Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Wait

What is it like to be in the critical care waiting room of a trauma center?

9. 1. 5. 9. Those are the only numbers that matter in the critical care waiting room, because they are the only times the patients can have visitors and only then for one hour. Everyone in the waiting room plans his or her schedule according to those four times - 9:00, 1:00, 5:00, and 9:00. As infrequent as it is, it is still the only hope and comfort one has to look forward to in this pale yellow room with hard green chairs and gray paisley recliners. There are 3 TVs and lots of magazines scattered about in the room, but all eyes are mostly on the big clock at the front desk. The room is constantly occupied, so much so that they have to close it down for a few hours every Thursday morning just to clean.

Look around - this room holds many people, and with each person is another story - of tragedy, trauma, infection, coma, and death. So many stories. So many tears.

There are some smiles and laughter, of course. There has to be, for the worried ones could not survive without a break in the anxiety. Some of those worried ones have been living in the waiting room for months. Their suitcases and myriad bags tell of the many nights they have slept in recliners, and the many mornings they have shuffled into the bathroom to take a shower. There are hair brushes and toothbrushes and all the signs of personal hygiene. There is not much privacy here. No one worries about snoring or being seen with dirty hair or no makeup. On the contrary, instead of embarrassed strangers, they are a family, not for the most part with ties of blood, but with ties of suffering and hope, pain and recovery. They share a bond, they ask about each other's loved ones, rejoicing in any sign of improvement, no matter how small. They relate how long they have been "living" in this room. Here background or race doesn't matter. Understanding, though, does.

Every visitor has to first sign in at the desk and get a photograph taken for a sticker ID. This photograph is worse than a driver's license photograph, worse than a passport photograph. We pass the time trying to figure out whose picture is the worst. It is as if the camera purposefully chooses the most horrible perspective in order to mirror the mood of the wearer. After a few hours, the ID expires and you have to get a new one printed out. The photograph never expires, though. It is there forever.

Visitors wear this ID all day. When a CCU visitor passes another person in the hospital wearing the ID, both people smile in empathy. They might recognize each other from the waiting room; they might not. It doesn't matter. You are one of us. I am one of you. We know our priorities. One priority is our sick loved one, and the other is the clock which gives us those short hours we live for. 9, 1, 5, 9.

Every so often the ring of a telephone jars the quiet conversation. Everything stops. The books, the TVs, the cell phones - all are placed on hold as a clerk or visitor answers the phone and yells out the family's name. Your heart tries to beat out of your chest. Is it the doctor bringing bad news? No, it's not for you. You've been granted a reprieve. You can try to relax until the next time the phone rings.

After a few days, you realize that some recliners are off limits, because they are being used by the "regulars" who have made the waiting room their home. This tradition is given great respect. It reminds me a little of going to church, where certain people have their usual pews. Except these people sleep there and eat there with their bags of cookies and chips and snacks and sodas. It's almost like a camping trip, except you are so totally exhausted and anxious and worried. Beyond exhausted.

If the phone is not ringing, the choppers are landing overhead or an ambulance rushes past. There's been another wreck or another fire and the trauma center again does what it does best.
This is a place where nobody really wants to be. It doesn't matter, because you have to be there. You get through another day, help one more person find the elevators or the cafeteria, and then at 10:00 p.m. you go to the desk and receive your blankets and pillow. You snuggle down, trying to find a comfortable position in an uncomfortable recliner, and fitfully sleep. Occasionally another family comes in the waiting room in the middle of the night and moves chairs around so they can be together. The choppers and ambulances never completely go away. Morning comes before you know it, and it's time to wait your turn with the shower, the sink, or the toilets, get some breakfast, and start watching the clock. 9, 1, 5, 9. Those are the only numbers that matter.


Martha Smith said...

Carol, please let me know where you are if you are still in town. I would love to visit with you and maybe take you out for a meal. This is Martha, your old friend from Harris Memorial, East and - um - the paper route. You can email me if you are still in town and interested. I am so sorry that your mom is in the hospital.

MissEllen said...

So well written. Very moving. I am sorry for all your going through. You have my prayers.