The Waiting Room

“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.”      Lao Tzu

He is probably in his seventies, I think.  Accompanied by his wife, the gentleman follows the staff assistant into the small, crowded waiting room.

Over an hour has elapsed since  I arrived at the clinic – an eye clinic where I have had optical care for 30 years, always seeing the same doctor. Reflecting on three decades of association with this physician, I do not recall such a long waiting time. Is it because I am seeing a different specialist today rather than my regular doctor?

Rectangular in shape, the small waiting room is lined with chairs, backs to the walls with each person facing forward. Small coffee tables and a magazine rack are interspersed among eight chairs. . Each chair is occupied.  (If you were to set a long dining table in the space between the two rows of chairs, we could enjoy a Thanksgiving meal together, with just a slight movement of each chair) It is tight.

Few of us are fond of clinic and hospital waiting rooms. Reasons for being there are  rarely  good. We may be there because of an issue requiring  treatment, or because we are waiting on a pending diagnosis, the latter being the reason for my visit. While not my favorite place, I find waiting rooms a platform for authentic and supportive conversations.

In the close proximity of this particular waiting room, all spoken words will be heard by everyone.  After a few exchanges, it is apparent that most of us are waiting  for the same specialist. The last person called had waited 90 minutes. This revelation leads to a couple of visible and audible sighs.

The man (in his seventies) who had just entered the room now begins a conversation in which the he reveals the current status of  his vision (it is not clear). He has other health issues, including diabetes, which he believes is  partially responsible for his failing eyesight.  We all hear his cell phone call to another clinic. He expresses real concern about a scheduled dialysis. It looks like he is going to be late. The level of transparency in  his medical conditions evokes  great empathy and support from the lady sitting next to him. Her soft-spoken and caring words communicate genuine care about this man’s multiple health conditions. At this precise moment, despite an impending personal diagnosis, compounded by a long wait in a crowded room, I am suddenly glad that I am here. Does this seem odd?

As my wait time draws closer to 90 minutes, silently I predict that I will be the next patient escorted to the exam rooms..  A momentous, inspired idea forms in my mind just as I hear the medical assistant call my name, “Mr. Hackbarth.” Finally, it is my turn.

Standing up and pointing in the direction of the elderly man, I request,  “Ma’am, if I may be so bold, this man is waiting on the same doctor and has another important medical appointment. Can you put him in front of me?”  The assistant immediately motions him and his wife to follow her. At this moment, as I sit down,  everyone in the room focuses on the gentleman who is now slowly trudging down the aisle between the chairs.  When he reaches my chair, he stops, extends his hand to shake mine, and in a voice full of emotion, says, “Thank you, sir” to which  I reply, “You are welcome.” With obvious heart-felt gratitude, his wife extends her hand to thank me.  Not a single sound can be heard as the unknown couple leaves the room. Everyone is pondering what just happened.

The next, mere two minutes of conversation in that waiting room are among  my most gratifying moments of this year. My gesture on behalf of the older gentleman is small . . .seemingly with insignificance. Really, nothing in my thinking. However, the remaining people in the waiting room think very differently. And, they want to tell me! One by one, each person comments on my consideration of the elderly man. In what  took only a few seconds, amazingly, the exasperation of such a long wait has completely diminished from our group. A spirit of gratitude has emerged and taken hold. Something is very different in this room than what it was only minutes earlier. I want to reach out and put this moment on pause . . .  to let it linger.

We will always underestimate the impact we have on people surrounding us. Often, what appears to be of little significance, may actually be substantial. Underestimating our level of influence may lead us to question, at certain times, if what we do matters. The resounding answer – taught to us throughout our life stories , “What we do does matter!

There are no small moments in life. I am no longer surprised by the events that reveal this truth. Again, and again throughout my life, the proof is overwhelming. Even in a crowded waiting room, filled with people whom I do not know . . .  there are no small moments