Pour Me Another Cup Of That Waiting-Room Coffee
I’m coming to you today from the surgical waiting room at Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk, where I’ve been stationed for five hours and will probably remain for at least another four.
In a sterile (I hope) operating room about 100 feet away the One-Armed Liftie is having his shoulder repaired.
Back in December, my kid had a ski accident that resulted in his spending much of the winter in a sling. The docs in Utah knew he’d broken his coracoid bone - don’t worry, I’d never heard of it either - but they thought it might heal on its own.
Finally, after the physical therapy and the waiting game didn’t work, it became clear he needed surgery. Now he’s in the hands of a highly respected surgeon who appears to be 18 years old, although I know from his astonishing resume that he must be closer to 40.
He's “scoping” the shoulder to check the extent of the damage and then making an incision to screw the coracoid together. I tried not to look nauseous as he calmly explained how he might have to shave a bit off the bone.
Then I asked if I could leave the room when the anesthesiologist arrived to administer a nerve block.
(I did the same thing when my baby was 10 weeks old and had meningitis. I tossed him to a nurse and stood in the hallway while they did a spinal tap. I know, Mother of the Year.)
What happened to the good old days when doctors didn’t give you details, I wondered as I tried not to think about what was going to happen to my son’s shoulder.
I’m kidding. Information is power. Yet it’s also unsettling for those of us who don’t want to know what’s goes on under our skin or anyone else’s.
So, here I sit, sipping that battery-acid swill known far and wide as waiting-room coffee - it’s the same stuff they serve at Jiffy Lube - and shivering in the sub-Arctic temperatures peculiar to hospitals. The fashionable paper gown my son sported last time I saw him is actually hooked up to some kind of heater. He was sweating. I almost asked the nurses if I could have one.
It occurs to me that hospitals are a lot like casinos. Enter a hospital and you’re in a time and weather warp. No matter the month, it’s always winter. No matter the time of day, it’s always fluorescence.
No matter what’s going on in the world, only one thing matters: The patient.
This crowded waiting room looks like the United Nations. Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, young, old and very old. Some are playing cards. Others are sleeping. There’s a gaggle of about 15 people from a single family nervously awaiting news. Several couples sit side by side reading books while the singles stare dully at “The Price Is Right.” And later, “Ellen.” One guy, from Arkansas, is telling anyone who will listen that Memphis is in Tennessee, but West Memphis is in Arkansas.
We’re all united by a shared, unspoken fear. None of us want our loved one to be that patient you read about who died during a bunion removal.
Due to privacy issues, each patient is assigned a seven-digit number that's displayed on a TV mounted to the wall. By checking the monitor - I do that approximately every 45 seconds - we can see exactly what’s going on with our patient. It’s all color coded, too:
Orange: “Patient is in the admitting process.” Yellow: “Patient has been moved to Pre-Op area.” Green: “Patient Ready for procedure.”
As I write this, my son is in Pink: “Patients procedure started.”
Dammit, Sentara, where’s the effing apostrophe? We’re suffering out here with the frigid temps and bitter coffee and you do THIS?
The one color you don’t want to see, apparently, is Red. “Procedure cancelled.”
One by one, surgeons in scrubs enter the room, calling out the last name of the patient whose identity has been so carefully disguised by numerals. Until now.
Not our doctor, though. This is taking longer than expected.
I'm superstitious and it occurs to me that if my husband and I dash to the cafeteria, the operation will have to end. And it does. No sooner have we paid for my iced tea than my phone rings to tell us our boy's in recovery.
Turns out his shoulder was a mess. Our doctor fixed everything with anchors and screws and presented us with a set of color photos of the damage and the finished product.
I do not flee the room this time. In fact, the pictures are amazing. My son was in very good hands.
Nine hours after I arrived, the waiting room is almost empty. News of the California wildfires is on the TV, which no one is watching. A fresh pot of sludgy coffee is untouched.
My son is ready to leave. And he’s hungry.