One of the lessons which I’ve taken from this sixty-four month journey has been the evolution of mood which leads to complaint. I’ve striven to dissect unpleasant encounters in the moment. People do not deserve to be blamed for the last worst moment of one’s life. They should stand or fall on their own. And so. . .listen. . . to the sound of these spastic feet tip-toeing through two days before curling in a fetal position and lulling myself to sleep with oddly-cheering YouTube videos of the first-responders’ Uptown Funk Lip Sync Challenge.
The two-day collapse began with a balls-to-the-wall nine-hour workday on Thursday. I came home and collapsed. I couldn’t even eat dinner. I had three mandarin oranges and read a mystery novel on my front porch. My body can’t take such intense performance any more. Note to self: Seven, girl. And a half, maybe. Not nine.
I woke Friday with spasming calves and a tightness in my shoulders born of continuing to walk on worn shoes. I made my list of things to do and set out for a rare treat: Breakfast at Korth’s Pirates Lair. I scramble eggs better than any restaurant, but the fridge held none. And nobody on earth — at least not me — can crisp hash browns like a roadside diner.
After breakfast, two women stood behind my car gesturing to my Missouri license plate (yes, I haven’t registered the car here yet. That’s a tale for another day). I put down the window to meet Trina from Creve Couer and a tiny, smiling old woman with a ladybug umbrella who identified herself by the name “Jean” and said her family owned the place. We had a nice chat before I headed to Lodi.
My first two errands went without a hitch. Defective merchandise returned at UPS, check, with assist from a nice young man who admitted to being on his break but had no problem carrying the awkward box inside. Two bags of clothing donated to Lodi Thrift, check. They benefit Lodi House, shelter for women and children, a cause true to my heart.
And then the day sank into a fog of tiresome defeat.
I went to the only shoe store in Lodi looking for buckled Mary Jane’s. As I entered, a clerk said, “Someone will be right with you.” I smiled and voiced my gratitude. I stood near the brand that I expected to be successful. I waited for about five minutes, flashing that same smile while entering customers got attention before me. Another five minutes saw me roaming the walls and backrack, then drifting back to the most hopeful location. Eventually, a full twenty minutes after I arrived, the same clerk told me that I “was next in line”, with both of us pretending that four people who arrived after me were not already being helped. Maybe they had reservations.
A woman with five or ten years on me asked what I needed. She had no external indicia of being an employee but I took her at face value. “Buckled Mary Jane’s,” i voiced, gesturing to the worn pair on my feet. “I’m looking to replace these before they fall apart.” We both laughed.
She brought over a pair. They had a cute ornamental buckle over Velcro. I showed her that, and noted that I needed a buckle that actually worked. “Why?” she queried. I explained about my spastic gait which pops Velcro open. She looked at my feet and replied, “Everybody prefers Velcro.”
Ten minutes later, we parted ways. Indeed, every pair of shoes in the lone shoe store in Lodi which appeared to have buckles actually Velcroed, with the exception of a pair of backless clogs that had a buckle on the top that did, well, nothing, since — gesturing — backless. The lady said, “Nobody makes buckles that work anymore,” in a tone which seemed to imply that I had Luddite leanings which she found suspicious. She patted her grey hair and told me to have a nice day.
I consoled myself with a flourless chocolate torte and an Americano at Tillie’s, the highlight in an increasingly disappointing afternoon.
My next stop took me to a local shelter, where my heart fell for a little fluffy mop named Max who glued himself to my side. “He’s being adopted this afternoon,” the lady told me. I didn’t understand why she let me see an adorable dog that had an owner waiting. Then she admitted that every dog in the shelter had a family scheduled, except a large German shepherd in the back room and a few random other big dogs in the outside kennels. I looked at the six or seven incredibly sweet small dogs licking my hands as I sat on the bench. Then I left.
At the next shelter, the small dogs had not yet been cleared for viewing. Just as well, probably; they had a waiting list. “Have you tried Petfinders?” the volunteer suggested.
Have a nice day.
For reasons not germane to this missive, I’m changing specialists. I have had considerable difficulty with this process. I have had a tough time finding doctors who understand my complex medical situation. My primary physician has helped but the options outside of Stanford are limited. I’ve been worried and anxious about this.
I had a new-patient appointment with a cardiologist yesterday, which I scheduled in late February. I had gotten three notices to arrive by 3:05 p.m. for my 3:20 appointment. I got there at 3:00 p.m. I admit that my afternoon had already caused me to feel somewhat morose. No shoes, no dog, no luck; and a sugar high from which I might have been about to crash. Film at eleven, ooo ahhh ahhh.
But I went into the office with a hopeful saunter. I like my primary doctor and this new place is part of her network. She had told me “everybody likes our cardiologist”. I expected to be in that august group, everybody.
The counter clerk argued with me over whether I had a co-pay. She insisted that I did not. I showed her the card which recited the list. “$75,” I said, offering my credit card. She did not like being corrected, but she took it. I sat down at 3:03.
At 3:30, I approached the counter to ask when I might be seen. A different woman said,”Are you checking in or checking out?” I replied, “Neither, I have a question,” whereupon, she gestured to the woman behind me. “I’ll check you in,” she said, ignoring me.
The encounter went downhill from there. When I didn’t leave the counter, she muttered something and turned her back on me. I did not want to be accused of being belligerent, but I wanted to know. She responded, but without turning around. I told her that I couldn’t hear her. She snapped that she couldn’t sit at her computer and talk to me without turning her back to me. She told me to come to her desk, which required me to go through that magic door which signifies admittance to the inner chambers.
When I did so, she told another woman to help me because — and I am quoting — “I have important, stat, work to do for the doctor. Stat,” which I suppose meant, as compared with the unimportant, non-stat work of helping me. The second woman and the first woman then stood in front of me and told me that the doctor was running “forty-five minutes or an hour behind”, and I could wait or have an appointment in June”. When I asked why no one had told me, they said, “We’re telling you now”. We exchanged a few other words, like them saying, “So do you want us to pull him out and let you see him ahead of other people, is that what you want”, in an obvious effort to cast me as unreasonable.
A half hour after this cheerful conversation, at 4:05 p.m., I approached the desk again to ask when I would be seen. No one would talk to me. I had not yelled. I had not raised my voice. I had not asked any unreasonable questions. I had simply asked when I would be seen, a question that I feel any patient should be able to pose. At 4:10, I asked for my co-pay to be refunded so I could leave as they did not know when I would be seen.
I did not point out that in the thirty-five minutes between when I left the inner sanctum and my second trip to the counter, every other person in the waiting room besides me had been called back to see the doctor. The one doctor. The doctor for whom I had waited two months to see, not counting the hour between when I arrived (at their request) shortly before 3:05 p.m. and 4:10 when I learned that they “did not know when [I] would be seen”.
They tried to tell me that they could not refund my co-pay, which they would not even have collected if I had not insisted on paying it. I finally lost my cool — but not by shouting.
They refunded my money.
On the way home, I called the patient services line at the number which I had been given by one of the women in the back area. It turned out to be a call center. The “patient services” department is an answering machine. Leave your name and number. Click, whirl.
I called the main number again. The young lady who answered heard the upset in my voice and got her supervisor. Thus did I tell my story to the supervisor of the Operator department (her name for it) at the call center. She demonstrated empathy; a practical understanding of the system; a clear-voiced ability to ask pertinent, precise questions; and a willingness to send my issue “to the supervisor at that office”.
I talked to the Operator Department supervisor on my cell phone as I drove back to the Loop, a thirty-minute, two-bridge drive. (We measure distances here by how many bridges you have to cross.) I explained that she might not think an hour or two is an unreasonable amount of time to wait for a new specialist appointment. I acknowledged that if I had been told in a kind tone about the expected wait upon my arrival, I might have been willing to tolerate the delay. I called her attention to the marked difference between her practical, compassionate approach to problem-solving; and the snide tone of the woman who tried to rewrite my query to make it seem that I had demanded she jerk the doctor out of another patient’s visit.
I understand both approaches. I object to customer service which casts the customer as demanding, even when he or she has merely asked a reasonable question in a quiet tone, as I had done. And before you assume that I was rude, let me tell you that I have been accused of being rude so many times by people claiming to love me, that I script every verbalization, rehearse the tone, and apologize before and after speaking.
That’s what gaslighting does for its victims. We second-guess ourselves for the rest of our lives, because we’ve lived with people who disguise their disloyalty by telling us that we’re imagining things or that we’re the problem. Don’t get me wrong: I can, in fact, be rude — but most of the time, at least, these days, I knock myself out to lower my voice and use my very best nonviolent communication just to maintain credibility. I assume that I’m in the wrong most of the time — the direct impact of being told that I’m worthless so many times that I believe it.
It’s so complicated, this path of finding joy after believing in it and being proven wrong over and over again. The hardest part? Accepting that some people just treat others badly, and that’s about them, not the people who feel their lash. Like yesterday. The people at that doctor’s office treated me badly. They knew it, I knew it, and now, the lovely lady who has the dubious distinction of serving as the supervisor of the Operator Department at the call center knows it.
They could have avoided this. They could have told me when I arrive that the doctor was running behind, and offered me the option of re-scheduling. They could have acknowledged, thirty minutes later, that they had not done so. Instead they said things like, “Doctors are important,” a clear announcement that patients are not. They could have told the truth, instead of saying, “If he gets called by the ER, he has to take the call,” and then, when I asked, “Is that what happened,” replying, “That’s not the point. The point is he could have been.”
Maybe most of you patiently wait an hour for a doctor. Or two hours. I’m not sure why they wanted me to come fifteen minutes early. During the ten minutes between my actual appointment time and my first query, three people who arrived after I did got called back. With only one doctor’s name listed on the door to the inner sanctum, I’m assuming some of those people were getting tests or seeing a P.A. but it occurred to me that the waiting room held a lot of folks for one doctor, and I had better ask. Clearly, they resented my query.
I spent the evening as most people with low self-esteem spend any evening after an unpleasant encounter. I repeatedly replayed the incident, minutely examining my actions. Should I have never inquired? Should I have docilely sat, waiting for my turn regardless of the length of the wait? Was an hour too long to wait or not unreasonable? Was the woman’s tone really sarcastic or did I impute that to her?
I didn’t sleep until well after eleven. I still see that woman’s face as she curled her lip (I did not know people could really do that) and looked over my shoulder to the woman behind me in line. She broadcast her dislike of questions from the outset, before she knew what my question would be. I might have been asking for the restroom. She didn’t care. She signaled her resistance to whatever concern I had. She used her impatient voice first, last, and always. My attempts to be courteous or matter-of-fact made no difference, and never would have.
We come to one message from my two precarious days of living: Complaints flow when people feel that others dismiss or negate them. That’s how I perceived the woman whom I first approached at the counter yesterday. Maybe I projected my own bad day onto her, but I don’t think so. I’ve been blaming myself in that way for too long.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Today dawned bright and fresh. I’ve puttered around for a couple of hours, drinking coffee and listening to NPR. I slept better than I expected. I’m not as tired. And because of a practical, friendly lady who works as the supervisor of the Operator Department at the call center of the Sutter Gould Medical Foundation, I feel heard.
It’s the twenty-seventh day of the sixty-fourth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.