In my less charitable moments I think that certain classes of criminals — those who defraud the elderly, for instance, or animal abusers — should have to do part of their time chained up in the waiting room at a pediatrician’s office.
Totally unworkable in terms of criminal justice policy, of course, but that’s not the point. Given the choice between spending an hour in a pediatrician’s office or a bus station, for any normal adult it would be an easy call. Sure, the seating is crappier, but at least the bus station has a snack machine. And no bus station I’ve ever been in has Peppa Pig on a loop.
I took Jack to the pediatrician’s office on Monday for his monthly Synagis shot. For Jack, the object of fear and loathing was the shot. For me, it was the waiting room.
The dominant layout feature of any waiting room at any pediatrician’s office I’ve ever heard of is the sick side/well side paradigm. It’s a great idea, and one that has never, in my experience, been properly implemented. (Granted, I’m not exactly Zagat in this area of life).
The first flaw in the sick side/well side setup is the lack of any physical barrier. It’s usually just one room. Small children are like mercury. What’s going to keep them on their side of anywhere? Their parents? Get serious.
Pop your head into a pediatrician’s office sometime. A quick glance at the parents trapped with their kids in the waiting room will bring three words to mind as you quietly back away to make your childless escape to Panera: overwhelmed, overmatched and outgunned.
In fairness to the designers of these spaces, the only things that would effectively stop small children from wandering freely — electrified razor wire, a drawbridge and a moat — would likely cause more problems than they’d solve.
The solution, then, that most pediatricians’ offices have come up with is to load up the sick side with oodles of goodies. At Jack’s pediatrician’s office, for instance, the sick side has toys, children’s books, and two flat screen TVs: one playing cartoons for the little tykes, the other playing pre-teen Nickleodeon-type shows.
The well side, meanwhile, is an antiseptic boredom chamber: rimmed with beige-colored Embassy Suites wallpaper and well-stocked with copies of Popular Mechanics and Cosmo.
The problem is obvious. Sure, the sick kids will stay on the sick side, but so will the well kids. You’re trapped at the front desk filling out yet another round of updated HIPAA forms while the super-fun Death Star side of the waiting room pulls your well-for-the moment preschooler in like a tractor beam. You’ll be back in a week, and it won’t be for another well-visit.
The waiting room at Ryan’s pediatrician’s office is unique: it has a separate sick room with large glass windows and a door that closes. Bravo. A for effort. F for implementation. Two monstrous flaws undermine the noble intent.
First, the doorknob isn’t child-proofed. As any parent who lives with small children in a house knows, that means it may as well not even be on the hinges.
The second flaw is much worse. The sick room at Ryan’s pediatrician’s office is like a children’s palace with amazing toys and activity stations and video games. Giggles and muffled squeals of delight permeate the glass. At every appointment, I half-expect to see the kids in the sick room eating s’mores and having a feather-flying pillow fight.
What can you do. There’s no crying in baseball, and you can’t count on the Man in the parenting game. Sometimes you gotta supply your own heat. I bring an iPad to keep Ryan on the well side. With an iPad in front of him, the kid would ignore a carpet-bombing. Plus, they give kids reams of stickers and a crowbar-sized pretzel when they get their shots, which helps to get them in there without using a taser. I talk up the payoff before we go in:
“I don’t wanna get a pinch. I don’t like pinches.”
“I know, Woogie, no one does. But it’s to keep you healthy. And you get a monster pretzel and a whole bunch of stickers.” I shake my head. “Man, I wish I could get a pinch so I could get all that stuff.”
I pause, and pretend to think. He stares at me like a cobra in front of a snake charmer.
“I think this time I’m going to get your pretzel,” I say. “You can have one of the stickers.”
He jumps up. “No, that’s my stuff!”
And I ham that up in the car, in the office, with the nurses, who play along: “Sorry, Dad, I’m afraid the shots are only for the big kids.”
Ryan eats it up, right until the moment the needle goes in. Then he turns to me with hate in his eyes and says, “OWW!” Like it’s my fault pertussis is a thing.
The Munch and I arrive, check in, and I immediately see that the waiting area is a holocaust of illness, a melee of sneezing, coughing, crying. Ironically, the sickest-seeming kids are crowded into the well side with their parents and older siblings.
The sick side has two kids in it: a little blond boy spinning around in circles in front of his dad and a girl resting her head against her mother’s shoulder. The girl lets out an episodic whining moan sound. The back half of the sick side is as empty as a corn field in December.
Score. One kid, apparently not that sick; another, sick as a dog but welded to a chair in the front.
I take the Munch out of his detachable car seat and carry him to the far corner of the sick side. As we pass the blond boy, he points and says to his dad, “Eets baby!” His dad smiles and says something broad and encouraging. I smile and say something cheerful and mindless.
We sit down and Jack is entranced by the boy, who’s now performing for him — and getting closer. After a minute or so, I notice that the waiting room is mostly cleared out now.
Just the way we like it, right, Munchie?
The boy is wandering toward us in a careless sort of figure-eight. He stops and smiles at us. We smile back. He turns around toward his dad, starts to say something, but is cut off by a paroxysm of Doc Holliday-level coughing.
Instinctively, my foot shoots out to keep the kid away. I feel badly about this. Actually, I feel badly that I don’t feel badly about this, but the kid doesn’t notice. He’s doubled over and racked with coughing.
His dad gets up to rub his back, and as the little boy is crying I’m starting to reconsider my idea of standing in the hallway when a nurse comes out and announces: “Jack?”
“All right, Munchie, they’re playing our song.” Jack is still staring at the boy. He looks confused.
Now we’re in the back. The belly of the beast. This is actually the first time Jack hasn’t blown a seal when he was undressed and put on the scale. 13 pounds. He’s gained weight, but he’s tracking the curve on the growth chart, not cutting into it. Maybe it’s time to teach him how to eat pizza. The Woog would love that.
The nurse announces she’ll be back with the Synagis, and she leaves me and Jack to shoot the breeze. He’s smiling and showing off, doing his frenetic round of Kung Fu that means he’s excited about something. I’m enjoying the show, but I know what’s coming and he doesn’t.
The nurse comes back in with the needle. “Dad, could you hold the little guy’s hands for me?”
“Sure.” I softly place my thumbs into the palms of Jack’s hands, and his face flowers with one of his beautiful smiles as he wraps his little fingers around my thumbnails.
His scream cuts the room to shreds, climbing like a starburst until it breaks loudly into the deep, honest cry of pain. My eyes widen as his face flushes red, and as I stare into his open mouth, at its trembling tongue and epiglottis, I feel like I’m falling into it.
As he screams, he opens his eyes and turns to look at me full on. Something back there is boring into me, searching me out. Something ineffable, shimmering behind his tears, something I can’t immediately trace. It’s not hate. He’s a baby. But it’s there.
Then I recognize it. Betrayal. Like he’s realized something primitive and attached me to it: that this pain, this life, is my fault.
And the feeling of falling into him briefly comes back to me because I think — for a second, or only a fraction of a second — that maybe he’s right.