Susan's Blog

Friday, January 6, 2006

Just the Facts, Ma’am(ogram)

I received notice of my upcoming annual mammogram and it sent me into my usual state of dread associated with anything medical/unpleasantly scary/slightly painful. I wrote this a few years ago after a particularly unusual waiting room experience.

Granted, sitting in the waiting room during a mammogram appointment is no time to be making observations of human behavior. Then again, what could be a better circumstance for studying oneself and others under stress? So there I was, clad in the ill-fitting hospital johnny, a fittingly uncomfortable attire for a thoroughly discomfiting experience. (And why is it called “johnny” anyway, as if it were some kind of friendly buddy you hang out with — oh, now I get it!) Awaiting the mammogram is always unpleasant, however, and I would not expect this year’s experience to be any different than last. You read; you wait; you get squeezed; you wait; you maybe get squeezed more; you wait. It’s a lonely, boring, anxiety-producing event that must be endured for the sake of one’s health.

I sat down the requisite several seats away from anyone else. The two other woman-islands each held a magazine and seemed dutifully engrossed. I chose a magazine too, checked my watch and waited. I swallowed down my nervousness and began flipping aimlessly through the pages. It was so quiet in there all I could hear were the crackling noises I made with my magazine, an outdated one I would never have otherwise read under any other circumstances.

The door to the examining rooms opened and I paid careful attention to whom was chosen, because this would tell me our order. Okay, Tall Thin Woman will go before Short Young Woman, and then me. I covertly looked at the two of them, struck as always by how odd it was that we were all waiting for the exact same unpleasant thing and praying for the same outcome: Let it be fast, and let it be normal. Yet never in a million years would we all talk to each other about how we were feeling. I think the indignity of the johnny maybe keeps you from talking together the way you might in an ob/gyn’s office. Some of your humanity is taken away by the fact that you’re all wearing the same top. And a mammogram appointment is so serious. It’s embarrassing, too: the nudity, the handling of one’s body parts like slabs of meat.
So all you want is simplicity, speed, and accuracy. Just the facts, nothing complicated.

In came a woman in her mid-sixties. As usual, I began to block out the nurse’s repeated speech about the fact that you must take your pocketbook with you, but leave your clothing from above the waist in the lockers. Very obvious stuff. But then something different happened: the woman questioned the nurse. She made a joke.
“Did you say, take the locker with me?”
The nurse seemed baffled. “No, take your pocketbook with you. Keep your clothes in the locker.”
“Oh! Ha! I thought you said, ‘Take the locker.’ I knew it didn’t make sense.” She said this laughing as she came in and threw herself into a chair, which was perilously close to Tall Thin Woman, who looked up, alarmed by the disruption in the proximity rule. And then the woman kept talking. “Let’s share this chair here, nobody’s gonna want to sit here, anyway!” She plopped her handbag down next to the other woman’s, on the empty chair between them. The rest of us looked up, flustered by all the conversation, and momentarily thrown off our routine of suffering silently.

We all resumed reading. Then, an elderly woman, in her late 70’s, came in. She took a seat and accidentally knocked a magazine onto the floor. “Oh, my! I have the dropsies today!” she exclaimed, to no one in particular. However, she happened to be one chair away from Talkative Woman, who perked up right away.

“Oh, that’s okay,” answered Talkative. “You just have short legs, that’s all,” gesturing to the woman’s lap.
“You know, you’re so right!” And so they began a weird but friendly conversation, showing each other their magazines, commenting on the men in the pages. It was so out of the ordinary, all I could do at first was feel distracted. The old woman’s johnny had flapped open a little bit, revealing her tiny bird-like neck bones, and causing a small wave of pity mixed with irritation to wash over me. I didn’t want to see her! I didn’t want to hear her. I didn’t want to know about her or anyone else. I just wanted to get through this. But she was making me aware of her as a person with her talk and her fragile neck. They both were! Who talked in a mammogram waiting room? I wanted to enjoy my nervous time in quiet peace! As they talked, I tried to concentrate on my important article about this spring’s “in” colors, but I found I could not. Their silly conversation kept breaking in.

And just like that, it all shifted for me, like ice melting inside. The cold grip of worrying loosened as I was forced to listen to their light-hearted conversation about nothing at all, their determined refusal to be reduced by fear and convention. I smiled then, realizing how ridiculous I was. Good for them, I thought. They would not squander their time, keeping it all inside, worrying in solitude, like the rest of us. These two women had somehow bridged the waiting room divide, and in doing so, had created a pleasant bubble around them, a soft spot in between hard moments. I kept stealing glances at the two comrades-in-johnnies, realizing that I, too, wanted to relax and chat with someone like they were, the bosom buddies, and maybe forget for a moment why I was here. And their distracting chatter had done that for me, just a little bit.

Then it was my turn to hear my results. I forgot everything else, and dropped my magazine on the table, walking towards the door in dread. The doctor gave me a quick summary: Everything is okay, come back in a year. I stood there breathing deeply, feeling the sweet air of summer even though it was February. I felt as if I had been given at least one more year to live; I suppose in a way, I had. One out of ten, after all. Or is it worse by now?

I left the waiting room in a happy blur. As I swept up my things, I never once looked back at the two women. My stint was done, after all. I had gotten what I had come for, and in the end, that was all I cared about. But after I had settled back into my life’s routines, the euphoria of my normal mammogram having worn off, I thought about the two women, and how they had broken through my nervous haze and brought me a modicum of comfort just by getting me to listen to them for a few minutes. I thought about how many waiting room hours of my life I have already given up to the worthless pinch of anxiety, when maybe they could have been eased by a little banter with strangers going through the exact same thing. A little shared comfort. What would it have been like for me if I had connected with those two women, the way they had with each other? If more of us could just talk in there, acknowledge our common plight, and let off some of the steam before hearing the news from the doctor. Maybe then the whole waiting ordeal would become a little less of a black hole in our days.


The very word “waiting room” has often seemed like a metaphor for me at many points in my life—-actual waiting rooms making me think of No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre where hell is two people in the same room, forever. Not that we can’t try to connect and make it a lot better, here and now.

— added by kristina on Friday, January 6, 2006 at 10:06 am

I guess it can be thought that wisdom comes with age, a willingness to be more of ourselves and not afraid to share who we are with others to make our life experiences a little more comfortable like these two women did in the waiting room.

— added by Eileen on Friday, January 6, 2006 at 12:29 pm