joint as a temporary fix, and was told she might need surgery. When she asked about the cost and told the orthopedist she doesn't have health insurance, he explained that if he were to do the surgery, there would be not only his fee, but also the fees for the hospital and the anesthetist. He helpfully suggested that she could save a significant amount of money by going to an orthopedic surgical clinic that's set up to do this type of surgery in house, and he gave her a referral.
Everything I've just written is backstory. The part I wanted to tell you begins now:
Kim picked me up on Monday an hour ahead of her scheduled appointment time. I had offered to go with her to take notes on her options, if any, so she could focus on listening to the surgeon and answering--or asking--any questions that arose. Armed with Google Map directions, we located the clinic in only twenty minutes, so we made an impromptu visit to McDonald's drive-thru for biscuits.
Back at the clinic, a sprawling, one-story complex, we followed a sign that read "surgical clinic." Still thirty minutes early, Kim checked in at the front window, then we took two of the only adjacent seats available in the crowded waiting room. Very few new people came in after we did, although a lot of those who were there when we arrived came in and out. Sometimes one or another of them would get called to the back, only to reappear in a short time and settle back into the spot they'd previously vacated. Kim and I had both brought reading material, but we spent the first part of our wait sitting quietly, orienting ourselves to the lay of the land, and watching people.
One man, built like a linebacker and wearing a neon-green knit shirt, left his backpack on a chair and left the building for what seemed like forever to someone like me, who had watched hours of TV footage about bombs in abandoned backpacks at the Boston Marathon. I don't know when I've ever felt so much relief upon seeing a stranger reappear. He left several more times in the next few hours (probably taking smoke breaks), but I didn't worry after the first time.
Across from us sat a very dark-skinned woman, also built like a linebacker, wearing an ill-fitting wig of long, straight blond hair with bangs. I watched her surreptitiously all morning, expecting that the wig might explode off her head if she were to frown deeply then raise her eyebrows suddenly.
Seated near the blond woman were a man and woman whom I presumed to be husband and wife. (Who knows these days? Who cares?) The woman napped, her head leaning into the man's shoulder while he talked on his cell phone. He was speaking quietly, so I couldn't understand his words, but it was impossible to miss his muffled bursts of laughter. It was the kind of laughter normally reserved for quiet places like a movie theater or church or a funeral -- the kind that happens when you get the giggles and it's inappropriate to let loose and bust out the belly laughs. Every time a snicker or snort escaped despite his best efforts, Kim and I got tickled, too, forcing us to match his restraint with our own.
Lunchtime came and went. (Thank goodness we'd had those breakfast biscuits.) I think all the patients who'd been in the waiting room when we first arrived were still present and accounted for at that time. We pulled out our e-book devices and read for awhile.
At 2:21 p.m. I texted my younger, daughter, Kelli, who had asked us to keep her posted:
Me: "Still in the waiting room. Unbelievable!"
Kelli: "Omg do you need me to bring y'all some food?"
Me: "No thx. We're currently having Cheezits and Rice Krispy treats from the vending machine. Life is suddenly much better. I'm thinking we can hold out now till closing time."
We did feel better after we ate, and there were a few more vacant seats in the waiting room. Not many but some. I asked the woman next to me if she'd been to this clinic before and if this kind of wait was typical. She said she had and it was. Other people began to join in our conversation and talk about their experiences with long waits there. As appalled as we were by the idea of sick people having to wait so long, we concluded that all we could do was deal with it.
Kim and I laughed a lot that day. Both of us have a deep and abiding appreciation for life's absurdities, and the longer we waited, the funnier it got. Every time a nurse showed up at the inner door with a file in her hand, we perked up in anticipation that it would be Kim's name she called this time. It was always somebody else's, which made us laugh at our overly optimistic selves.
Through the course of the day Kim apologized a number of times for keeping me waiting so ridiculously long, but we both knew it wasn't her fault. She made repeated offers to let me take her car and go on home, but I was too involved by then to leave, too curious to know how this misadventure would turn out. People had started leaving and not coming back.
At three o'clock Kim announced, "Five hours. That's long enough. I'd walk out if I didn't have so much time invested already." By that time there were only a few people still waiting with us, all of them except Kim having been called to the back at least once. Kim went to the window, gave her name to the new woman at the desk, and asked how many people were ahead of her. The woman looked puzzled and asked Kim to wait while she checked. In a few minutes she returned and explained, "They have you down as a 'no show.'" For a brief moment there was a stunned silence, the room so quiet you could almost hear the eye-rolling.
We took our seats again. It wasn't long before Kim was called to a back office to fill out the preliminary paperwork she'd expected to get upon her arrival. That's why she'd made a point of getting there half an hour early. Paperwork completed, we were back in the waiting room again, where only one other person waited with us, an old man who told us he was waiting while his wife had outpatient surgery. He had the "cool dude" appearance of a blues musician. He told us he was 83 years old, though he looked much younger, then went on to tell us the ages of his living siblings, all older than he, and of some of his twelve children, the youngest in her forties. "I come from a good line," he told us. "We live a long time." Whipping off his cap and leaning forward to show us his full head of coal-black hair, he added, "And we don't lose our hair."
While we were listening to the old man, we couldn't help noticing that wastebaskets were being emptied, floors were being buffed, and the halls were no longer full of medical personnel the way they had been earlier in the day. The old man's opinion about the current state of health care was interrupted when Kim was called again, this time by a pretty young woman who identified herself as a medical student and directed us to an exam room. She asked Kim all of the same medical questions she'd been asked by the first woman who interviewed her, then told us to wait where we were, that someone would be in to do a more thorough examination in a few minutes. She closed the door and left us. Time passed, and Kelli texted again at 4:25 p.m.:
Kelli: "Please tell me y'all are not still waiting??"
Me: "Yes, but we're waiting in a room now. We're the last people here. They had her listed as a "no show" even though I watched her check in."
Kelli: "Oh wow that's unbelievable! Hope that's not a sign of what kind of care they give!"
Me: "That's what we're wondering, too. We just opened the door to the exam room to increase our chances of not being locked in the building overnight."
Kelli: "Part of me thinks that's funny and part of me thinks it's very wise. :)"
Me: "It's definitely both. We've been laughing all afternoon because it's just so bizarre."
The medical student returned. Alone. "Um," she began, "I'm sorry, this is my first day in surgery, so I didn't know, but we just do general surgery here, not orthopedic surgery?" She ended her sentence on an upward note so that it sounded like a question. "We do have orthopedic surgeons who come here on certain days, and we're going to write a referral for you. It may take a few days for them to pick up their referrals, but as soon as they do, if the referral is approved, they'll call you to set up an appointment, okay?"
It was okay, and, then again, it wasn't, you know? It was okay because we were so glad to get out of there, but the only reason Kim was there in the first place was because someone from that facility had called her to set up the appointment after her first referral had been approved. "Okay," Kim replied, and thanked the young woman without qualifying the degree of "okayness."
By the time Kim dropped me off at home, that visit to the clinic had eaten up seven hours of our day. I'm proud of both of us for taking it in stride, maintaining our good humor and our assumption of goodwill, not needing to seek out someone to blame. It was a strange day, but not, after all, a bad one.
One day later Kim received a call with a new appointment. She saw their orthopedist first thing yesterday and was home by mid-morning. Sometimes, by accident or design, things go the way they're supposed to go.