Hurry Up And Wait

As an Army child in the 60’s, the way one went to the doctor was this: If your child woke up with a fever or vomiting, or was screaming from ear pain, you gave them aspirin, warm cloths, enemas, or whatever it took for 2-3 days. If the symptoms persisted, you resigned yourself to going to the doctor. The doctors were at the military hospitals. Military hospitals ran on a triage system. The worst patients got seen first which seemed fair until you were the one sitting there with the sick child The priority ran:

1. Anyone OBVIOUSLY in distress (i.e. blood, bones poking through skin)

2. Everyone else

My mother would make arrangements for the non-sick child to be picked up from school and kept as long as necessary and would try to drop off the non-school aged child to be cared for by friends or the base nursery. Sometimes the latter didn’t work so she had to cart everything for the well child and sick child to the hospital as well.

Mom would sign in, show her dependent ID, and answer the $64,000 question: How long has the child been running a fever/vomiting/etc. Hoping her answer conveyed more urgency than anyone else’s which would take her to the top of the heap, she took a seat in the waiting area. Surrounded by other moms, they all eyed each other, assessing the ‘sick’ level of the child each was holding.

Mom ordered us to sit quietly until we couldn’t stand it anymore. Once discipline began to break down she started the careful rationing from the “going to the doctor” bag of toys. They were special ones, designed to be played with quietly, but to be totally consuming so we wouldn’t start the “when is it OUR turn?” whine.

All military wives (and let’s face it, they were 99.9% wives back then) knew the rules:

  1. DO NOT CALL YOUR SPONSOR (that’s your military husband). A sick family is a liability to a man’s career.
  2. DO NOT DO ANYTHING THAT WOULD EMBARRASS YOUR SPONSOR. An embarrassing family is a liability to a man’s career.
  4. ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO MOAN LOUDLY. Remember the squeaky wheel theory? But keep it sane — remember rule number 2.
  5. WHEN YOU SIGN IN, ASK FOR A VOMIT PAN. If they think you’re going to create a big mess, they will hurry you along.
  6. PRAY THAT YOUR CHILD DOESN’T NEED ANYTHING FROM THE PHARMACY. That adds another two hours to your wait.

My mom got wise early on and realized that if she volunteered with the Red Cross helping out at the hospital, she’d have the ‘recognition factor’ so if she really needed someone to see one of us, she would at least be a person, and not just an extension of someone’s ID card. I’m pretty sure that is what saved her sanity. And thankfully, we weren’t sick often. But when people in the health care debate talk about socialized medicine, I know exactly what they’re referring to, and I can tell you, it isn’t pretty.

One cool thing about the military medical system when we lived in Japan in the early-1970’s was that the hospital was phasing down from its height of activity during the Viet Nam war. There were miles and miles (it seemed) of covered walkways between various buildings and clinics. If I was the well child who was being dragged along to an appointment it was a great place to run with great clomping steps on the wooden sidewalks. I’m sure it helped my mom that we got our energy out.

When I was 13 and began orthodontic work, on occasion I got to fly by helicopter up to the ‘big’ hospital at Tachikawa. Mostly we went by bus, but when the pilots needed some air-training time, we were the VIP’s of the day. It was SO COOL. My mom would hand us over, we’d run to the helicopter under the rotating blades, strap in, and hang on. The machine would slowly lift about 20 feet vertically, tip the nose forward and swoosh into the sky.

Looking back I wonder how those ex-Viet Nam pilots felt about being bus drivers for preteens. They were amazingly tolerant. Sometimes they let us plug in our headphones to listen to the air traffic chatter. If we had a REALLY cool pilot, we got to listen to rock-n-roll on Far East Network.

Thankfully for the benefit of military families and their sanity, the medical system went through radical change for the better in the 80’s. They jumped on the HMO-style bandwagon and instituted novel things like appointments and number systems for the pharmacy.

Now as a military retiree wife and mom, we have adequate health care with reasonable access. (The promised “free medical care” went out the window long ago) As retirees, we pay a great deal for premiums for what we get. Even my husband, the one who served thirty years including time in a combat zone, has to pay premums for his health care. But when I think back at what my mother had to deal with, I’m very grateful.

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  1. It was even worse during the 50’s and very early 60’s overseas … any medical service provided to dependents had to be ordained by God first and it didn’t matter how high in the ranks your father happened to be!  I remember uncontrollable hemorrhaging from a pulled “baby” tooth some medic screwed up and only then did I get a real dentist to fix it. After that we didn’t get any medical treatment except some much needed dental work I received in the early 60’s after my father finagled service from a great dentist.  Where we lived there wasn’t dental service for dependents at all and those were the days when we didn’t have flouride or very safe drinking water.  

  2. In ’59 I had a ear infection and my parents took me to Sick Call at the dispensary at 5th Army HQ in Chicago. I took a book expecting to be there for hour. Dependants were always called last so I was expecting a long wait.

    To my suprise as soon as I was seated I was called. I went into the exam room and the Coreman had a file in his hand. I assumed it was mine. He kept looking at the file and then back at me with a strange look no his face. He then asked me if I was in the Special Forces.

    I am a Jr. and have the same name as my father. He was at the time a Lt. Col. in the Army. They had pulled his file by mistake. They did get my file and see me then thank goodness. I was afraid they would send me back to wait for hours in the waiting room.

    That day my parents were in the PX when I found them after seeing the doctor. They were suprised to see me so soon.   

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