Why this physician misses the waiting room

“Please wait.  The meeting host will let you in soon.”

I am in the virtual waiting room for my weekly therapy session, the little waiting room box dragged to the side of my screen as I respond to clinical messages.  I put off stretching to reply to an email, remaining in the chair I’ve been sitting in all morning hosting my own virtual visits for patients.

I hate my chair; I hate … The screen flashes, and without the warning of a door handle turning, my psychiatrist smiles and says hello as I scramble to drag the Zoom box over my inbox.

During COVID, so much of what we have lost is the ordinary: the things that just happened without thinking.  I didn’t think about high-fiving the seven-year-old telling me he learned to ride his bike at his well-child visit; it just happened. I didn’t think about running meetings in crowded conference rooms; it just happened.  I didn’t think about hugging my mom as she left after dinner; it just happened.

I miss the ordinary.  I miss the high-fives, even the crowded conference rooms, and most of all, I miss the hugs.  It turns out, I also miss the waiting room.

My psychiatrist’s office is hidden in a forgotten dusty corner of our huge hospital complex.  I doubt it has been painted in decades, and it is either really hot or really cold, rarely in between.  And once, as I sat in the worn leather chair next to the tissues, a cockroach fell out of the drop ceiling onto my head.  In other words, I go for the therapist, not the office.

Therapy saved my career in medicine, helping me through a dark tunnel until a glimmer of light was visible on the other side.  Therapy keeps me in medicine by helping me not lose sight of the light even when it dims.  Last spring, as we pivoted to face the tornado of the first COVID surge, virtual therapy gave me the strength to hold those around me as the storm buffeted us all.  When almost all non-emergent, non-COVID medicine ground to a halt, therapy continued virtually.  As an advocate for mental health care, I couldn’t help but feel hope that access to care through a virtual model would be a lasting benefit in the aftermath.  I still hold that hope.  For while virtual care has disparities as well, it does make therapy more accessible for many.  In a world still steeped in stigma, it may also make it more imaginable for some who might not want to sit in a therapist’s waiting room.

For me, it turns out, the waiting room is one of the ordinary things I really miss.   Hidden in that far corner that is home to some excitable cockroaches and a compassionate psychiatrist sits a tiny space: two chairs, a lamp, a few New Yorker magazines on a table, a poster for an art exhibit, and a small enigmatic print of a solitary rowboat sitting on the edge of the water.  How many times have I contemplated whether that rowboat is peaceful or sorrowful?

I didn’t think about the fact that waiting in that cramped space facing the rowboat was part of the therapeutic process; it just happened.  I didn’t think about transitioning from doctor to patient as my brain shifted without clinical messages in front of me; it just happened. I didn’t think about how the waiting room gave me a moment alone in a life filled with others; it just happened.  I didn’t know that I found comfort contemplating whether that seemingly lonely rowboat might actually be at peace on the shore.

By the end of January, both my psychiatrist and I will be vaccinated against SARS CoV-2.  In addition to our virtual care, he works on our transplant team, regularly seeing patients in an ICU setting, and I am a general pediatrician, regularly seeing patients in my office and respiratory infection clinic.  Because of that in-person work, we are fortunate to have been vaccinated early.  It is a privilege to care for patients, and it is a privilege to be vaccinated when so many are still waiting.  It isn’t a privilege I am prepared to take advantage of — I will mask; I will wash hands; I will avoid crowded indoor spaces.  But, I wonder, if I wear my mask, wash my hands, and sit six feet away, might I be invited back to the ordinary of contemplating a solitary rowboat, seeing a door handle turn, and having a moment to shift my mindset before I walk into therapy?

Shannon E. Scott-Vernaglia is a pediatrician and can be reached on Twitter @ScottVernaglia.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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