Last week I had to go see one of my many doctors for a yearly check up so that he would continue to prescribe the pharmaceuticals of which I am so fond.
He has an office in one of the large local hospitals and as I walked through the maze of halls that snake through a small city of professional buildings, I was struck by the fact that everyone I passed was dealing with some sort of medical drama, either for themselves or someone they love. And as I looked into the faces of the people I passed, I recognized in them that expression of fear that comes with an uncertain future. And once you’ve been down that road yourself, you become attuned to the look and smell of that brand of fear.
When I got into the elevator, there was already an older gentleman standing in the back. I pushed the button for my floor and then turned to acknowledge him with a smile.
The doors hushed shut and the elevator began to hum as it moved us upwards, just the two of us. He pulled his collar back to show me where had just had a biopsy of some sort on his neck. “Glad that’s over,” he said to me. I leaned slightly forward to look at his neck, not because I wanted to, but because I knew he needed me to look at it. He needed to show someone and I was there.
“Wow,” I said. “Did it hurt?” I asked. “Nah. Not too much,” he said bravely if not convincingly. “Well you know what?” I said, “These docs here, they’re good. They’ll fix you up,” I encouraged. It’s true. These docs here, they fixed me up a couple of times. He pulled his collar together with both hands as though he were suddenly cold and stared at the floor.
The elevator doors parted and he stepped off into his uncertain future. I watched him walk away as the doors shut and I hoped that he had someone waiting at home who would look at his neck and ask if it hurt.
When I got to my doctor’s office, I sat in the waiting room waiting to be called. An older couple came in. The gentleman took a seat and the woman left with a nurse. He sat down across from me and drummed his foot like a rabbit. I could see the worry etched deeply in his forehead. He stood and walked to the window. And then sat down again. And then stood again, turning one way and then the other but not going anywhere. He literally didn’t know which way to turn.
He finally turned to me and said, “I think she’s going to be okay. I think so… I hope so.” He looked at me for confirmation, for hope. I leaned forward in my chair to indicate interest. He needed to speak those words and he needed me to hear them. “Well you know what?” I said to him, “You’re in the right place. These docs here, they’re good. They’ll fix you up.” He nodded and sighed deeply.
Before I left the hospital that day, I had encountered several people who needed to express their fears, to release them to another human being, even a complete stranger. Why me, I don’t know. I don’t know if I had a particular openness to me that day or if in me they saw a kindred spirit, someone familiar with their brand of fear. Or maybe I was wearing a sign on my back that read, “Please. Tell me about your medical condition. I want to know.”
As I was driving home I thought about how hospitals have volunteers to tell you how to get from one part of the medical maze to another or to validate your parking ticket, but I think what they really need are people to wander the halls and ride the elevators to look at necks and accept released fear and offer words of encouragement, people who would wear a sign on their back that says, “Please. Tell me about your medical condition. I want to know.”