Friday, March 9, 2012

Lessons from the radiology waiting room

While I was sitting in the radiology waiting room on Monday waiting for my toe x-ray, an old old man engaged me in conversation.  His wheelchair plus oxygen accessories were overbearing, nearly obscuring the small figure among them.  He was thin with translucent skin, and his thick white hair remembered the shape of the pillow that was recently beneath the right side of his head.  His oxygen pump breathed in his lap.  When he spoke, it was with a high, reedy voice that was accustomed to complaining.  Indeed, before our conversation I observed him arguing with his caregiver about being 1.5 hours too early and how he could better use that time.

He said I looked familiar and inquired as to my place of work.  It turned out that I was not the person that he was thinking of, but we discovered something else in common:  his father worked for 35 years at my current place of work, as a heating and cooling specialist.  We visited about this for a few minutes, but his name was called 1.25 hours ahead of schedule (never have a I heard a more sincere "Halleluja!") and he was pushed away.

This short interaction inspired so many thoughts.      

I thought a lot about his hair.  At first I thought how unnatural it looked for someone so old to have such a generous helping of hair remaining on the head.  Then I thought about the hunk on the side that was sticking straight up.  I thought what a shame it was that none of his caregivers had the time or inclination to force that piece down before he went out in public.  However, my perspective on this rowdy lock changed as he spoke.  He was so present, so coherent, so with it--perhaps he didn't want anyone to comb his hair that day.  Perhaps he never wants help with anything.  Or maybe he just doesn't give a hoot if there is a piece sticking up.  Indeed, what if he's proud to have so much hair that he flaunts the unkempt look to draw attention to it?

Then I thought about his complaining to his caregiver.  At first I had antagonistic thoughts towards the caregiver, thinking that she shouldn't make a helpless patient sit somewhere for that long.  But then I thought about how important it is to be a patient with patience, especially after I learned that he was coming from another appointment in another wing.  An hour and a half isn't that long; where are you going to go and still have time to get back?  Plus, what is the sense in leaving if you're already there?

After he was wheeled away, the caregiver returned from the soda machine, befuddled by his absence.  I explained that he was called back ahead of schedule.  She expressed relief, saying she had thought about heading out on her own for 1.25 hours and returning in time for his appointment.

Now I was back to feeling antagonistic towards the caregiver, imagining my new friend being ditched in the radiology waiting room against his will.

I found my series of disparate opinions to be quite interesting.  Before I became such an experienced patient, I think I wouldn't have given this man and his situation much thought.  I would have defined him with some cliche like "old and cranky".  I would have felt sorry for him for not being cared for at a level high enough to have his hair combed.

Now I saw more complex possibilities for his definition.  Maybe he had been in the hospital overnight unexpectedly, and now he had yet another frustrating appointment to delay his homecoming.  Maybe he's such an impatient patient that the caregiver schedules all of his appointments in one day so that they don't have to go to the clinic as often.  Or maybe he simply doesn't see the point in combing his hair.

I enjoy visiting with people in the various waiting rooms.  It's a good chance to know another being for a fleeting minute, a minute that could impart lessons for a lifetime.


  1. Love this post and your observations. (And how your observing your own observation process). You're a natural story teller, Heather!


  2. Just think of all the fleeting minutes and lessons that old man has experienced. His gift to you was his ability to set aside his own disparate opinions and engage you in conversation. Seems like an appropriate time to coin the phrase "you can't judge a book by its cover". :)