Inspiration in the Oncology/Hematology Waiting Room

If they had their druthers nobody would be waiting in that particular room, the one everyone hopes never to have to visit. The dreaded room, the room of the cursed. Like a soldier sitting in a room waiting to be shipped off to war looking around and wondering who will return alive, you can find yourself wondering about the others patients, their stage and their prognoses. Boredom mixed with morbid curiosity and empathy leads to such speculation. Some people chat as if they are continuing conversations they started somewhere else, perhaps from many appointments on the same day or spending time together in the chemotherapy room. But mostly people don’t talk while they wait. One time I had a guy sit next to me, who seemed to be barely conscious. Before long he started to spray blood out of the top his hand where a bandage had just fallen off. I leaned away, and his wife yelled in panic. The nurses came running, whisked him away, and cleaned up the mess. That’s far more excitement than anyone wants in that room, and thankfully far more than we usually get. Typically we wait in silence, alone with our worries and hopes, and our morbid curiosities.

There is a fairly long wait between the drawing of the blood and the consultation with a doctor where the blood counts are discussed. In between the blood has to be sent to the lab and analyzed, and the results must be entered into the computer system. The waiting time varies between 30 mins. and two hours. So, this past week I decided to get a cup of coffee after my blood was drawn. When I returned to the waiting room I found an open seat, adjacent to which were the belongings of someone who must have been in the back room having blood drawn. I couldn’t remember who might be sitting there, but since people tend not to socialize, I didn’t much care, I‘m nearly done with Ana Karenina, and I was looking forward to diving into the book. I plopped down and got busy with the book. A few minutes later a woman five to ten years my elder sat down. Apparently she looked over to see what I was reading because she immediately she said something to the effect of how nice it was that I was reading that book. I wasn’t looking for conversation, and I certainly didn’t expect it, but I was about to get it.

I didn’t really want to stop reading so I replied pleasantly but briefly and returned to the book. But she would not relent, I soon learned that she was from Brazil. After meeting the man who would be her husband on a Pacific cruise about 10 years ago, they each returned home to their respective countries. But then he contacted her telling her that he had a cancerous growth on his throat. She decided to move half way across the world to help with his care. She left behind a grown daughter and elderly mother, At some point after that, they were married. But he’s been in and out of the hospital ever since. The details of it all were a bit hard to follow because I was having some trouble with her thick Portuguese accent. So, we switched to English, a language we were both more comfortable in. She told me that while he was in the hospital initially she kept herself busy by learning guitar and singing, first in a Protestant choir and then in Catholic one. A few years back her own health troubles began. Her platelet counts dropped precipitously for unknown reasons. In response she was treated with a high dose of cortisone, which elicited psychotic reactions. The doctors switched to chemotherapy and that seems to be helping. And although she has no one to help her out, she has also been taking care of her husband all along.

She related this whole story without a complaint, an indication of regret, or a trace of self-pity. It was just her life that she was telling me about. I marveled at her strength and spirit. The discussion lasted for at least a half an hour, but she was eventually called into the back room for her doctor’s consultation. When she came out, before leaving, she came over to me, smiled, shook my hand, and pleasantly said good bye. The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius advised that we should strive to be like the cliff against which the waves continually crash, but standing firm tames the fury of the waves; for then we will not be unhappy due to what has happened to us, but remain happy despite what happens. We don't know how we are going to react to hardship when it falls on us, but I could only hope to have her fortitude and sanguinity. I never learned her name, but I will probably never forget our conversation. That day last week I found unlikely inspiration in the dreaded waiting room.

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