Hospital camaraderie

Mum and dad met Abdullah [Centre] at the polyclinic
while waiting for dad's turn for a blood test
With aging parents, the hospital is one of the places where many of us are frequent visitors because we accompany our elderly for consultations or routinely go to collect prescriptions for them. 

While my mum has her regular reviews in the Eye and Orthopedic clinics, dad has his with the Cardiac and Urology units in Hospital Sultanah Aminah (HSA).  For routine reviews, they usually ask to be dropped off at the clinic and collected later or every now and then, mum will say she will give the taxi drivers some business and take a taxi home after her appointments.

After either mum or dad returned from their appointments, one of the questions that will inevitably pop up is, “Guess who I met at the hospital?” and they will go into a discussion about mutual friends or former colleagues whom they met while waiting to see the doctor.  With friends and colleagues of about the same age, the hospital is now a place where they will meet each other again because many were also seeking treatment for their ailments.  In earlier years, some of the hospital’s senior staff may still recognize my parents who were former staff but now most of them have also retired.   

One day mum told us her horrifying experience of how a handcuffed prisoner came along and sat beside her.  The Prison Officer escorting the prisoner, a patient also waiting for his consultation turn, just left him sitting there while he went a distance away for a chit-chat.  With a vivid imagination, mum shuddered as she thought the prisoner could take the opportunity to suddenly throw his handcuffed wrists around her and hold her hostage like how it happens in the movies, so she quietly moved to sit further away.

Recently while waiting for dad’s turn to take a blood sample, we met an old friend who was a former neighbour in the Masai Health Centre’s staff quarters.  When he approached dad and introduced himself, we realized that he was Abdullah, the amah Auntie Bainon’s husband.  Since their retirement, we kept in touch by exchanging greeting cards every year – a Christmas card from Auntie Bainon and at Hari Raya Aidilfitri we reciprocate with a card – especially as there was no opportunity to meet.

When Uncle Dollah understood that dad was scheduled for an angioplasty procedure, he instantly unbuttoned his shirt to show off the scar on his chest, a legacy of the open-heart surgery he underwent several years ago.  I realize that his current picture of general good health was proof of the good attention he received from the expertise and experience of the specialists in the HSA Cardiac Unit.  What followed was a very animated and encouraging dialogue that reassured dad and all of us as we looked forward to that date for dad’s procedure.

Signs outside the wards that are
seldom obeyed by visitors
Patients who share the wait for their consultation turn seem to automatically bond together and from mum’s experience, it appears that the long wait in the queue breeds a special camaraderie among patients.  Maybe mum is just a good listener because total strangers will confide their private woes and whole life stories complete with villains and dreadful family debacles.  Even if it could get quite uncomfortable listening to too-much-information stories, it’s probably therapeutic for them to pour out their woes while they are ill and lonely because some patients just needed a listening ear. 

I observed that many aged people probably had no choice but to come to the clinic unaccompanied.  With so many children going abroad for further studies and eventually settling there, this is one of the woes of aging parents as the nation is deluged by what is nicknamed the “silver tsunami.” 

I’ve seen a patient carrying what looked like luggage and when she shared her story, we learnt that she had traveled by train from Kluang that morning to come for her appointment in Johor Bahru.  She was still quite sturdy and mobile but there are many patients who hobble alone with the help of a walking stick not only because of weak legs but the eyesight was also failing.  So it’s always good to accompany the elderly and help them with the simplest things like reading signs or hearing numbers being announced.

Long queue [standing in background] to take a number
to join the queue [seated] to collect medicine
In a public hospital everything involves a long queue – from taking a number to collect your record file, waiting for consultation, to taking a number to pick up your prescription and finally, another wait to collect the prescription. 

First-timers and the elderly are often “victims” who do not know the system and procedures, and may sit around waiting aimlessly until an experienced and friendly fellow patient struck up a conversation with them.  When they discovered how these hapless patients have been wasting their time for hours, they unselfishly guide them with explicit instructions on where to go and what to do to begin the process to ultimately get the required medical attention in the clinic.

As tension and anxiety mounts with the passing moments, every patient welcomes a smile and reassuring words as they sit around sharing the common hope of being healed of their ailment.  With so much fear and uncertainty hanging over their heads, their burden is halved when it’s shared and most just need someone “in the same boat” who understands.  Whatever it is, there’s just something very special about the solidarity shared by fellow patients in the waiting room. 

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in June 2010

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