In the waiting room, human decency reigns

I usually use some of my meagre money chest kept for medical and other emergencies to see a private eye specialist because he’s an authority on retinitis pigmentosa, which is the cause of my legal blindness. 

But recently I faced a dilemma: my cataracts need to come off, but this disorder creates dangers you rarely face.

I rashly declared that I would not have it done with him privately. “I’m opposed to private health”, I said. I refuse to insure and I stand with the working class, so I should do what millions of others have to do. But my first experience at the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital made me waver. God, this wasn’t going to work, I didn’t want to lose my sight and I wasn’t confident amid the bureaucracy that the surgeon would actually know my situation.

But my specialist assured me that the public hospital was what he would recommend to anyone without private health insurance. He insisted it was a waste of money paying him: the surgeons are trained by him and others like him, and they’re tested regularly, have retraining etc.

The experience has highlighted the issues of class as experienced in everyday lives.

The rooms of specialists are modern, slick and beautifully set up. His has gorgeous photos of lots of the places I’ve loved visiting over the years: semi-arid areas of red dirt and jutting outcrops of colourful rocks, some forests and more. I always entertain myself during the brief wait for him by sauntering up and down the hallways to relish their beauty. There are glossy mags, though I find many offensive. But everyone to their taste. If anyone has a longer wait, they have the option of reading them, and they do. Others watch the TV with its sound down.

You see the same doctor every time, so after two or three visits they know you and can recall your history at a glance. They know what they might want to look at. My doctor is from one of the countries the US regularly invades with drones. I first saw him early in 2002, at the height of the hysteria after the attack on New York’s World Trade Center. So we had a lot to talk about, with the coming war against Afghanistan and, according to then-president George W. Bush, a whole swathe of countries that could probably include his home country. 

For several years his reply when I would say, “See you in six months”, would be, “If I’m not locked up”. It was not really a joke. The intensity of our political exchanges has diminished as we’ve become accustomed to the new norm of Islamophobia and the wreckage of countries from Afghanistan to the north of Africa. But I like seeing him and know he understands the history of my conditions.

When treated in the public hospital, precious as that service is, you have it rubbed in your face that you are not valued by society. Hundreds of us are herded into waiting rooms where we can wait for an hour before seeing a technician. Waiting, waiting from one specialist to another. After five hours you’ve had every test, every investigation, all the attention you need. So at least you know you live in a wealthy country that can’t just discard us at will without some show of medical care.

But here, the rooms are shabby and not particularly private. There’s no beauty to lift your spirits as you sit in dread wondering what your prognosis will be: no TV or mags, glossy or otherwise. They’re crowded – you get a note saying please bring no more than two family or friends with you to avoid overcrowding.

And I could see why. The love and support people give each other are something wonderful to be part of. Lots of us are shrouded in our own little private cocoon with our thoughts. Some play games on their phones, some sit quietly watching others or just simply look into their own thoughts. I usually listen to a book on my phone. I have finished John Le Carré’s memoir and am nearly through the life and times of Frederick Douglass. But I often have to rewind because I get so wrapped up – in what people are doing and the things that give you faith in humanity – that I forget to listen.

There are elderly couples. One tenderly shepherds their partner into the doctors’ rooms, sits with their hand in theirs and murmurs titbits as the minutes and hours tick by. Daughters (rarely sons) care for their parents, patiently helping, some clearly playing the role of interpreter for immigrants who have worked their lives away in this racist country and still struggle with English.

Oh my god, the multicultural working class! People from every place on the globe, all waiting patiently. Hardly ever do you see annoyance at this treatment; it’s accepted as our place in the world. Who would expect to be special and get to see doctors without waiting an inordinate time? 

Some people chat and there’s usually a “character”, mostly men, but not always. Some have been here so often they’ve got to be semi-friends. I saw an English-sounding woman recognise a Chinese couple last time I was there. The fun they had catching up: “Oh, how ya going? When were we in here last?” and so on. The character today wears a jaunty hat, and by the time he’s called has half a dozen if not more responding to his “Bye! See ya!” and to welcome him back for the next stint of waiting for whatever needs to follow.

Last, but not least, is the humanity, caring and decency of the staff. Again, they are gathered here from many areas of the globe, many from around Asia. And oh my god, some of the doctors and highly skilled technicians look so young! But they’re professional, friendly, pushing aside the worry that they couldn’t possibly have learnt enough to deal with my complications at their young age. 

I forget that I’m nearly 75. Many are in their 40s but are probably not inexperienced. Shame on me. When they greet each patient, their demeanour is so friendly, you (well I do) wonder how they keep it up, hour after hour. But they never look bored, rushed or impatient. They answer your anxious questions, show you photos of your eye when needed so you can understand what’s happening. 

The technicians (it’s what I call them, I think many are doctors) explain what will happen, why it’s being done and what the test will tell the eye doctors. It’s all backed up by clerical and other staff who record everything, allocate appointments, give a cheerful smile as you arrive and leave. They are calm, focused and reassuring in the face of hundreds waiting to discover whether they’ll be blind or not.

I’ll be back with my specialist soon. It’s so much more reassuring than seeing a different doctor every time with the dread that they’ll miss an important detail through no fault of their own, but because of the long hours and pressure of work and seeing different people all the time.

But it is worth being reminded that many workers can’t afford that little luxury. They have no resources and rely entirely on the public system. Seeing the thousands who have been through the system in the time I’ve been going there, it hits you how inhumane are the Liberals in particular, but Labor too when it suits them. Our health services are treated like an annoying waste of public funds that could otherwise be splurged on submarines, war machines, handouts to coal mining companies or rorts for their chums in the Murray Darling Basin at the expense of the river system.

But the best of all is to feel the pride to be with workers in their struggle for dignity and for humanity, which bubbles to the surface all the time in these everyday experiences. As socialists, we usually write about the high points and low points of struggle: look at the solidarity, the ingenuity expressed in this struggle or that. But those qualities are made possible by the common decency so evident in the drab everyday lives most people endure with patience and good humour. I treasure the hours I’ve spent there, but I hope I last long enough to see them break out of their forbearance and tear down the system that treats them as only producers of profit.

I hope you feel the same and are part of fighting for a decent world, which means ridding humanity of capitalism.