June 17, 2019: In the Surgical Waiting Room

We sit on the bench in the hospital corridor
next to the cafeteria, and we wait.
You know what waiting is.
If you know anything, you know what waiting is.
It’s not about you.
This is about
illness and hospitals and life and death…

(From: “What Waiting Is,” by Robert Carroll, 1998)

I’ve sat in waiting rooms more than a few times in my life, like the anxious hours at Sick Kids when my then twelve-year-old daughter underwent hip surgery or sitting in the over-crowded surgical waiting room while my husband had a cancerous kidney removed.  For those of us confined to the surgical waiting room for the news of the surgical outcome, the hands of the clock move slowly, despite how many times we check it.  It’s the agony of waiting.

“Here, stress, anxiety, uncertainty and fear serve to make even the shortest of waits seem unbearable.  Families sit crouched forward in their uncomfortable chairs watching the door in hopes of preservation of a life or, unfortunately, sometimes by a less desirable outcome.”  –Kevin Campbell, MD, “The Psychology of the Surgical Waiting Room: Personal Adventures in Waiting,” 2012)

There have also been times that my spouse has waited for me to undergo surgery, as he did again last Friday.  But this was a waiting experience we ended up sharing–something we hadn’t anticipated would occur.  I was scheduled for a “pocket revision” and replacement of my ICD in the hospital’s day surgery unit.  Even before we sat down,  I was nervous.  While the procedure is considered routine, the prospect of general anesthesia and any kind of surgery are always anxiety producing for me.  I’m not unusual.  Studies have consistently demonstrated that the waiting experience for same day surgeries adds stress to patients who are already anxious.

Yet I had no idea that my day would become as stressful as it did.  We’d arrived at the hospital at 9 a.m. for blood tests as required, waiting nearly an hour for my name to be called.  But we were upstairs and checking in the Surgical Admissions Unit at ten o’clock, just as I’d been directed to do.  I was somewhat alarmed to see the waiting rooms nearly full, but I pushed my concern aside, opened up a book, and began reading.

One by one, patients were called in to exchange their clothes for a hospital gown and taken to the pre-op section.   Sometime after 1 p.m., I finally approached the nurse stationed near the waiting area.  Did she have any idea of how much longer I’d be waiting?  She apologized, saying patients had arrived all at once  with some even coming late, but, she assured me, there were just two more patients in front of me.  An hour and a half later,  my husband and I were the only occupants remaining in the waiting room.  I was thirsty, hungry, and increasingly anxious.  And by the time the nurse  ended her shift and the cleaning staff person appeared, I was downright worried.  Finally, an hour later, after the operating nurse appeared and told me my surgery would need to be rescheduled, I was a wreck.  Downcast and exhausted, we left nearly seven hours after we’d first arrived earlier that morning.  It was a waiting ordeal I have no desire to repeat.

But we are all forced is forced to wait many times in our lives.   I think of those heart patients who wait–with hope, with fear–for heart transplant surgery and finding a suitable donor.  I hear cancer patient’s stories of the waiting they do for referrals, tests, surgeries, treatments–all the while wondering, as Susan Gubar describes, “who knows what appalling cells are conspiring within my body to destroy my being?” (In “Well,” New York Times, 03/12/15).  I read “Waiting” (2008), a short story by E.C. Osondu, describing how refugees wait in a camp, their homes destroyed by war, without water or food, hoping and praying for relief, for rain.  These experiences help me put my waiting experience in perspective–it’s little more than a minor irritation by comparison.

“Every watch is broken in the waiting room, ” Nurse Sonja Schwartzbach writes, “better to count your blessings than to measure the seconds.”  Dr. Kevin Campbell suggests there are four common themes to our psychology of waiting:

  • Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time.
  • Anxiety makes waits seem longer.
  • Uncertain waits seem longer than finite waits.
  • Solo waits seem longer than group waits.

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe, writing in a recent Globe and Mail column, offered a physician’s perspective on the time patients spend waiting.  “No doctor likes running behind,” she wrote, “and most try to keep on time out of respect for patients’ schedules and busy lives.  But even with the best of intentions, we end up running behind due to unpredictable circumstances.”  This is likely truer in a day surgery unit than even a physician’s office, especially when it’s surgery that involves the heart.

Nonetheless, waiting has never been easy for me–I am action-oriented, even impatient at times, despite my best attempts to quell my toe tapping tendencies.  My surgery has been rescheduled for tomorrow.  I’ll arrive on time, take my place in the waiting room, and while the time may seem to drag on slowly, I’ll have to accept what I cannot control, to let things unfold as they will.  Eventually, my new ICD will be in place, and I won’t be waiting–at least not for that.  After all, this is life, and it will surely require, more than a few times, that I wait.

What you do with time

is what a grandmother clock

does with it:  strike twelve

and take its time doing it.

You’re the clock: time passes,

you remain.  And wait.

(From “Mother,”  by Herman de Coninck, In:  The Plural of Happiness, 2006)

Writing Suggestions:

  • What do the words “waiting room” conjure up for you?
  • Write about an experience you’ve had in a doctor’s or hospital waiting room.
  • What was the situation? Were you waiting for a loved one?  Or were you waiting for a procedure?
  • What did you experience?  What was the outcome?
  • Write about the “helplessness” of waiting.



2 thoughts on “June 17, 2019: In the Surgical Waiting Room

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