December 6, 2020


(c) J. Singh, 2016

The glass doors slid open silently and Preetam Kaur came running into the hospital carrying her three year old son in her arms. Bleary eyed from lack of sleep and overcome with worry, she hurried to the front desk. It was 2 a.m. and it was quiet in the lobby. The large, tall windows of the waiting room showed the darkness of the night sky outside. It was cold at this time of night, but warm and cozy inside the waiting room. Sofa chairs and couches were neatly arranged in small semi-circles around a play-area for children with jigsaw puzzles and other wooden toys. The soft light brown and orange carpet underneath, and the large paper decorations of the sun and moon and planets hanging from the high ceiling made the place feel warm and inviting. Off to the side, a fireplace housed the flickering flames of a fire. It looked more like the lobby of a hotel than a hospital waiting room.

Preetam managed a weak smile as the old lady behind the counter looked up at her. Her name badge read Ingrid.

“I called earlier,” Preetam explained, “I was referred here by Dr. Scanlan.”

“Let me just pull it up here,” replied Ingrid, typing on the keyboard at her terminal, “What is the patient’s name?”

“Angad Singh,” said Preetam, the urgency and stress apparent in her voice. “He’s had a high fever all night, and he wasn’t feeling well at all during the day. He’s been vomiting, not keeping anything down.”

Ingrid nodded in a practiced fashion while she peered at the terminal intently.

“The normal recommendation would be to go to the ER,” she said, glancing at Preetam, “but we do have a full staff here twenty-four hours, so it’s actually better for pediatrics to be referred here.”

Preetam nodded quickly. That’s what Angad’s pediatrician, Dr. Scanlan, had said when she had spoken with him on the phone earlier. Now, she just needed to get Angad checked in and seen by a doctor who was on duty.

“We’ll have to admit him, that is the fastest way. Otherwise, it might be a longer wait.”

“Sure,” Preetam replied quickly, trying her best to keep her composure.

Angad stirred and groaned. Preetam rocked him gently and comforted him, “Shh.” He had already had such a difficult night. Preetam had hardly slept a wink herself.

Ingrid performed the necessary paperwork, taking the information from Preetam’s insurance card, and then directed her to take a seat. “It shouldn’t be too long,” she said, “someone will be out in a few minutes and they’ll get you taken care of.”

“Thank you,” replied Preetam with a visible sigh of relief. Still cradling Angad in her arms, she walked over to a sofa in front of the fireplace and took a seat.

She had thought that the waiting room was empty, but there was one other person seated there. A woman, sitting alone. She was hunched over in the corner seat, staring down at her lap, and she was weeping. At first, Preetam just noticed her sniffling, but after a minute or two, she realized that the woman was quietly sobbing.

Preetam worried that Angad might be disturbed and wake up. She yawned, her aching body spent and exhausted. When she sat down, she realized how tired she was. She was ready for sleep. But Angad seemed to be getting warmer. It seemed that his fever had returned, and his temperature was climbing rapidly again.

Preetam looked over at the front desk. Ingrid was still seated there, typing something on the keyboard. There was no sign of anyone else.

Angad let out a weak moan. Preetam rocked him gently from side to side, swaying in her seat to comfort him. The woman kept sobbing uncontrollably, she wouldn’t stop. Every once in a while she let out a desperate groan. It seemed that she was getting louder. Preetam felt irritated at the disturbance. Angad had finally gone to sleep, the first rest he had had all night, and now he might be woken up by this noise in the lobby. He had suffered a lot this night, thought Preetam, he needed his rest.

The wait was not long, although it felt like hours to Preetam. A bright young nurse in light blue scrubs walked into the waiting room with an iPad in her hands.

“Angad?” she inquired. Preetam nodded and got to her feet quickly.

“I’m Jennifer,” the nurse said with a big smile. “We’ll get him admitted and take vitals and then the doctor will see him.”

“Thank you!” Preetam followed Jennifer quickly out of the waiting room and into the elevator. “I think his fever is coming back, I can feel him burning up.”

Jennifer nodded and touched Angad’s forehead. “Hmm, yes,” she agreed, “we’ll check his temperature. Don’t worry about a thing.”

Those last few words of encouragement felt like a tidal wave of relief wash over Preetam. She took a deep breath and finally felt the tight, tense muscles in her neck begin to relax.

As the elevator doors opened with a ding and they stepped out into the children’s ward, Jennifer told Preetam that most of their beds were full, since the last few weeks had been very busy at the hospital. The room available for Angad was at the far corner of the wing. Preetam nodded and followed Jennifer as she led the way to the room.

After getting Angad settled in bed, Preetam sat by his bedside and prayed for his recovery. The doctor came in to see him within minutes. He asked a few questions, reviewed the patient chart, and performed a simple checkup. Before he left, he noticed the worry on Preetam’s face. He stopped to assure her that she needn’t be concerned, and that Angad would soon be back to his normal self. It was like the weight of the world had been lifted from her shoulders. She smiled for the first time that night, and thanked the doctor profusely.

As the doctor promised, Angad did recover. After taking the medicine that the doctor had prescribed, Angad was soon running and playing normally. Preetam was overjoyed and very grateful. My son is alright, she sighed in relief, my son is alright.

She had almost completely forgotten about the woman in the waiting room. The one who had been sitting alone, weeping. But she was reminded of her when she overheard a conversation at the grocery store about a week later.

“I just can’t imagine it,” an old woman was saying to her friend. “In the middle of the night like that. And all alone.”

“That poor woman, it’s been almost two weeks since she lost her child. She was only a baby.”

“It’s terrible! How the baby got so sick, all of a sudden, so shocking!”

“And she even went to the children’s hospital, there was still nothing the doctors could do. So sad, how her baby passed away like that.”

“I can’t imagine how much she must be suffering. The poor woman!”

The realization dawned on Preetam that it was the same night when she had rushed Angad to the hospital. And she immediately remembered how she had felt irritated when the woman was crying. It had never occurred to her to think about what might have happened, about why she was crying. She had been so overwhelmed with concern for Angad that she had not been able to think of anything or anyone else.

Now, she stood lost in thought, trying to remember that night, how quiet and alone it had been at 2 a.m., with the crisp morning air, and the darkness and clouds outside. And how the waiting room in the hospital was so empty. And how lonely and excruciatingly painful it must have felt for that mother who had just witnessed the death of her child. Preetam felt guilty about her emotional reaction that night, and tears welled up in her eyes.

She wondered who the woman was, and why no family members had been present. Maybe they lived far away, or maybe they had been on their way to the hospital. In either case, the moment when she was alone, when she needed someone, it was only Preetam who was there. And she didn’t console or comfort her, or even speak with her.

Preetam shook her head, chastising herself. Her son had lived, he was thriving. She considered that, and felt grateful and lucky.

She never found out who the woman was, but she made a decision that in the future, she would always be more aware of her surroundings and try to be more empathetic towards people. And she taught this lesson to Angad as well.