The Anatomy of a Waiting Room

Part jungle. Part jail cell. Where awkward smiles cut through silence with surgical precision. A waiting room, foul and filthy; faith and family; cold and sterile like the operating suite. Cool down on your treadmill. Check the time on your microwave. But every watch is broken in the waiting room -- better to count your blessings than to measure the seconds.
10/12/2015 02:37 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2016

Treadmills. Microwave ovens. And hospital waiting rooms.

Time, it seems, appears to stand still in each of these places. Yet an abbreviated power walk or a cold Lean Cuisine pale in comparison to a loved one in an operating suite.

As a surgical ICU nurse, my job starts the moment a patient comes out of the operating room, and at times, before he or she goes in. That time in between -- although important, is not usually my primary concern. I want to make sure that you're adequately prepared to enter your heart surgery, and I aim to safely and effectively recover you afterwards.

For family members, though, the moment my patient is wheeled into the operating room is when loved-one-limbo begins.

"You can have a seat in the waiting room. Or maybe now is a good time for you to go grab some breakfast, check into your hotel room, or get some work done." This line is pretty standard, and it's one that hopes to accommodate anxious family members without the promise of a successful outcome or providing too much hope.

You see, what I've learned in the cardiac ICU is that not everyone makes it out of surgery. Some don't have expected outcomes. And others still, though appearing routine or straightforward, face a slew of unanticipated surgical complications that even the staff can't believe.

That being said, saying goodbye to my mom as she was wheeled into her surgery last month forced me to realize how the other half lives. And between you and me, I'll take a treadmill or a microwave any day of the week.

The anatomy of a surgical waiting room is a complex and complicated one. Form doesn't necessarily meet function. Although loved ones are made to feel welcomed and "at home," everyone feels like an uninvited guest in an unfamiliar residence. Whether it's a labor and delivery unit or an outpatient surgical center or a bustling hospital waiting suite, knowing that a family member is under the knife is a nerve-wracking experience. The element of the unknown prevails, and those soothing words from a nurse before your family enters his or her operation dissolve into clips and phrases that can't seem to be retrieved or recalled any longer.

When my mom went in for removal of a highly suspicious mass on her right lower lung, my father and I decided that breakfast and a cup of coffee seemed fitting. The thing about our unfamiliar home -- the surgical waiting room of a major oncology specialized hospital -- is that everyone waiting understood one very obvious pink elephant in the room: someone we loved had cancer, was ruling out cancer, or was moments away from discovering they have cancer.

In a maternity ward, the post-op diagnosis, hopefully, is that a new life has entered the world.

In a hospital waiting room, perhaps an appendix is removed or a broken bone is realigned or a bypass surgery was a glowing success.

But in a Cancer hospital with Cancer doctors who diagnose and treat Cancer-y things, most of us aren't waiting for optimistic outcomes. We're just hoping they make it out alive -- and perhaps that we do the same.

Upon returning from our breakfast adventures, consisting mostly of uneaten eggs and high quantities of caffeine, we sat quietly and waited for an update. Though I was adequately armed with a laptop, a young adult novel, and a fully charged cell phone, I found that my brain failed to focus and my fingers failed to react. If my mind had a cadence, it was progressing rhythmically, frantically, and trying to maintain an audible tune. My knees found comfort in reckless abandon, creating denim on denim in patterns and beats. I was a symphony of nervous energy, and the conductor was undoubtedly the thoracic surgeon in with my mother. He could be a maestro or a magician, but in that moment, he was a mystery.

My tune came to a halt as the nurse liaison came out to the waiting room to update us on her condition.

"The surgeon just started. He was able to start with a minimally invasive procedure. Your mom is doing fine. Vitals are stable. I'll update you again in two hours."

Two more hours. At this point it's already been four. I peered gently around the waiting room as she passed from family to family, quietly whispering updates about conditions or situations. I couldn't hear their words, but I could feel their reactions. The shifting energy. The exasperated sighs. The silent whimpers. The feeling that, while everything hangs in the balance, this waiting room was the fulcrum.

If the walls of a hospital waiting room could ever respond, they'd speak of feigned talks of weather and whispers to God. I met strangers from the town next to me, and from halfway across the county. I learned names and locations and stories. With a glass so half full their cup runneth over with bullshit, some shared laughs and jokes openly. Others sat still and lifeless, patiently waiting to be resurrected by an update from the surgeon. Statues amid styrofoam cups. Old standards sliced with new-age tunes. Some of us find peace in connection. Others adhere to our solace. And then some -- those of us who can't allow a moment to drive us mad without attempting to contain it -- we observe what was once unraveled, and we stitch it all back together. Doctors use sutures and glue. Writers use moments and moods. One heals the body. And in my life I've found, the other heals the soul.

Two more hours. One more update. Still not finished, but everything is going smoothly.

I feel less rigid and rocky and more like my stomach is in bumps. My dad sits in strong silence, reading articles on his cell phone while checking his watch with increasing frequency. One family is escorted to the physician update conference room. Whatever the news was, it wasn't good. Whatever the outcome will be, it isn't promising. Whatever unknown was tearing them up while waiting, the reality was seemingly so very much worse.

I stand up to pee for the forth time. Espresso meets anxiety meets restless aching feet. I don't quite pace but being still feels unnatural. I can't sit still when I'm at work. I always need to be busy. This sense of insatiable boredom converts itself into fits of unfounded energy after only three and a half hours of sleep. At the risk of appearing annoying, I force myself to loop into my social media sphere, circling the web and sifting through updates of babies and nuptials and skin cream miracles.

"Family for so-and-so? The surgeon will meet you in ten minutes for a briefing."

Ten minutes. It's been six and a half hours. In ten minutes I can run a mile. In ten minutes I can defrost my dinner. And in ten minutes I would go from family in waiting to family in recovery. Six and a half hours of waiting and those ten minutes were the longest.

The anatomy of a waiting room is an evolved one. Each one of us experiences a unique evolution from hope and expectation to desperate anxiety to internal anguish and then, a release. A sigh of relief. A stream tears. A burst of anger. A glimmer of hope. Each one of us is unique in our own growth during those hours in a waiting room: we progress as we process the news, good and bad, anticipated and unexpected. We shape-shift. We morph. We divide and multiply into a being that understands new meaning to the terms "fight or flight."

We feel cheated. We feel defeated. We want to run and hide.

We are empowered. We are emboldened. We strive to help survive.

Part jungle. Part jail cell. Where awkward smiles cut through silence with surgical precision. A waiting room, foul and filthy; faith and family; cold and sterile like the operating suite. Cool down on your treadmill. Check the time on your microwave. But every watch is broken in the waiting room -- better to count your blessings than to measure the seconds.

As an ICU nurse, knowledge is power. As a struggling family member, ignorance is bliss. My mom fought her tumor on the table. I fought my demons on a leather love seat.

A jungle.

A jail cell.

Scarred but never apart, we made it out alive. The hospital waiting room: where time remains suspended, and we dangle along with it.