The clock ticked. Through the windows I could see the beautiful inner suburban scenery, a patchwork of old Victorian roofs amongst the shiny new architecture. The city skyline rose above it, glittering in the light of the low-hanging sun. It was a beautiful view. And a beautiful room. Pale, creamy and crisp, the carpet looked freshly steamed and vacuumed. The furniture was modern and minimalist, exuding just the right amount of welcome, but not enough to encourage a prolonged stay.
It was, by now, nothing short of expected for a suite in a private hospital. Having spent four rotations at a major public hospital, I needed a small amount of adjustment. It was at first novelty to me to find that virtually every single clinic came complete with spectacular views, magnificent décor, a coffee machine and a tray of glasses with jugs of water and a dishwasher. Walking the wards the world seemed much quieter, and I learned that there was scheduled in the day a ‘rest period’ from 1-3pm, where visitors were discouraged and patients were encouraged to rest.
The corridors were carpeted, and footsteps were muffled, adding to the air of calm. It lacked the disorder, the chaos and hustle and bustle I was becoming used to in the public hospital. And frankly, I quite missed it. I was once a catering waitress and team leader, and feel quite at home in bedlam. I simply found the quiet a little unusual.
The doctor cleared his throat quietly. He sat by his desk in one corner of the room and had swivelled his chair around to face me. I had actually met this surgeon before, having visited his operating theatre just one week earlier. He had asked me a few questions, however it was the assistant surgeon who had taken me under his wing at the time, and provided a genuinely enjoyable experience. His specialty was spinal surgery, and I was sitting in his outpatient clinic, waiting for his first patient to arrive.
As we waited I kept my eyes primarily at the windows, pretending I was taking in the view. He appeared as if he wished to say something, but was unsure of what, and thus sat there, hunched forward, elbows on his knees looking mildly uncomfortable. It raised in me the question of whether the stereotype about surgeons was true: that they were less skilled than their physician counterparts at being chatty, being much more talented in the operating theatre.
“So you were with me in theatre weren’t you?” I said yes, I was last week. “Remind me again what we did-I had several days in theatre last week.” I tried to elongate my explanation without dilly-dallying about my response; however I inevitably ran out of words and fell quiet. He nodded. “Ah yes, the coccygectomy. It’s not very common; you don’t get to see a lot of that.” It was actually quite fascinating that operation. The patient had experienced a fall off their horse 18 months prior, which had resulted in her coccyx being angled at 90 degrees to their sacrum.
The operation removed the coccyx entirely as it was at risk of perforating the rectum, was giving the patient pain and was actually protruding slightly outwards, leaving a bump on her back. He asked me several more questions, such as what university I was a student of, and what I did as an undergraduate. The response to each question was accompanied by a moment of silence.
Many of his patients were post-op, meaning that they had come in for a check-up after having undergone surgery by the doctor. Most were congenial, however there was one that was quite difficult.
He was a little overweight, accompanied by his non-English speaking mother, who greeted us with a wide smile. The briefing the doctor had given me was that this man had undergone multiple surgeries (the most recent being an L3/4 disc prolapse), was under work cover but would visit his suite with multiple complaints and he believed that the patient was unlikely to return to work. He had-as the doctor described it-a litany of questions, which included his potential for having sleep apnoea, why his breathing was laboured, what he should do about his bad knee, and most unusually: “What surgery did I have doctor?”
I am personally a very impatient person. As I watched the doctor work his way through the patient’s queries, I admired his ability to keep his frustration under control. Despite having informed him that respiratory medicine was not the forte of a spinal surgeon and he should really be consulting a specialist, the conversation about his breathing continued for at least five minutes.
Where I would have most likely become a little bit short in my manner (I am endeavouring to overcome that, I promise), he remained calm and patient. It was fascinating to watch. Once the patient had left however, the doctor breathed a sigh of relief and turned to me with a look, and I laughed. He needed no words. Difficult patients definitely was testing to one’s temper.