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A scene from a modern waiting room

By Dr Lucia Gannon - 04th Mar 2022

Mask-wearing and social distancing have added another layer to patient-on-patient interaction 

“Have you got a mask, Mr Murphy, or would you like me to give you one?” 

“What?” replied Mr Murphy, cupping his left ear with his hand and pressing it against the perspex that separated him from the voice on the other side. 

“A mask, Mr Murphy,” the receptionist replied in a loud voice. “Everyone has to wear a mask. Here put this on,” and she slid a blue disposable face-mask under the gap between the barrier and the counter. 

Mr Murphy picked it up and carried it with him as he shuffled into the waiting room and eased himself into a chair marked with a bright red ‘X’. The chairs were joined to each other by a long metal beam and screwed into the floor, as if the doctors were afraid that patients would try to sneak off with them. In the chair next to him, a neat elderly woman, pulled her overcoat tightly around her, gathered her handbag and outdoor gloves onto her lap, and moved as far away from Mr Murphy as possible, without leaving her chair. On her face, she wore a pink floral face-mask, tucked in underneath her glasses and her hands were sheathed in transparent surgical gloves. 

“A bloody nuisance these things,” Mr Murphy muttered. “Impossible to tell top from bottom or inside from out.” 

As he spoke, he turned the papery object over in his hands examining it closely from all angles. When this did not yield a solution, he shifted his gaze to the woman beside him. 

“You have no trouble with it, I see. But of course, you brought your own.” 

His eyes travelled over the woman’s face and neck, tracing the course of her mask over her mouth and nose and behind her ears, while she leaned further and further back in her chair until her head was pressed solidly against the wall behind. 

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” she said at last, “you just put it over your mouth and nose and hook it behind your ears. Surely, you know how to put on a mask by now. And you are not supposed to sit in that chair. You are only supposed to sit in the chairs that do not have an ‘X’. See, over there. Why don’t you go and sit over there?” 

“What?” replied Mr Murphy, leaning in close to the lady. 

“Over there,” she said, pointing to an empty row of chairs opposite. “Why don’t you go and sit over there?” 

“Oh, no, there’s no need for that,” Mr Murphy said. “You are not bothering me at all. No need to move over there.” 

The woman sighed and, reaching under the sleeve of her overcoat, found her wristwatch and glanced at it. At the other end of the waiting room, a teenager raised her head from her phone and attempted to stifle a giggle. The man beside her, possibly her father, poked the giggling girl sharply in the ribs, while keeping his head lowered. 

“I wonder will he be much longer?” Mr Murphy said to no one in particular. “I have a lot to do today.” 

“A lot you could be doing I’m sure, but not much chance of you doing it,” the neat elderly lady muttered. Mr Murphy appeared not to register this remark. He was still struggling with his mask, which was now dangling from one ear while he pulled a crumpled handkerchief out of his pocket and proceeded to blow his nose loudly. 

The neat elderly lady pressed herself even harder into the arm of her chair, uncrossed her legs, then crossed them again in the opposite direction so that she was sitting with her back to the others in the waiting room. Her eyes sought the gaze of the secretary as if trying to convey her distress. But the receptionist had long since resumed her seat, repositioned her headphones and was happily tapping her keyboard, while talking to someone on the phone. Mr Murphy nudged the lady’s arm and she turned stiffly to see that he was offering her a sweet from a half-eaten packet of Silvermints. 

“No thank you,” she said sharply, rising and striding towards the reception desk. 

Mr Murphy popped a mint into his mouth and replaced the remainder of the packet in his pocket along with the recently used handkerchief. 

“Excuse me,” the lady said to the receptionist, in a calm, polite, but firm voice, “I was wondering roughly how much longer I would have to wait before I can see the doctor?” 

The receptionist removed her headphones and glanced at her computer screen. Not long now, Mrs Murphy, she said. “There’s someone in with him, but he should not be long more, then your husband, and then you.” 

Mrs Murphy thanked her and took a seat at the far end of the waiting room. 

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