My orthopedist has a new office. The old one was inside a large urban hospital, dusty and cramped and full of cardboard boxes and dead plants. The new one is in a swanky office building near St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Radio City Music Hall, much closer to my office. It is gleaming white, like a scene from a space movie – white concrete floors, a white marble desk, bright white lights and rows and rows of identical blue chairs. I am sitting in one of those chairs, waiting for an appointment with my hand surgeon, who is checking the progress of my formerly broken fingers. I am dressed for work, where I will be walking afterwards, because it is a nice day and only 13 blocks. Two rows over is the only other person in the waiting room. She is also dressed for work. If you look carefully, you can see signs of wear, particularly in her polished shoes, but she is carefully presented, professional. She is African American. I am not. Is that part of this story? I think it is part of this story.
We have been sitting here for a while. She is waiting for her orthopedist. The desk clerk comes out from behind the counter and tells her quietly that they no longer take her insurance. The woman is not quiet. She is angry. The office had called her to check her insurance and then gone ahead and made the appointment. She names her insurance, which I know to be a budget plan designed for healthcare workers. She has taken off work because she lives far away from this place. She works in the hospital where the office used to be. “We never took that insurance, really. We only accepted it as a courtesy for the people who worked in the hospital. But we aren’t there anymore,” the desk clerk explains. The clerk’s demeanor is entirely neutral, as if she’s repeating a message she’s communicated many times. The woman is seething but polite in pointing out the office’s lack of respect for her and her time. She asks to speak with the office manager and a beefy man in a custom suit comes out and says he’ll see what he can do and disappears down a white hallway and out of sight. The woman sits down. A few minutes later, I hear a soft sound. She is crying. Her façade is falling apart and you can see that this is someone who has to fight for everything. She carefully arranges the layers around her, but when life is hard, it tends to get harder and there is no extra fabric to cover the holes. I have never been more moved to give a stranger a hug, but she was clearly embarrassed and I didn’t want to interfere.
A few minutes later the man in the suit returns and mumbles a few words to the desk clerk before disappearing down another white hallway. The Desk clerk comes out and says to the woman, still crying softly, that the doctor has agreed to see her and will be out soon. And then my name is called. When I come back to the waiting room after my appointment, the woman is gone.
But I’ve been thinking about her all morning and thinking about how grateful I am for my health insurance that costs me relatively little because I have a job that helps me pay for it. I am grateful that it lets me visit my doctor for an affordable amount. Let’s me visit almost any doctor. That I have a job that lets me come in late when I have an appointment and I get paid anyway. Because when you’re sick or hurt, you need all of those things. You need doctors who will see you when they say they will. You need doctors near where you live and work. You need child care and you need your paycheck, whether or not you are able to be at your job. You do not need gleaming white marble rooms. You need warm and soft and gentle. You need someone to bear you up. You need someone to not only tell you it’s going to be okay, but to make it so. Otherwise for those the worst off, things can only get worse. There has to be a better way to do this.
My hand is healing. My heart is not.