Waiting is the most unsettling aspect of a hospital. For all the buildings and the equipment and the extra staff and the focus on patient care, no one has solved the problem of the waiting. Disney, deli counters and bus stopswith LEDs have partial solutions - but none really translate onto the ward (although medical staff do have a habit of arriving in threes). So, upon entering the system, patient and visitor must resign themselves to a Godot-like state. Waiting.
Yesterday. My father in the Short Stay Coronary unit for an angiogram and CAT scan. Gowned, tagged and sampled, he lays on a bed with more controls than a JCB, watching cars queue for £20-a-day parking. Two maintenance men fitting new 'Max Headroom' signs above the entrance. Of course, for Dad, they are making a bad job of it. 'Makes my blood boil,' he says. Judging by the screen above his bed, it's almost a literal statement. Waiting. A man in a white shirt arrives to wheel Dad to the scanning room. "How long will it take?" I ask. "Don't know. I just wheel 'em. You'd better ask the nurse." Foot levers are pushed, and Dad glides away, a human liner launched on its voyage into unchartered waters. A nurse tells me "an hour, an hour and a half". Waiting. I find coffee. It's hard to avoid at the Main Entrance. Hawkers and vendors with their cappuccinos and cakes, their burgers and books, their flowers and french fries.A mini mall of consumption to help pass the time. There's even a legal practice; a solicitor who got smart and gave up chasing ambulances. Now they come to him. He waits by the front door, personal injury forms partially complete: just sign here, here and here. I buy a coffee and a brie baguette. "Do I want a packet of crisps or a banana with that?" There's a meal deal, and I can have a free packet of crisps or a banana. It's Hobson's choice: I'm in a hospital; there are '5 Portion' posters everywhere and my conscience is fruit-shaped. I sit at a table, between a girl with purple hair and man crumpled into a wheelchair. He struggles with a mini-pot of UHT milk, and I wonder if I should offer help. His carer arrives, glares at me, and resolves the dilemma. Waiting. Back on the unit,I find Dad laying prone on his bed, recovering. The procedure - a tube inserted in his groin, along his artery, to the aorta - has been uncomfortable but painless, but now he must rest. Waiting. A nurse, her light blue uniform showing her status, tells Dad to drink a jug of water to flush out the dye in his system. She offers a cup of tea with a straw, and a cheese sandwich. She raises him 15 degrees in his bed. Outside, the car queue dwindles. The workmen have finished the signs. We watch people walk to and from their vehicles. A doctor arrives to speak with a man in another bed. Curtains are drawn, voices mumble, curtains are pulled back. The man's wife smiles. Dad's feet are cold; are his slippers on the floor? I find them behind the drawer unit, kicked there by the porter, and stand at the end of the bed, pull back the blanket and put them on Dad's feet, dark endings to white tubes. Waiting. Another doctor. This one introduces himself; a cardiologist who confirms what we already know. Dad needs surgery. His aorta has dilated, restricting the supply of blood to the brain, and causing blackouts. It's a replacement operation. Dad takes this in his stride - because this isn't the bad news he is fearing. That comes in the next breath. "I have to advise you that until you've had the operation, you mustn't drive." The metrics on the screen all change in an instant. Fifty years of professional self-respect and personal pleasure have just ended. His heart has been ripped out. Waiting. Cars leave the car park. Dad is now sitting upright. Another nurse, in darker blue, looks at his charts and asks if he would like to go to the sitting room. "Can we get his clothes from the locker?" Not yet. Just to sit. I help Dad on with his dressing gown, like wrapping a fragile parcel. We walk slowly to an open area, with salmon chairs arranged against the walls. The waiting room is new; no scuffs on wall or skirting, no rips in the chairs, no smell of hospital. Waiting The patients sit in hospital robes, their white porcelain legs capped with sheepskin slippers, received at Christmas, like every Christmas before. A father, wife and son huddle in one corner, sharing a joke. Along the wall, a couple sit; he asleep, she staring straight ahead. Connected by hands, clinging to life and memories. Next to me, a lonely man reads a book and twitches his arm back and forth like a metronome. Next to Dad, a family of three (son? daughters?) wait for Mother to return from tests. Opposite, a well-dressed woman struggles with Sudoko. Waiting. From along the corridor, a whirr, a buzzing hum, then a humming buzz. The sound of a chair scraping the floor. Footsteps: we all look up, hoping for attention. But it's not for us. We're caught like divers in a decompression chamber, where the surface is the outside world. Next stage is a gentle walk up and down the ward. Without arrangement, the seven patients take it in turns, a slow-mo relay without a baton. I walk with Dad, past more posters about fruit, smoking and exercise. He's fine, and just wants to get home. Waiting. The cardiologist reappears. He confirms that he will be handing Dad's case notes to a surgeon, who will call him in for a consultation. Meanwhile, he's discharged. One of the nurses will complete the paperwork. A GP letter is written. A test report is compiled. Dad goes to his locker to dress. The visit is over, the prognosis given. The treatment is surgery, once we hear from the hospital. Waiting.
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