During this time of COVID-19 we’re all experiencing some kind of disconnect from others. Our lives are out of sorts. To be sure, none of us want to be in this situation. I imagine we’ve all faced circumstances where we’d rather be somewhere else or back to when life was normal. This wishful thinking reminded me of an incident that occurred during my tenure as a medical humanist at the cancer center in Bennington.
I was standing near the reception desk on the periphery of the waiting room when a patient in a wheelchair entered with her oxygen tank in tow. Her husband looked deflated as he scanned the room for a place to sit. Suddenly, the patient declared, “I don’t want to be here.” The silence was broken. Heads buried in magazines looked up to see who was disturbing the peace. No one responded. Everyone, including the reception staff who looked on, returned to what they were doing.
I was struck by both the seriousness and humor of what had been said. Without forethought I took a step forward into a room packed with patients and their loved ones and blurted out, “If anyone wants to be here, raise your hand!”
For an awkward moment I stood frozen as all eyes turned toward me. Suddenly, the silence was broken when someone started to laugh. Others joined in. As if on cue, the waiting room was abuzz with the sounds of people talking. It was as if everyone had known the another’s experience, which in a sense they did. I must admit that as the words slipped out of my mouth I wondered if I had overstepped boundaries. So, it was a relief to see how their personal revelations appeared to connect people whose lives had been interrupted by illness. Later, one of the receptionists told me that I was probably the only one on staff who could have gotten away with saying something like that.
I learned over the years that patients and loved ones in the cancer center waiting room were often eager to share their experiences and found comfort in forging a human connection. I witnessed these interactions help lessen feelings of isolation in the world of illness.
With COVID-19 restrictions, patients can no longer be shoulder to shoulder in the waiting room. There are no opportunities to spontaneously share feelings. Today, patients are relying on tele-communication tools like a phone, FaceTime or Zoom to bring family, friends and fellow patients into the “room” with them. Hopefully, these forms of remote communication are helping patients cope with the sense of isolation that can result from living with serious illness. I guess it will have to do for now.