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Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Oncology Waiting Room

In the past year, I spent a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms. My husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer in March of 2009 and was hospitalized at two very different facilities for several weeks. The 6th floor oncology waiting room at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland was a depressing, dark and lonely place. In direct contrast, the 6th floor oncology waiting room at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland was uplifting, brightly lit and a place to support others in their sorrow. I was amazed how two hospitals in the same state, on the same floor level and dealing with the same disease, could be so very different. Every aspect of the Holy Cross oncology waiting room combined to create an atmosphere of despair and fatalism.

The sights, sounds and smells of the Holy Cross waiting room do nothing to alleviate sorrow. Dust motes fall aimlessly. The overhead light is turned off and the visitors wait in darkness. The waiting room is adjacent to a busy hallway with an elevator. Bells and buzzers can be hears from the hall, each chirping a warning before the nurse presses the silence button. Mixed with the clamor of bells and buzzers is the odor of ammonia and incontinence. The housekeepers wage war upon this embarrassing odor with an arsenal of antiseptic sprays and bleach. The toxic specks of sprayed cleaners dance with the dust motes in the air, creating a nauseating cloud. In Suburban’s waiting room, the light is on. The room is tucked away in a quiet peaceful corner. This room is serene and smells of flowers and fresh chocolate chip cookies. In Suburban all of these element uplift the waiting guest. In Holy Cross these sights, sounds and smells add to the feeling of sickness and despair.

The Holy cross waiting room is devoid of any form of entertainment or distraction from grief. There is no remote for the forlorn TV that rests upon a low shelf. It is stuck displaying the endless hell of CSPAN. The button that changes the channel is gone, leaving a gaping hole in the base of the set. The TV can be louder or quieter, but it cannot change. It can only be turned off. The reading material at Holy Cross consists of a few glossy corporate magazines brought to you by pharmaceutical companies. In these periodicals, breast cancer patients get 25 pages devoted to their disease; kidney cancer gets a paragraph. In the Suburban waiting room, everything is vastly different. The TV, with intact channel buttons, is mounted within easy reach. The remote is set upon a table bedecked with flowers. An organized display shelf of educational pamphlets written by the National Cancer Institute rests beside the door. Within this display, there is a book devoted entirely to Kidney cancer. Beside the pamphlets, another rack is filled with inspirational tracts with names such as “You have the Right to Be Hopeful” and “A Time to Live.” All these elements create a feeling of hope and choice within the Suburban room. In the Holy Cross waiting room these same elements contribute to a feeling of despair and imprisonment.

The people that fill the Holy Cross waiting room add to the feelings of isolation and sorrow. An elderly nun sits in the corner dressed in a volunteer’s smock. Snoring gently, she has slumped back with her mouth open. An errant line of spittle breezes back and forth between her lips. The businessman with the newspaper gives up his pretense of reading and leans back. He places the newspaper across his face like a shroud. An older lady whispers into her cell phone. Occasionally her voice breaks and becomes audible. A staff person trudges into the room and sits alone at the long table. She pulls food containers out of a disposable bag. Staring into space, she begins shoveling the food into her mouth. The people here are separate and alone. No one is making eye contact. In contrast, at Suburban the staff and visitors often gather and chat. Every Wednesday afternoon there is a Tea at two o’clock. Patients, visitors and support staff congregate as fresh chocolate chip cookies are passed around. This room is filled with smiles and laughter; the burden of grief is lessened by the sharing support of others. In Holy Cross, the isolation of visitors and lack of communication with staff increases the level of sadness in the room.

The Holy Cross waiting room exists to provide a space to give up fragile hope and choice. It is amazing that two hospital waiting rooms could be so very different. One hospital tries to heal and comfort with a space designed for support and hope. The other uses that same space to create additional sorrow. The oncology waiting room at Holy Cross is a place where plans and life paths are destroyed and every element combines to create a despairing world of erasure.


  1. The leading cause of death and injury in the US are medical errors. Patients are looked at as cash vending machines.

  2. Hello! I am a nurse and a patient advocate. I have been going to every protest since this started and I am so proud that you are fighting so bravely for your loved ones and all of us, and I stand in solidarity with you. I saw your mural on the CVS by politics and prose and appreciate your gift and your deep commitment to fighting for what is right.

    I do want to tell you that I have been an ICU nurse for 4 years and an Emergency Room nurse for 2 yrs. I have seen alot. Right after I graduated nursing school, I was called one day by the husband of a dear friend of mine who was in the nursing program. She was one of the special ones, who one day almost got kicked out of our program because she had the nerve to give ice to a woman who was dying of CHF, who was suferring so...

    Well her husband called to say that she was at Suburban Hospital, that she had been diagnosed with liver cancer, that the fine physicians at Suburban hospital had told her she had 18 months to live. Martie was so advanced in her cancer, that she could no longer be touched, that her skin was blanched, that her body had lost the ability to clot it's blood. This is not the 18 month picture, OK? Well Martie had requested to see me and 4 other people ASAP. Well, since I was relying on the superior judgment of that MD from SUBURBAN hospital, I went to work at open heart at WHC that day. When I arrived with a big orchid in hand for her at Suburban 2 days later, the kind receptionist looked up her name in the computer and said "Oh, she was discharged home... she's fine you see!". Well I knew that couldn't be true so I demanded to speak to the charge nurse of the unit where she had been. After much arguing and almost getting kicked out of that hospital, they finally contacted the floor where she had been and the charge nurse confirmed my worst fear, that she had died the night before.

    Now, I could generalize my experience and say that Suburban is a crap hospital that delivers crap care and while that may be somewhat true in the case of my friend, I really have no right to say that about the whole hospital. I shed a tear for all my dear friends, fine and caring nurses who give their lives, %1000 everyday at Holy Cross Hospital, who have nothing to do with the waiting room, who are now condemned.

    No one understands better than I the frustration that you feel at this putrid system. The entire work of my life is to take care of ALL the people that walk through the doors of my ER, and that's why I work there (WAH btw, not HCH). I see first hand the effects of not offering health care to all. That said, I understand that being an advocate means I have a responsibility, that there are people listening to me whose opinions will be shaped by mine. It is my responsibility and yours, to be fair and measured in our judgements.

  3. Dear Blue Sky Lexi,
    I would love to talk to you more in depth on this subject. My email is I tried to keep this post focused on the waiting room experience. I did not go into the details of the rather long stays at both of these hospitals. After my letter of complaint about the condition of the TV set at the Holy Cross waiting room; I understand Holy Cross was willing to replace the broken TV as it was a danger to the waiting guests. My Suburban waiting room experience also dates from less than a year ago. Perhaps the event you are addressing occurred further back in the past, before the current staff existed at Suburban. I do believe we are both trying to work toward better patient care. Whether Holy Cross or Suburban has better waiting rooms is a moot point in many ways, what matters is whether patients, visitors, friends and family are treated with respect and care at all hospitals and facilities.