Content warning: This essay contains references to death and chronic illness.
The Ambulatory Care building at BC Children’s Hospital was my playground. It contained all of my wildest germ-free adventures, from the carefully crafted pirate ship housing a large fish tank to the Canucks’ playroom, with pucks plastering its walls.
But most of my time was spent in waiting rooms.
As I hobbled down the poorly lit hallway, passing oncology and hematology, I would reach the physical therapy clinic.
Inside, I would make my way to the reception desk.
“Miss Bailey, how are you today?” Mrs. Liz, the receptionist who knew my name, favourite colour and chart by heart since I was 11, welcomed me each and every visit.
I’d place my hands on the wooden ledge in front of a large glass window that I was barely tall enough to reach.
“I am here for my 3:30 with Tori,” I said as I would pass my small blue card through the window.
Normal people have health cards, sick kids get blue cards. Blue cards are punched with all the information the hospital needs: date of birth, address, allergies and so on.
After spending a lot of time in the hospital, you know a 3:30 p.m. appointment actually means a 3:45 p.m. appointment but you need to get there for 3:15 p.m. in case, in some alternate universe, they’re ready early.
But I was not the only one there at 3:30 p.m on Tuesday. In the third chair from the left, a small, moon-faced boy would arrive, like clockwork. We’d never exchanged pleasantries but I held my breath until he arrived, just to make sure he was okay.
He had cancer, or what looked to be cancer. His dark sunken eyes and bald head showed a fight that was far from over. It had already taken his right leg, just above the knee. Sometimes we would make eye contact and immediately look away like our lives depended on keeping our distance.
Most sick kids are afraid of dying and leaving weeping mothers and fathers behind. I sure was, or am.
“Don’t take her out yet,” my anesthesiologist said in her thick Scottish accent.
My IV stopped dripping. I was pumped full of drugs that would give me the best shot at remission, again, but the pain was too much to bear. I could barely catch my breath with the tears gushing from my eyes.
“I can’t bring you out like that, Bailey. Your parents are terrified and they cannot see you like this. It will break them,” she said. “So you are going to sit here for as long as it takes for you to pull it together.”
I eventually wiped my tears and reunited with my parents. They were quickly phased out of my treatment plan, leaving it to someone who still needed to be driven around to chart the course. It broke them to see me struggle and broke me to see my heroes buckling.
So I would head back into the physical therapy clinic waiting room as my mom headed to a coffee shop for the third time that week.
I have seen it all. Puffy eyed mothers cradling their infants as their children stopped receiving treatment. Fathers donating medical equipment to the clinic after their child no longer needed it, for one reason or another.
The air was sterile and our hearts beat a bit faster with the tension of wanting to be friends while wanting to reduce the harm. Our whole lives we’d heard ‘Do no harm’ from doctors and we were just trying to do our part.
Osteosarcoma? Ewing’s Sarcoma? Would they make it?
Waiting rooms are filled with stories.
Soft tissue boxes sit gracefully on end tables for parents who found out that there is nothing more they can do for their child or moms who can’t hold back as their son or daughter takes their first steps, sits up on their own or come to terms with never walking again.
Waiting rooms are meant for crying, holding your breath and being invited into the most intimate parts of others’ lives. Joining a family bigger than your own.
Christopher and his mom brought Christmas presents for his friends who were patients during the holidays. He had just started kindergarten.
Abigail had snuck juice boxes from the Ronald McDonald House pantry and ended up in time out.
One day, my nameless waiting room friend didn’t show up and I never saw him again. To this day, I don’t know if this nameless friend got better or is six feet under. I don’t know if his parents had to buy a child-sized coffin or if he is a vibrant young adult.
But I am more stable and still here, waiting for death to finally catch up and grab me by my throat, yanking me down onto the linoleum floor that they try so hard to keep clean.