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A Hospital Waiting Room Makes Family Of Us All

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When I was a young child, my Aunt Debbie and Uncle Bill would visit quite often. Back then our family was close, both emotionally and physically, plus my grandparents lived just down the street about 10 houses down. My aunt and uncle lived less than an hour away.

When I knew they would be visiting I would sit on the top step of our staircase, my palms under my chin, my elbows on my knees, and just wait. When I heard their car settle into our driveway I would spring to my feet. I could feel my heart skip and my face squish into a giant smile. I was about to take part in the very first tradition I remember having in my life: jumping from the staircase and into my uncle's waiting arms.

boy stairs father
(Photo: Zing Images via Getty Images)

It was the kind of tradition that drove Aunt Debbie nutty, and rightfully so. And while I would never want to emulate this tradition with my own son, nothing could stop me from launching myself off that staircase, partly because I liked the rush, and partly because I knew my uncle would never drop me. I trusted him. I still trust him.

I'm really kind of paranoid right now. In about 10 hours Uncle Bill will be having triple bypass surgery, and all I can think of is finding a way to catch him and keep him safe. It's silly, I know. After all, I am no doctor, and even though I have spent the last month fiercely criticizing the Newfoundland health-care system, I am now at its mercy.

Good news, though: they are heralded in the realm of cardiology, partly because they have amazing surgeons and partly because they only have one hospital in the province that can perform these kinds of surgeries. People who criticize our universal health care for waiting times often use Newfoundland as their most alarming example, and Uncle Bill had waited two weeks just to get his angiogram -- plus another two weeks to finally get his surgery. I dare not ask how many patients have died while waiting. See, my own heart is fluttering, and I have to stop myself from thinking the worst.

These strangers are experiencing the same unfamiliar setting, and an immediate bond is formed.

Aunt Debbie and I sat with Uncle Bill, pre-surgery, in a four-patient room four floors above the operating room and ICU. A pastor visits, and I find myself participating in an on-the-spot prayer, which is strange for me due to my lack of belief, but I do it -- eyes open -- and suppress the voice inside that usually makes fun of people praying. Time and place, I tell myself.

Inside the four-patient room are the families of other people waiting for surgery. All of the patients were men, and so wives and daughters were everywhere. Friends, sons and other relatives came in and out, all sporting similar faces and demeanor as they offered their best-mustered words during such a worrisome time.

Nobody is spared the anxiety of a patient in a hospital bed, with the generic food trays, the tubes and the tendency to make awkward jokes inside a tense and often tentative environment. But this unfamiliar setting is tempered with the graceful and mutual recognition that these strangers are experiencing the same unfamiliar setting, and an immediate bond is formed. These are now your brethren, your people, your family.

waiting room
(Photo: Riopatuca via Getty Images)

Doctors would walk by the waiting area and purposely not make any eye contact with us and the other relatives, an apparent strategy that helps both sides of the equation feel better, for sure. There was this one man, whose name I never learned even though I spent hours at his side, who was waiting to hear if his wife was OK after receiving surgery to remove a brain tumour. Two weeks ago she was co-running their mom-and-pop snow-clearing company, a day later she got a headache. A week later she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and a few days later she was under the knife.

That sequence -- where you go from everything being fine to your whole world being at risk -- is the driving force behind a hospital family. It provides an insight to our mortality, our fragility, our strength and our ability to be resilient for other people.

That man then made eye contact with a doctor, and we all knew he was about to get news. He nodded his head as the doctor very quietly told him the status of his beloved. The doctor put his hand on the man's shoulder, walked away and did not look back. Our new friend turns toward us with his eyes heavy and lowered. He finally looks at us, begins to sob, and manages to say, "she's going to be OK" as he completely breaks down.

We were united in our fear, tip-toeing around the broader topic of how devastating it would be to lose our loved ones.

The strangers in the waiting room do not hesitate. We flock towards him and give him our hugs, our tears and our kind words of support. We tell him we are happy for him and thankful for his news. When the moment melts away someone else arrives, and we start the process of bonding through our worry all over again.

Uncle Bill, for his part, forged a friendship with a fellow patient, Frank. They spent two weeks together, under the same dire circumstances, in beds just three feet apart. Frank's family mingled with ours, and we all took pictures or brought each other coffees. We were united in our fear, tip-toeing around the broader topic of how devastating it would be to lose our loved ones. Uncle Bill and Frank, ironically, were often the most jovial, the most positive.

They both came out of their open-heart surgeries OK, and are now in the ICU waiting to be well enough to head to the recovery wing. They also made plans to visit each other when they are both back on their feet. Hell, even if they never actually see each other again they will still have this pocket of time to remember if they ever need to recharge their souls.

As for us -- the families who were experiencing the stresses of Uncle Bill, Frank and the others (albeit somewhat vicariously) -- we will look back on this as a glaring example of what it truly means to be human. The moment of helplessness, the rush, but then the feeling of being safe with your trusted family -- like a kid jumping off a staircase into the waiting arms of his favourite uncle.

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