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Waiting Room

We’ve all been there.

The DMV and the ER are the most iconic waiting rooms with their own vibe and rules.

At the Department of Motor Vehicles, all have installed the same alphanumeric cuing system, broadcast on a large TV screen that also features advertisements for gutter guards, tires, insurance, and mechanics. A cross section of humanity sits in a theater style arrangement of chairs and stares aimlessly at the screen like a scene from 1984 by George Orwell. Books and newspapers used to be our companions in these settings, but today virtually everyone is staring at their smartphone between glances at the screen. But you’d better not miss the silent movie, because if they pass your number and you don’t go to the specified window, you get to go back to the beginning, confess to Broom Hilda, and start over again.

There is something very leveling about the DMV experience. Whether you own a bank and arrive in a Bentley, or are unemployed, living at a shelter or in your parents’ basement and arrive in a 20-year-old Ford Taurus, you must navigate the jolly world of the DMV. You need a title? You need a driver's license? You need to renew your registration? Welcome to the cinderblock palace and the fine people of the DMV.

I must say that in general, the staff has gotten more customer service training over the years. But like most training, some people get an A on the final exam, some people get a C, and some people are pissed off about having to take the training and are still pissed off when you arrive at their desk. Some people say, “Good morning may I help you?” and some people say, “Yeeeesssss?” with that hand on the hip tone. They seem to be mad that they work at the DMV, and you are annoyed that you must come to the DMV which is a volatile combination. Ain’t nobody happy.

And then there’s the money involved. When people are unhappy with the waiting times, the surly treatment, and the prison block atmosphere, the price for everything on the menu will seem too high. I have always thought it would be a good idea to have a big sign on the wall displaying the total amount the DMV contributed to road construction, road maintenance, and driver safety the previous year. Maybe the fact that you are waiting in line to fill a pothole, rehab an unsafe driver, or add a new bypass around the city would ease the pain. At least it would dispel the impression that you are paying for service that you are not receiving or the government bureaucracy that hasn’t won any popularity contests in the last 5 centuries.

And then there’s the ER waiting room that I experienced this past Monday.

Crowded, warm, noisy and like the DMV, populated by everything from the top earners in our community to the poor folks who use the ER for primary healthcare, its vibe gives you immediate pause. As you survey the room, you are struck by the number of folks in wheelchairs already strung with iv bags and receiving some kind of life sustaining liquids. Back in the day, you stayed back in a curtained cubicle while awaiting tests or test results. Today with the overcrowding of urban hospitals, you are in a space-filling weave, from waiting room to triage to cubicles to Xray and CT scan, and back to the waiting room until the hospitalist meets with you and delivers the results and the check-in or checkout news.

Maybe it is just a faulty memory, but I also recall that the consultation and treatment cubicles were larger with a bit more privacy. Nowadays if you don’t want to hear the bowel movement autobiography of the patient next door, come with some strong noise-cancelling headphones because what you hear is hard to forget.

As to the people who staff the ER, this is where the similarity to the DMV ends. They might seem a little curt and overly efficient at first, but when you sit there and observe their workload and multitasking in an atmosphere that can only be described as bedlam, you wonder why they are even there. Doors fling open and stretchers or wheelchairs equipped with handcuffs speed to triage. Nursing home transports arrive with elderly patients knocking on heaven's door. Uniformed dads with their clumsy athletes, and frantic new parents with wheezing infants limp in or dash to the receptionist. All have already gone through metal detectors and a screening protocol for firearms that makes us all unhappy when we are in a hurry.

The receptionist calmly asks the name, date of birth, and what’s new pussycat? questions and copies your Medicare, Medicaid, exchange insurance provider card, or listens dispassionately to the news that you are uninsured. This while a workman is rewiring something under the desk, disheveled souls are claiming you cut in line, and others are angrily announcing how long they’ve been waiting. The receptionist’s voice never rises in anger and like a good lion tamer, she never makes eye contact with her tense pupil. Either with the wordless raise of a finger, or a curt “one moment, please”, she continues to serve the new admission right up to the final instruction, “please be seated and someone with call you shortly” (that being a relative term).

The drama for the day featured two cases of missing shoes.

The first was when an elderly black gentleman with gray hair and a tailored set of pajamas, was checked in by a nice young EMS paramedic and delivered in his wheelchair to a space facing me. About three minutes after the paramedic left, the man became agitated and motioned to a woman to his right and to me that he needed something. He was so polite and soft spoken that he didn’t immediately command attention, but I rose, and he said, “I need to see that ambulance driver, please”

I got up, walked to the receptionist desk, and asked whether the paramedic in the yellow shirt was still in the area. I was told no, he had left and to be sure, I ran out the door and looked both ways only to see a “box ambulance” turning the corner in the distance. I reported back to the desk and walked back to the gentleman and told him that the EMS dude had skedaddled. He then conveyed the source of his dismay.

“Well, he took my shoes with him. I know that I had my shoes on when I left my house, but the young man took them off when I was in the ambulance.”

I told him that the little guy did not appear to be his shoe size, so we’d definitely get them back. I reported the problem to one of the folks at the desk and they immediately came back to the gentleman to confirm the issue. They assured him that they had a record of his transport and would get in touch with the dispatcher right away. I left the scene in the hope that all would be adequately handled.

This was a one act play, but the feature length drama was supplied by a rather tall lady with wild gray hair and a commanding voice. She was an octogenarian I’d judge, pajamaed, and sitting precariously on a rumpled bed sheet in a wheelchair near the receptionist desk. I will call her Helen Ready for purposes of this blog, but her real name we knew by heart because she shouted it along with questions or heartbreaking pleas for two straight hours.

“I’m Helen Ready and I’ve been here before” she bellowed. “When am I gonna get my tests? I’ve been waiting a long time and I need to get my tests.”

First the receptionist and then the staff took turns saying, “Mrs. Ready, you’ve had your tests, and we are just waiting for your results.”

This dialog repeated many times, but suddenly Mrs. Ready was silent. I initially thought she was leaning forward to pick up something off the floor, but when I rose to assist, I realized there was nothing on the floor, but that’s where Helen was headed. I picked up the pace, but one of the techs leapt from behind the desk to grab her shoulder.

“Mrs. Ready, you are not supposed to get up, please sit back in your chair”

“I have to leave but I don’t have any shoes. Where are my shoes?”

“You did not arrive with your shoes Mrs. Ready. But you don’t need to leave Mrs. Ready. You are waiting for your test results.”

“When am I going to get my tests?”

And go round and round and round in the circle game.

As this continued, the entire staff took turns speaking to Mrs. Ready with compassion and undivided attention.

One sweet exchange was when they got her something to eat as one of many tactics to change the plot. When the young woman sat down on a chair beside her wheelchair and opened the boxed lunch, Mrs. Ready asked, “What’s that?” to which the tech answered, “I’ve gotten you something to eat; it's a chicken sandwich.”

Mrs. Ready then announced to the tech and the entire room, “I can’t pay you. I haven’t any money.”

The tech smiled along with the entire waiting room and gently said, “You don’t have to pay me.”

Mrs. Ready, “A gift?”

Tech, “Yes, a gift.”

Mrs. Ready, “Thank you dear, that’s very kind of you.”

Just two human beings thrown into the same space and navigating life with basic, simple transactions.

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Matthew 25: 35-37

I was in the waiting room, and you called my number.


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