Might that be a little dramatic? Well… yeah, okay. But when you’ve spent as much time in waiting rooms as I have, you can’t help but look at them with a naked knowing; a wary trepidation bolstered by that smart-arsed voice inside your head that warns ‘don’t go in there!’
The problem with waiting rooms, see, is that they’re a kind of parallel universe in which anything is possible, where everything is a conspiracy, and in which you can cheerfully convince yourself that the meaning behind even the simplest looking deed is altogether more sinister. In any other space with chairs, for example, the act of two people with clipboards in their hands casually walking into a side-room would be absolutely nothing of note. See the same thing happen in a waiting room, however, and you’ve just witnessed two consultants minutes away from having to impart bad news.
‘Poor them in there,’ I said yesterday, nudging P as we’d just watched this happen.
‘I know,’ he said, immediately understanding. ‘It’s never gonna be good when there’s two of them.’
Across the way, a woman was chewing the rim of her spectacles, her eyes darting from the wall clock to each of the patients called forward as she silently hypothesized about the outcome of her own appointment, and what the significance might be to the fact that she got here before the last three people who went in. Beside us, a specialist approached a worried-looking couple, asking: ‘You did get that scan on Friday, right?’
‘Yeah,’ nodded the woman.
‘Thought so,’ said the specialist, walking off.
The woman’s husband turned a shade paler. ‘What does that mean?’ he asked of his wife, each of them now attaching worrying weight to what, anywhere else, would have seemed such an innocent question.
And then it was our turn.
‘Lisa, hi,’ said the registrar. We grabbed our coats, preparing to be ushered into the side-room in which we’d hear my MRI results. (But which side-room? Is there a favoured room for bad news? Are the ones around the corner where they take you if you’re most likely to cry? And what about the special room on the end; the one with the cushions and the comfy chairs? What if we were going in that room? Then it really would be bad news… they only save that room for the truly terminal consultations – and we should know, we’ve been in there twice.) ‘I’m afraid we’re having some trouble locating some of your scans,’ she said. ‘The other hospital don’t seem to have sent all the images across, so we might be another half hour to an hour chasing them up – I’m really sorry.’
I wasn’t in the least bit surprised given that, the day before at said hospital, my MRI experience had descended into the kind of painful farce that would make me far too angry to write about… but even so, was the problem really that my scans weren’t ready? Or was it instead something they’d seen on the scan that they weren’t happy with? Maybe they wanted to get a second opinion before telling me that we had a whole new problem to deal with? Or maybe – gasp – they were waiting until two consultants were free…?
‘Oh. Okay,’ I said.
‘Are you all right to hang around for a bit?’
‘Sure. Sure, no problem.’
‘Or maybe, to save you waiting here, you could nip out and get a coffee and I’ll give you a call when everything’s ready?’
‘Okay, we’ll do that,’ I said, suspiciously noting to myself what an unnecessarily kind offer that was. Clearly, I surmised, something was up… and with more than just missing scans. But hey, at least she hadn’t told us to nip out and get a tea, eh? For of course we all know that, in waiting room language, ‘get yourself a cup of tea’ means you’ve got three weeks to live.
You don’t need to know about the loos that were blocked in the meantime, nor the hot chocolate that barely filled five dawdling minutes, nor the insane conspiracy theorising that went with it. You don’t even need to know how we’d mentally scripted every possible phonecall we’d soon be making, how my stomach felt as though it was slowly being eaten away by ferrets with blunt cutlery and disgusting table manners, or how fast P drove back to the hospital after we’d got the phonecall telling us to return. What you do need to know is simply that this waiting time – this excruciating, insufferable, torturous waiting time – is, daft as it may sound, worse even than hearing bad news. Because bad news you can deal with; bad news you can do something about. No news? No news is pure purgatory, and whoever said it was better than bad news is a twatclacker of the highest order who deserves to be strung upside down by the scrotum while holding out for life-or-death scan results in a waiting room that’s running three and a half hours behind schedule.
On our way back into in the waiting room, we caught sight of our favourite consultant. ‘I shan’t be long,’ she mouthed to us, as she ushered another patient into a side-room.
‘Is that good?’ asked P.
‘I think it’s going to be okay,’ I lied.
‘Lisa Lynch,’ announced a nurse, at which we leapt straight out of the seats that had barely touched our arses. ‘Sorry about all the waiting today,’ she said, as we followed her into a room around the corner. (A crying room?) ‘If you just grab a seat here, someone will be along shortly.’
‘Someone?’ asked a concerned P. Did ‘someone’ mean someone other than our favourite consultant? Or did it mean someone plus our favourite consultant?
‘I hope it’s just her. It really needs to be just her. It’s got to be just her.’ I repeated it like a mantra. ‘No, it really must be just… shit, I need the loo again,’ I huffed, carelessly slinging my bag into P’s lap and storming out of the room.
By the time I came back (there was a queue – of course there was a queue), the door to our room was open and P was in tears. Before there was even a split second to ask why, Favourite Consultant was ushering me back into my seat with words that P cheerfully nicked right from her mouth: ‘Everything’s okay!’
And that, in a nutshell, is why she’s our favourite consultant. Not because she then revealed the news that my disease hasn’t progressed; not because she told us that there’s no nerve damage to my spine; not even because she grinned as she explained that not only has the spread of my brain tumour halted, but that it even appears to be a bit smaller than at last look (a teeeeny tiiiiiny bit, like, but still: smaller!). No, she’s our favourite consultant because she completely understands not just The Bullshit, but the bullshit that comes with The Bullshit – like the waiting and the nervousness and the heartache. Which is why, when I saw my chance to block another loo, she saw her chance to put a husband out of his misery, popping her head around the door to say ‘don’t worry; it’s good news’.
I doubt they know how to teach that kind of compassion in medical school; I guess it’s just something you’ve got or you haven’t. But Favourite Consultant hasn’t just got it; she is it. At every stage of the grade-four process, she’s been the one with all the shit stuff to deal with: telling us that the first type of chemo wasn’t working; revealing the awful news of the brain tumour; having to be the one who gave us the months-and-not-years talk. And given that most of the occasions on which we’ve seen her have been miserable ones, you might’ve expected us to have come away sticking pins in a Frightening Consultant voodoo doll. Far from hating her guts, though, we’ve instead fallen a bit in love with her (okay, a lot in love with her), simply because she’s human; because she gets it; because she gets us. The loo-break instance is example enough, but when you add to that the hugs she gave us the first time my blood results revealed good things, the tears in her eyes as she held our hands during that talk, the pre-new-year phonecall she made to tell us that my tumour-marker levels had gone down, and the speed at which she’ll demand the return of test results to save us from the waiting-horrors above… well, you’d fall in love with her too.
And so, as we left the hospital with relieved tears freezing on our cheeks, we felt as chuffed for Favourite Consultant as we were for ourselves. What’s more, we knew she’d appreciate – and never judge us for – our joyously unconcealed celebration of what, essentially, is a maintenance of the status quo. It’s odd rejoicing the fact that nothing’s changed, but that, alas, is just another of The Bullshit’s twisted rules: no news isn’t good news… but, when you’re in these shoes, no change definitely is.
It’s not that what we heard yesterday isn’t good news (because, by ’eck, it’s the best news since my nephew was born); it’s simply that our definition of good news has had to change. To the uninitiated, then, good news might perhaps be the total disappearance of my tumours. But, alas, that’s neither realistic nor possible. What is possible, however – if treatment does its thing – is halting in its tracks the cancer that was spreading uncontrollably, damaging whatever it could in the process. That damage is now done – and can’t be undone. What can be done, though, is ripping out The Bullshit’s engine and keeping it from doing any more damage for as long as we possibly can. And since that’s exactly what’s happened, there is thankfully only one conclusion to make. So no hidden meanings, secret significances or sinister conspiracies here – just three little words that were well worth the wait: treatment is working.