It is my annual check-up with the breast surgeon in Brighton. I made the appointment for 8.30am because in the afternoon I have my last class for the year at Godfrey Street, Bentleigh. Of course, the traffic has to be horrendous. Patience is a virtue, but I keep this thought to myself as my daughter curses the idiots abroad. Every set of traffic lights turns red as we approach – it’s always the way when you’re stressed or pushed for time.
Australia is a country in love with the car and with governments reluctant to invest in public transport, traffic congestion is the norm all over Melbourne, especially during morning and evening peak hours. Mary Jane drops me off a few minutes late and goes hunting for a parking spot – as rare as gold in some places, especially around shopping centres, railway stations, public buildings – the places we all want to go! The cluster of medical specialists in Brighton are popular and never short of patients. As I hurry into the waiting room I envisage MJ’s face reddening, to match the colour of her little Hyundai as she trawls the nearby streets for a parking space; frustration feeding her worry.
My daughters fear this visit as much as I do. An unforeseen complication after my initial mastectomy four years ago led to an emergency operation and they had to approve refusing life support (my wishes) and wait a harrowing few hours to see if I survived. Traumatised onlookers, they are haunted by memories I don’t have because of effective modern anaesthetics. Carers now have more recognition and much deserved praise, but there’s still a lot we could do within primary health care to support them, especially when events turn dramatic!
So, here I am again – twelve months disappear fast. I remember my Mum lamenting time passing more quickly as you age – at least I’m down to annual visits…
Christmas tree in the corner, bamboo stars in the window, tinsel trailing along the windowsill. Christmas filling a corner of the waiting room for the patients, brightening the severity of the black leather lounge suites interspersed with black vinyl chairs. My hazel eyes are drawn to the silhouette of a bird sitting on the electric wires outside the window. A crow? A premonition? (I have a lot of my Irish mother in me and the Scots are no slouches when it comes to being fey!)
From the corner of the room a ghetto blaster tuned low, plays music – not predictable Christmas carols, but soothing melodies. I recognise the song and struggle to suppress the tears lurking behind my eyes, raw emotion threatens to undo the calm exterior I portray on these visits. I take a deep breath, this is a positive omen, surely? John is with me as our special song wafts across the room, Always On My Mind... his spirit definitely here!
I glance around the room. There are two couples and three single women, including me. Another couple sit outside the Pathology Lab. I don’t think we are all waiting for the same doctor, he’s usually well organised. However, it is Christmas and the long summer break ahead, a time of year always difficult to schedule.
The reception area filled to capacity; six receptionists working hard, including a male, a new addition since last visit. They’ve claimed a little of the Christmas atmosphere by stringing glittering gold balls along the counter. One young lass even has tiny reindeers dangling from her ears. The couple beside me are called into pathology and one of the women is led into a nearby room. The doctor works from two rooms. This is year four for me, I know the drill. He deals with one patient while another is disrobing for examination in the other. Almost immediately another woman is called to pathology. The doctor’s efficiency won’t let me down, it will soon be my turn. I try not to stare at the couple leaving. She is pregnant and they have a toddler. Cancer sucks.
Waiting Room – such an apt title and great writing prompt. In fact, I gave the following scenario (courtesy of one of the many writing prompt sites on the Internet) to my writing class this week. A surprising coincidence because I plan my lessons well in advance. Perhaps my sub-conscious was at work to create such serendipity!
Three strangers are sitting in a doctor’s office waiting for their appointments. A patient’s bag tips over on the floor and something falls out. What is it? What do the characters say to each other that makes this a significant moment in their lives?
How many waiting rooms have I (and many others) sat in during a lifetime? Dentists, doctors, hospitals, train and bus stations, job interviews, government departments, council offices, schools, universities, funeral parlours … enough to become a patient with patience!
I try to remember the first waiting room and decide it was the dentist’s and I determine to block that 1950s experience out because I can still taste the horrible rubber mask, smell the gas and feel the bitter mouthwash as my blood swirls down a tiny sink attached to the chair. I can hear Mum promising to buy me ‘something special for being a brave girl.’
There were no childhood visits to the doctor because in Scotland our family doctor, Dr Reid, made house visits. He delivered me at home. Scotland also had a system of health visitors, district nurses a la the popular television series Call the Midwife. No waiting rooms filled with harassed mothers and hyped up, bored, or crying children.
Dr Reid was a regular visitor to our house in Braeside, Greenock and had a penchant for Mum’s baking. A fresh pancake, Irish soda bread, scone or fairy cake served with a cup of tea whenever he called. Mum was a ‘tea jenny‘ her greeting to all visitors, ‘a cup of tea?’
Another reason for Dr Reid calling frequently was my parents’ generosity with the telephone. When making visits in our area, Dr Reid would check in with his surgery or family, or perhaps arrange an ambulance or book people into hospital – all from our phone. Today with the proliferation of mobile telephones it is sobering to recall a childhood where ‘being on the phone‘ was an expensive luxury for most, and a rarity in working class homes.
My parents made the decision to have a telephone because it would allow Dad to work more, therefore a good investment. A train driver easily contactable was offered more shifts – an important fillip to our budget. Supporting a wife and six children never cheap!
Number 35 Davaar Road was the first house in the immediate housing scheme to get the telephone connected, and to my knowledge the only one to generously share the instrument. (Some people left coins in the money box that sat beside the phone, but not always. Calls were timed therefore many people were reluctant to risk big bills by trusting others.)
Mum had a clatter of eager messengers. My older siblings ran to fetch or tell neighbours a relative was on the phone, they had to report to work early, travel arrangements were changed, or a myriad of other personal messages. Mum was privy to emergencies, planned celebrations like marriages, sad news of illness and death, joyous (sometimes) announcements of pregnancies, job offers, exam and scholarship results, visiting relatives, holiday plans… the full gamut of community life.
A natural disaster in America meant a distressed neighbour worried about her sister. Mum rang the US Embassy, got a number to call for information, and after several anxious hours, exacerbated by the time difference, reached the neighbour’s sister on the phone. Those women never forgot Mum’s kindness and continued to thank Mum every year in a Christmas card until their death. There were other dramas witnessed – all because of a revolutionary communication tool, which in my lifetime has been transformed beyond recognition.
Today, with instant communication across the world via satellite, the expectation everyone has either a mobile phone or access to the Internet, reflecting on my Scottish childhood confirms the past is indeed ‘another country’ in more ways than one!
A receptionist ushers me into a room for the next stage of waiting for the doctor. I put on the gown with the flap open at the front. My surgeon is one of the most respectful, professional men I’ve met on this journey, but despite his manner I always feel vulnerable clutching the white cotton gown at my chest, sitting in a chair staring at the examination table and waiting…
It is good news. Another year notched up without the cancer appearing in my remaining breast or other parts of the body (metastatic disease). I can breathe normally. I text my daughter and wait outside looking skywards and soaking in the sunshine. The bird on the electric wires not a crow, but a butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) that has a beautiful call. I hope he will sing. This patient with patience waits and is rewarded. Another year to feel blessed.