Oncology waiting room — where hope drips slowly

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The last day of the year found me in an impromptu meeting of a strange organization; one that requires no regular meetings or any other standards that identify such public bodies.

I found myself in the midst of a Waiting Room Society.

There was no formal structure except, perhaps, for the glass window prominently positioned in the center of the large waiting room.

Solemn people automatically step to the opening in the glass, speak briefly to someone behind it and take a clipboard with a blank form and a cheap ballpoint pen attached. Chairs along the beige walls are where forms are dutifully filled out then returned to the clerk behind the glass.

Some people chat, some study the floor and ceiling with unseeing eyes. They wait patiently.

Glances toward the water cooler and coffee containers are random and unfocused. None look directly into my eyes, none offer conversation. We all sit quietly hoarding our secrets; hiding our inner fears.

Silence is the currency of this room, broken only by the call of an orderly for the next patient to carry her patient information form in to the next stage of the process; a routine that is both solemn and filled with hopeful promises.

Will the oncologist report improvement? Have the tumors shrunk?

Will there be a break in the routine of infusions of chemical poison which kill a little of the patient and hopefully destroy cancer cells too?

A large elderly man sitting across from me hears his name called and dutifully rocks back and forth in the sturdy chair until he is able to stand, leaning heavily on an adjustable aluminum cane. Unsteady, he struggles to the doorway where the orderly awaits with a mechanical smile and a clipboard in hand. He disappears into a labyrinth of waiting rooms and clerical offices. He is weighed, his temperature taken and pulse checked.

His papers reviewed, he waits alone in silent resignation, a name on a file in a drawer or in a computer somewhere in the ether of the Internet cloud, just another insect in a web waiting for the spider.

Some are young, some are old and in wheelchairs and on walkers — there is no pattern except for the looks that say, “I know I can die from this so I must try; I must stand the pain!”

There are no cash registers visible though small amounts of money change hands — co-pays, they are called. No prices are listed on the walls, no advertisements; yet we know money flows like a river of water, like the chemical-laden blood pulsing in their veins in the adjoining infusion room. There, patients in fake leather recliners relax in a false sense of comfort while masked and gloved specialists adjust drip bags on metal poles beside them. Some chat nervously with patients in adjoining recliners — idle words that ease the hidden fears and help pass the time.

One drop at a time, poison enters the tube that feeds through the port in the chest and enters a vein near the heart. Drops of desperate hope, drops of radioactive poison! Coffee, sodas, juices, snacks are available and are delivered by attendants or companions who accompany the patients.

Everyone cares; everyone hopes; some pray silently ... sometimes.

Cautious friendships develop. Some smile when they see the sign below the ceiling-mounted television set, the sign that declares “The Jerry Springer Show” off limits to patients. And do not dare raise the volume above 20.

Sleep mercifully relieves the boredom for a while until the beep of the alarm that signals the chemo bags are empty and the infusion is coming to an end for this time awakens the drowsy patient. All done. Time to go home; time to hope and live until next week and the next meeting of the Waiting Room Society.

B.J. Gillum