Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Putting Queen Victoria in the waiting room

While away from Reflecting Light Command and Control Center these past few days, I spent some of that time in the waiting room of a hospital outpatient facility along with my mother, who was there for surgical treatment.

If you've been in one of these places, you know that it's of a different order than a doctor's or dentist's waiting room. It's more like a hostage situation. As many as 30 patients, along with their accompanying relatives and friends, can be required by the system to hang tough there for hours on end.

Why must waiting rooms be so oppressive, particularly since many of their inhabitants are ill, anxious, depressed, or experiencing physical pain?

If I say the waiting room where my mother was told to park herself until she was ready to be admitted to the surgical preparation area was institutional, you will understand what I mean. But this place was worse than institutional: it was a warehouse for people.

From my recollection (and I had bags of time in which to note its every detail), it lacked even the token mass-produced calendar art pictures that grace the walls of a cubicle-filled government office. There were chairs; there was a carpet; there was a rack with a few ill-used magazines. That was the decor. One large window had a view, partially blocked (which was probably just as well), of the parking lot.

And, oh yes, there was a wall-mounted TV, tuned to dopey interview shows and soap operas, with the sound on.

Tell me this: how many patients, many of them getting on in years, all with some ailment — perhaps potentially life threatening — want to be entertained by a half-wit host asking, "Is it true that you can lose weight by having sex? Stay with us, you'll find out right after the break!"

Almost none, if what I saw in the waiting room is any clue. The several dozen people on hand did their best to ignore the TV. Some talked with their companions; a few read; lots of them just sat, staring into the air or their memories, as the minute hand circled the clock.

This scene, mark you, took place in a unit of a prominent medical facility serving Long Island's tony North Shore district.

So an institution whose standards of medical treatment are presumably first class can't find any better way to help its patients, their friends and relatives — who, as already noted, are not likely to be in good spirits — pass the hours than to give them chairs and force-feed them junk TV.

A hospital administrator reading this might well reply in exasperation, "Well, what are we supposed to do for the patients while they're waiting to be called — stage a song-and-dance show for them?"

No. But you can start by showing them some respect and not assume they're all dummies who would be lost without their ration of daytime TV.

And thinking along those lines, there are other options, once you acknowledge the possibility that being ill doesn't make people morons. And that, in fact, being ill tends to encourage people to value their time and use it wisely. Those whose bodies are failing them (and that's all of us, sooner or later) need the consolations of art.

So how about making the waiting room an uplifting experience? For a cost of next to nothing, the hospital could play recorded music. Classical music, even. All right, not Mahler or Shostakovich, but there are plenty of popular favorites to choose from: Bach and Schubert and Mendelssohn and the inevitable Mozart. Why not? Surely even those not accustomed to it would prefer that to braying tabloid TV.

What about offering reading matter beyond a few tattered copies of Sepsis Today and Modern Cancer and dumbed-down supermarket tripe like Time? I suspect many people sentenced to indefinite confinement in hospital waiting rooms would be glad to be offered magazines with ideas, so that they could improve their minds instead of killing time.

Improve their minds? The very phrase has a quaint, Victorian ring to it. Well, the Victorians had some attitudes that could help sort us out. They lacked our (somewhat illusory) assurance that any problem can be fixed by a therapist or tax accountant or social welfare program. They knew, for instance, they could be carried off by cholera any time, and no polysyllabically named drug existed to stay the hour of their passing: no wonder they believed "life is real, life is earnest." The idea of "killing" time was abhorrent to well-brought-up Victorians. They would have shuddered to think of hospitals encouraging their own patients to waste hours on TV shows they would rightly have found degrading.

But we don't have the Victorians' faith in individuals' ability to improve their own character. (We believe, instead, in reforming their health habits, monitoring their speech for any hint of insensitivity, and hectoring them to consume fewer resources.) The idea of a medical facility being concerned with its patients' souls as well as their kidneys or arteries never crosses our rationalist minds.

The loss is ours.

I agree with A.N. Wilson when he writes:
If there has been a single shift in balance since Lytton Strachey wrote his mischievous debunking of Eminent Victorians over eighty years ago ... it is the reversal of roles in the judicial bench. Strachey and his generation self-consciously judged and condemned the Victorians. We, while noting many things amiss about Victorian Society, more often sense them judging us.

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