A long day in a surgical waiting room

Moments of boredom and moments of action—and worry— fill a morning and an afternoon

By George Valadie

Jan. 14, 2020, 9:30 a.m.—The premise for this column has been my belief that life throws occasional craziness at us, and often our response is even crazier. So rethinking our perspective—or praying for some—is a need we all have on occasion. Like today.

Right this minute, life is throwing some of that my wife’s way, and I’m here with 35 new friends in a surgical waiting room. No accident; she chose to be here. So hopefully, her day will end with a right foot that works and looks better than the one she has.

There are official names for what’s happening today: “bunion correction, bone fusion, skin graft.” The woman’s even got a “bunionette”; I kid you not. Saw it in the surgical orders myself.

But unofficially she’s been cursed with her mother’s feet, and they look a lot like Africa. Shoes have long been a challenge, comfortable shoes even more so, her balance isn’t all that great either. She’s needed this.

10:02 a.m.—We’ve parted company for now, and I’ve advanced to the second waiting room, me and 13 more new friends. Apparently, all our loved ones are having some sort of orthopedic work done today, which I won’t lie, gives me more peace than that first room where apparently the full gamut of surgical procedures are being prayed about.

10:23 a.m.—Back together in waiting room No. 3, just me and Nancy and a curtain. So far I’ve loved everyone we’ve met, but they forget you can hear them. “Yeah, I perforated a lady’s palate once, that thing’s sharper than you think” … “happens all the time” … “when I got finished with a guy, he looked like hamburger meat” … “will you get me some Chick-fil-A?”

10:37 a.m.—Game time is apparently scheduled for “12:30 lasting to 14:30,” said the kind but official man at the desk. Kindness goes a long way when you’re nervous. It doesn’t fix anything, but it does have a remarkable calming effect. I should remember that for others.

11:23 a.m.—This is the hurry-up-and-wait phase of having this sort of thing done. She’s looking at her phone; I’m looking at mine. If I’m supposed to be offering words to minimize her nervousness, I’m failing. Maybe I should Google some.

12:35 p.m.—Kickoff has obviously been delayed, but I’m OK with that. I want him to take his time with her like he’s taking his time with the patients before us.

12:43 p.m.—Just got to see the surgeon before he does his thing.

My whole family has been texting throughout, all of us worried, but it’s reassuring to know doctors worry, too.

Just to make sure, he asked her to point at the foot that needed work. Then he took out a magic marker and wrote his initials on it. Didn’t want to make that mistake I guess. Though I was hoping technology had advanced somewhat.

12:44 p.m.—He was apparently the signal. Motion and movement everywhere. Headed back to waiting room No. 2 while they give her a nerve block and some “feel good” medicine. I’m not sure why they don’t let me stay to see her get a few shots; I’ve been living with those feet for 42 years.

1:06 p.m.—They said they’d call me back to see her one more time beforehand, but they haven’t. I think they started without me. Godspeed!

1:21 p.m.—There’s a TV here that no one’s watching, an endless loop of Dr. Phil. I think they show that so we’ll all realize there are people with worse problems.

1:27 p.m.—Not much to read either. I tried to browse this American Journal of Nursing, but it’s not holding my interest. What do you do in a surgical waiting room?

This feels so different than my previous tours of duty in maternity waiting rooms. There’s more lightheartedness there but none here. Eerily quiet for a room of 13 people.

1:36 p.m.—Hearing this waiting room phone ring is an eerie experience. Five or six families all waiting for good news. There’s just one ring … but it’s affecting lots of heartbeats.

1:47 p.m.—One of my fellow “wait-ers” is a 40-something man who has a prosthetic for a leg. I didn’t pry, but I imagine there was a similar, likely more traumatic day in his past when a family of loved ones gathered in a room just like this for him, too.

2:17 p.m.—They said she’s doing fine. Thirty minutes in, 60 to go.

2:32 p.m.—I’m staring at her overnight bag. She packed a new robe she got from Sarah. Katy told her not to bring that one because she’d probably get “foot goobers” on it. I’m looking that up in this journal.

2:35 p.m.—Wow! That happened fast. They say she’s “almost done.” I wished they hadn’t phrased it quite like that.

2:50 p.m.—The doctor emerges. The smile on his face put one on mine.

4:03 p.m.—Darn, seems like she ought to be awake by now. They probably gave her a boatload of anesthesia. Once before when she had surgery, the “feel good” meds loosened her tongue, and she wouldn’t shut up. I know the man couldn’t possibly work with all that noise.

I’ve been composing a mental list of relatives to call when all is finished. And now I’m wondering how I’ll ever be able to tell them that she is finished.

For months, we’ve never talked about it. Not once. We never talked about her not waking up. We never talked about dying. She thought about it and so did I.

And then last night she said,

“What if I aspirate while I’m under anesthesia?”

Surely she’s gonna come to, right? Please?

4:15 p.m.—Gotta go. She looks like hell, but she sure looks good.

Dear God—Thank you. Amen.


George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.

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