When life puts you in the waiting room

Every one has their own personal mountain to climb, but for women, none seem as overwhelming as the annual visit to the gynae. Irrespective of the health aspect or the lurking chance that perhaps this time the pap smear will show cells that are messengers of doom, the mere act of someone you don’t know exploring your most intimate parts feels wrong.

Having never been privy to the innermost thoughts of women as they go through the examination, I will not try to imagine what happens during that emotional cauldron. I suppose we all suspend our disbelief for that moment, trading our discomfort for health and pretending that the clinical surroundings – the ill-fitting gown and the doctor – are less invasive than they are, because we know it is for our own good.

However, I do know that when the topic of a prostate examination arises, guys can do nothing but awkwardly joke around. Every pun in the book is hauled out, as if obscene references to the process make it less scary and more of an old-boys club activity.

Whether it is the discomfort of male interaction that confounds it or the emotional exposure that accompanies it is more daunting, I cannot say.

What I do know is that a doctor’s often abrupt and cursory examination of a man, devoid of subtlety, is different to a women’s experience. The breakthrough in men’s health has resulted in a blood test that identifies men at risk of prostate cancer. Women are beset by the subspecialty culture – one test for a breast, one for the pelvis and another for the rest.

For people who survive cancer, the invasiveness becomes even more intense. The blood tests, mammograms and Z samples among other tests will continue for years, each with the same dreadful anticipation of awaiting the results. Whether you drive a Rolls Royce or a donkey cart, have a model’s face or are building a rocket ship. When we sit down in that waiting room, the experience renders us all equal. It is as if some great cosmic leveler has left us helpless.

Sitting in the waiting room, we look at the faces of our temporary companions, trying to peer into their minds. Sometimes the battering is clear to see. Others have their brave faces on as if set in superglue. Whenever I go to doctors’ rooms, to pass the time I imagine the lives of the people around me. What circumstances brought them there?

It verges on the obscene, but I think it soothes my fears. If there is any truth in statistics, I reason, I’ll be safe being the average Joe.

The silly superstitions I cling to are so pervasive. If the receptionist is in a bad mood, I believe the doctor has had to give a patient bad news. I analyse them; trying to find the patient they won’t look at, believing that one day I will be able to anticipate my own bad news. Having been on the other side, I know all of this is nonsense! The reason for their moodiness is far more likely to be a broken seal in their car, having to do stock take or the children being late.

Two years ago I took a hard look at myself and was horrified by my OCD thoughts. Even more so at the kind of bargaining I entertained – almost asking: “Who would I throw under the bus to buy myself more time?”

Then one day, while lying on the cold, hard bed of a scanner dressed in a hospital gown that was so small, it made me look like a middle-aged stripper, it came to me: “No matter what the noisy machine does, it is just reporting what has already happened. Nothing I do at this moment will make any difference at all.”

My “eureka” moment has enabled me to go into a waiting room and look at everyone, without choosing one to be my make-believe scapegoat. This liberation does not mean that I am not petrified. In reality I am probably more afraid now than ever before. If anything, it helped me see the natural order of things more clearly.

When I was scared of a new challenge, my dad would sit me down and tell me that change is inevitable. You will go from your mom to preschool and then to primary school. When you arrive there, you will be a new comer, scared and unsure. Eventually, your class will be the oldest in the school, with the confidence that accompanies it. After that, you will graduate and the cycle will repeat itself.

Looking back now, it was silly of me to think of this as graduating. It is more than that; it is knowing that I will still be the scared one coming into the consulting room, distressed by the look at my own mortality. I will still see people come in, some only for a brief time before they leave, while others will see me leaving. What I now regard as the graduating class is not defined by time. It is a guideline of how far you still have to go to reach the next step.

If I see you in another set of rooms, I will not be reckoning your ranking. I will be deciding if I should be so bold as to offer you a part of my shade before you resume your journey.


Rev. Doctor Gereth Edwards was a practicing plastic surgeon, co-founder of the Netcare Milpark Hospital - Breast Care Centre of Excellence and the Breast Health Foundation. He then refocused his life and qualified as a minister. He writes from both a scientific and humanities view.

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