Whispers in the waiting room


Whispers in the waiting room


Cooper MS; McCallum Z; Antolovich G






waiting room; anticipatory grief; article; child; clinician; disability; family; human; intensive care unit; life sustaining treatment; longevity; newborn period; palliative therapy; parent; watchful waiting


Kim, aged 3 years, lies asleep, waiting for a miracle. Outside her room, the nurses on the night shift pad softly through the half-lighted corridors, stopping to count breaths, take pulses, or check the intravenous pumps. In the morning, Kim will have her heart fixed. She will be medicated and wheeled into the operating suite. Machines will take on the functions of her body: breathing and circulating blood. The surgeons will place a small patch over a hole within her heart, closing off a shunt between her ventricles that would, if left open, slowly kill her. Kim will be fine if the decision to operate on her was correct; if the surgeon is competent; if that competent surgeon happens to be trained to deal with the particular anatomic wrinkle that is hidden inside Kim's heart; if the blood bank cross-matched her blood accurately and delivered it to the right place; if the blood gas analysis machine works properly and on time; if the suture does not snap; if the plastic tubing of the heart-lung machine does not suddenly spring loose; if the recovery room nurses know that she is allergic to penicillin; if the "oxygen" and "nitrogen" lines in the anesthesia machine have not been reversed by mistake; if the sterilizer temperature gauge is calibrated so that the instruments are in fact sterile; if the pharmacy does not mix up two labels; and if when the surgeon says urgently, "Clamp, right now," there is a clamp on the tray. If all goes well, if ten thousand "ifs" go well, then Kim may sing her grandchildren to sleep some day. If not, she will be dead by noon tomorrow. If Kim were an astronaut, strapped into her seat at the top of some throbbing rocket, the crowd assembled would hold their breath in the morning Florida sun. "How can it possibly work?" they would whisper. "How many parts are there in that machine? A million? What if one fails? My toaster fails. Please let it all work right." The machine would bellow smoke, the gantry fall away, and slowly the monster would rise, Kim on top. If it worked, they would cheer. "A miracle," they would shout, in awe that the millions of tiny lines of effort, the millions of tiny lines of cause and effect, from job shops in Ohio and laboratories in Pasadena, criss-crossing through time and space, could converge so magnificently in a massive, gleaming rocket launched exactly right. Perfect. If it failed, they would cry. So would the rocket's makers, who had done their very best. No one wanted it to end this way. Poor Kim. What was the trouble? What went wrong? Why? The lines of cause will converge around Kim in the morning as she wheels toward the operating room. Thousands upon thousands of elements weaving a basket to hold her safely, all hope. No crowd holds its breath tonight; but wouldn't they if they knew? From: Berwick DM. Controlling variation in health care: a consultation from Walter Shewhart. Medical Care 1991; 29: 1212-1225.


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Cooper MS; McCallum Z; Antolovich G, “Whispers in the waiting room,” Pediatric Palliative Care Library, accessed May 24, 2024, https://pedpalascnetlibrary.omeka.net/items/show/19514.