The hacking, wheezing and overall not sleeping finally got to me. I took myself to the doctor thinking I would be in and out of the office in no time flat. I wasn’t. Though I had gone to a clinic with a word meaning speed in its name, it would seem that I wasn’t the only one seeking medical treatment that particular afternoon. The waiting room was packed.
After two hours sitting in a stiff pleather chair surrounded by the sounds of other sniffles, groans, and easy rock ballads, the battery icon on my phone turned red. Well, shoot. Faced with no other easy distraction, I looked around the room. I found myself beginning to question exactly how sick I really was feeling. What’s a little cough? I mean I had made it through an entire week already. I could make it another night. What’s the worst that could happen?
My rationalization grew louder, certain as I was that the doctor was going to tell me that I’d caught a simple virus. I knew he or she would just have to rest and run its course, things I was well equipped to do from the comfort of my home. So why continue to wait around in a room staring at my thumbs or other sick people when I could be back with my family?
I walked to the front desk. “I think I am going to leave,” I told the nurse. She blinked. Clearly, this was not a statement she was used to hearing.
She looked out into the waiting room. “But you’re next.”
I sighed. I’d been there two hours already but had only seen three patients go back. My place in the queue meant little. I followed her gaze. Two more patients had arrived after I had. A girl, barely older than my son, lay draped across her father’s shoulders. An older couple – a woman who could barely sit up, and her partner, a small man who’d caught my eye when they’d entered the room and had attempted to make small talk with me as if I was a life raft while clutching her hand.
“But there are other patients here that need the spot more than I do,” I said, and I meant it. I’d be fine.
I’m not sure the nursing staff was convinced. “We are equipped to deal with everyone. All we need is for a room to become available.”
“Right, which is why I would like one of them to go in my place.”
“But you’ve already paid.”
This was true, and my copay for a visit like this wasn’t cheap. “Can’t you just cancel the transaction or refund the money?”
“No. Once you’ve paid, you would have to wait for a check to be mailed at the end of the month.”
Well, that was a wrinkle I hadn’t quite considered. As I mulled over my response, another nurse appeared, taking the decision from me. “If you’ll come back with me now.”
I followed her through the hall and into a back room where we discussed my symptoms, each of which sounded more and more petty to my ears. So, I have had a cough and can’t sleep. I’ve had a fever and the chills, but the fever goes away and sure, I have shortness of breath and a rattle in my lungs you can hear from space, but I’m fine or will be soon. I’ve waited this long, I can wait a little longer. Really, why don’t you go and help the others?
The doctor looked at me as if she couldn’t quite determine if I’d insulted her professionalism or simply grown two heads. “You don’t need to worry about them. We’ll take care of them too.”
But I did worry. It is the downside of knowing you’ve been pretty lucky in life. You can always imagine those who have had it worse. In my mind, I saw the little girl calling for a mother who hadn’t yet arrived and her father pacing around the room at a loss as to what to do. I saw the little old man struggling to stay strong for his partner waiting to be told that their lives wouldn’t be the same. These stories played out in my head, each more tragic than the one before. I knew my story couldn’t compare – that the doctor would write me off as a waste of her time before she closed the door. Or at least that’s what I convinced myself would happen.
“Now take a deep breath,” the doctor said, pulling me out of my imagination.
Two minutes later, I learned I wasn’t fine. I had pneumonia (aka fun stuff).
While I still feel guilty thinking of those other faces in the room, it doesn’t change the fact that I was sick and deserved to be cared for too. If I had given into my doubts and gone home, those other patients might have been seen fifteen minutes earlier, but I would have been at greater risk of secondary infection, hospitalization, or even worse. The guilt I felt at delaying the other patients’ never-at-risk treatment by fifteen minutes would have paled compared against potential outcomes I now realized I had avoided by allowing myself to come first.
It turns out I needed more than just a day off. I also needed an antibiotic, a steroid, and an inhaler, but most of all, it seems I needed a reminder that while yes, I am often lucky, that doesn’t mean bad things can still happen. It was also a healthy reminder that every now and then I need to put myself first and not feel guilty about it. Because while generosity of spirit is always admirable, strength of body can be a good thing too.