The typical family waiting room.

by Hugh Gilmore

I accompanied my wife, Janet, to a center-city hospital on Oct’30 to have her hiatal hernia repaired. We entered the pre-op area at 6 a.m. for a 7:30 surgery. If all went well, she’d go down to the recovery room around 10:30 and, perhaps, I’d see her in her room just after lunch. In the meantime, I elected to take a seat in the Family Waiting Room upstairs and watch the clock hands spin.

In this room there were few creature comforts. The chairs lining three of its narrow walls were of the cold, metal, office type. A water cooler occupied one corner of the room. Near it sat a television. Next to that nasty device a message board charted patient progress from Pre-op to Operating Room to Recovery Room to Patient Room, like an airline or railroad message board.

I looked for case number 10470. There it was: “Patient in OR.” Just a matter of waiting two or three hours and I’d have my honey back. She’d be tired and feel a bit battered, but “Back in Baby’s Arms,” as the Patsy Cline song goes. As I bided my time, I tried not to look at the board. Whenever I gave in and did, I tried not to stare and wait hopefully that the message would flip to the next stage.

Other numbers appeared on the board as the waiting room began to fill up with other anxious people. No matter how seldom or how often I looked for 10470, the news stayed the same. Eventually the magic hour of 10:30 came, but nothing happened.

Time dragged on. Other numbers on the board had appeared after my wife’s, then cycled through from Pre-op to Recovery to room assignment in what seemed like minutes. I damped down the negative thoughts my cold stomach was goading me to entertain.

In the meantime, the waiting room had started filling up. In one corner sat a gray-haired couple and their twenty-something daughter. Across from me, a middle-aged man waited for his wife. Near him, all in a line, were a well-groomed young mother, her daughter and two sons. Everyone spoke softly, out of respect. Another half-dozen people flowed softly in, as though visiting a church.

Then at noon the calm of the room was ruptured by a middle-aged lady in a green, sequined jacket who strode into the room and immediately headed back toward the hell machine, saying, “Why isn’t the television on?” She liked it loud, too. And while it blasted “entertainment” at us, she immediately revved up her cellphone and started having a loud argument with someone. Even a little would be more than enough when it comes to TVs and cellphones in a hospital. I got up and walked out.

But where to go? The situation was like “Waiting for Godot”: If I left I might miss a message I was supposed to get. I walked the short corridor, risked going to the bathroom, walked some more, and so on. I peeked in to look at the message board: All the other cases had moved from pre-op to recovery, but number 10470 remained stuck to the status board as “Patient in OP.” Was Janet still in surgery? Why?

I stepped back out of the waiting room – it was 12:30 – and there was my wife’s surgeon, standing leaning against a door jamb – dressed immaculately in a beautiful suit, nice tie too. His appearance seemed like a meta-message I needed to interpret as we talked. I’m used to the sight of doctors in green scrubs, their OR masks shoved under their chins, hurrying from the operating room to tell me how a surgery went. Maybe he’d never been in scrubs…maybe his assistant did the work?  Maybe I’m crazy and my mind wanders too much.

His narrative went like this: in order to get to the stomach, the liver had to be moved out of the way, so they used a liver retractor to do that. Standard practice. Except that, to quote from the report issued later: “… there was some bleeding encountered …”

(Excellent use of the passive voice, I thought. Not, “I brushed against the liver, or I nicked the liver.”)

In the end, the operation, the Nissen fundoplication, was a success, but the effort to stem the blood flow had held up the operation for a few hours because it was hard to visualize what was where. I should be able to see my wife in about a half hour.

Three hours later, after I had pestered the Patient Procedures nurse exactly every twenty minutes, a nurse snuck me down to see my pale spouse for five minutes in the recovery room. She was too sleepy to notice me.

Three hours after that visit she was moved to her room. I went right up. All of her vital signs reflected the anesthetic after-effects and the blood she’d lost. You name it: hemoglobin, red cell count, hematocrit, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, on and on, all were low. Bad low. The next day, her lungs would start to show shadows.

But she was stable enough at 8 p.m. that I said goodbye to her exhausted self. I could still hear her roommate talking loudly on her phone while her TV blasted the room. With that noise in my ears – and Janet’s – I stepped on the elevator and waited for the doors to close and send me home in the dark. Television: The universally perfect means to pacify half the inmates so they can drive the other half crazy. And leave the staff alone.    Neither Janet nor I knew then she’d be there two more days and then go home and get pneumonia.

Next week: Hospital lessons I learned.