I’m sitting in the ophthalmologist’s waiting room, rugged up against winter outside; bag on my lap; umbrella gripped between my knees. Gloves off; book out. (I’m rereading The Secret River. Should link to it to get more hits on my blog.)
It’s a busy Melbourne practice. The waiting area is L-shaped. Two busy receptionists field a constant stream of patients. An elderly woman, flanked by two assistants, hobbles by. “You’ll be okay, mum,” says one of them, a woman about my age, like she’s said it a few times already. She’s guiding her mother by one elbow and reassuring her a bit too loudly. “You’ve just had a little bleed.”
I’m immediately imagining my not too distant future; daughter leading me, perhaps a little impatiently, when I suffer ‘the little bleed’; or the ‘Falling Curtain’ or “Failing Sight. Having already experienced the first two Fs one must watch for, Flashes and Floaters, I’m living in Flagrant Fear.
I reread the same line in my book. Try not to think about it.
Next, a doctor instructs an orthoptist - his assistant.
“Where can I put Mrs M?" she asks him. "Just a cataract check?” As if that’s nothing.
“Room three’s free.” He sounds mildly fed up and detached on this Friday afternoon. He swings a door open to confirm the room’s availability.
The orthoptist leads a seventy-something woman with a well cut silver bob and seats her in the room. “Yes, that’s right, just click whenever you see the stars.” Orthoptist is a young Sybil Fawlty now, singing the instructions, but not really there. She leaves the door open to attend elsewhere. There’s something awful about this elderly woman’s exposure to the busy waiting room. Try not to look at her perched on a stool, using the mouse. Think of my own mother. She’d be freaking out if someone left her alone with a computer, let alone with the prospect of loss of vision.
Force my eyes back to The Secret River.
It’s my second visit to this doctor. I’d needed a change from my previous ophthalmologist who I'd tolerated for several years. Apart from his supercilious attitude, his hand stank as though he hadn’t washed it all day. Doctors, even if they are just looking at eyes through whatever that little device is, should wash their hands regularly. Or wear gloves.
I made the change to this new doctor after a recent eye emergency. My retina had partially detached from my right eye, causing a terrifying ‘visual disturbance’. Cracks in my vision; looking through a shattered window. What larks. (That’s how Pip and Joe Gargery talk to each other in Great Expectations. Do yourself a favour. Read it. Brilliant. But I digress.) Don’t want to sound cavalier about my eyesight. I’ve worn specs since my mid teens and my vision has gradually deteriorated to the extent where I’m just this side of legally blind. Throw in diabetic retinopathy, the legacy of thirty years of Type 1 diabetes and now this scrawl of a floater on my right eye ball. The point is that I’m apprehensive, no, scared, sitting with my book, reading the same line over and over without comprehension.
Could do with a little compassion, or someone with basic interpersonal skills. Instead, I got the doctor.
Hearing him calling my name in the waiting area around the corner, I close my book and gather up my bits.
“That’s me,” I announce. Rush over.
This doctor looks unremarkable. Late thirties, tall, round-shouldered, dark blue suit pants, white and tan striped business shirt, short wavy fading brown hair; wearing specs with another pair hanging around his neck. It’s the mildly fed up doctor from earlier. I hadn’t recognized him from my previous visit – despite having made notes, as I tend to.
“Put your things over there.” Ushering me into a room, he indicates a green leather two-seater couch. I do.
“Take a seat.” Expressionless voice. He gestures at a chair. I sit. “Thanks for coming in earlier,” he intones. The appointment that I’d made five months previously had been changed the day before. “Do you work?”
“It’s my day off, but I’ve been working all morning anyway.” Who cares? Certainly not Mr Personality.
Silence. Hmm. So, we’re playing that game, I think. None of that small talk that oils the wheels of human discourse. He’s reading the display on his monitor. Checking my file, I suppose. Or Twitter? I can’t see the screen from my disadvantage point. He types very slowly with two index fingers. Still he doesn’t speak. It seems I am not there. I try to find comfort in the silence. I don’t. It continues for about four long, awkward minutes.
With all due respect to his straight ‘A’ HSC score – he’s HSC vintage – and his years of academic excellence to achieve such career heights, what a shiny arsed wanker.
He stands. He speaks.
“Just going to put some drops in your eyes.” His voice is rehearsed-modulated, fake; someone humouring a tedious patient at the end of a long shift. Hands me a tissue and I’m terribly grateful. “Look up at the ceiling. Just some local anaesthetic. And another one. Keep your eyes closed for a few minutes.” He leaves me alone in the room with the door open. Now I’m exposed to the waiting room, sitting there like a pillock with its eyes closed, imagining everyone gawping at me. Mere paranoia. When five minutes later I dare to open my eyes, I glance out into an empty waiting area. An old man ambles carefully past. He’s looking at the ground ahead of him.
A fairly standard eye examination ensues. Chin on the papered chin rest; forehead pressed against a papered metal bar; look straight ahead, to your left, to your right, at the ceiling, at the ground, at my right ear, my left ear. A blinding bar of light repeatedly passes painfully across my vision. I fight against my instincts; try not to flinch as I stare at the sun.
“No change at this stage,” he drawls, finally, back to staring at the computer screen. Probably has too much eye contact, given his job, and thus he avoids it during any other interactions.
“Keep your sugar levels under control.” Easy for him to say. “Cholesterol. Blood pressure. Probably looking at laser surgery somewhere along the track.” I try not to care.
He picks up a recording device and dictates a letter into it, still staring at the monitor. It seems I’ve left the room again but I’m still there. Listening in like some naughty kid in the principal’s office, I know that the letter contains two paragraphs, has been cc-ed to my GP and endocrinologist and that my case will be reviewed four to six monthly. I didn’t catch the other medical jargon. This is all the time my $80 consultation will buy me. At least my endocrinologist waits until I’ve left the room before dictating her letter.
He’s both efficient and ludicrous. While sitting there I wonder what would happen in my own teaching job if I was arrogant and had poor communication skills. Somehow, he, and many other doctors I’ve encountered in the last forty or so years - with a couple of brilliant exceptions - are above having to lower themselves to my plebeian level; having to be nice.
But on the positive side, his hand doesn’t smell. I can tick that box.
Back for more in four months.