We have a panic button behind our desk, and each of the rooms in the building has one - not just the doctors' offices. The nurses' stations have one, as does the pediatric nurse. Even the physio and the counselor have one, because the statistics on attacks on medical staff in this country are enough to make your hair curl. Of course, it's the paramedics and ER staff who really come in for the flak, but believe me, we get our fair share of junkies and roaring drunks, and when they fall through the doors one of us will be hovering by that button in a trice.
But this one I didn't expect. We're all guilty of snap judgments, of course. But, you know, a lot of snap judgments are right on the nail, and I just didn't see this one coming. And I had my eye off the ball, because I was reading and rereading my letter and my brain was in sub-Saharan Africa.
I'm off, you see. Turns out my minimal medical training (emergency practices and first-aid which we office staff were all sent to learn when we signed up here) is enough to make me useful. I can hand out dehydration salts, do primary nursing and even give injections, so I've decided to go and do something to help the world for a couple of years. And there it was in black and white: my acceptance from Medecins sans Frontieres (me! a medecin!) sitting in among the pathology results and antidepressant brochures.
It's been busy the past few days. There's been a bug going round the schools and the waiting room's been heaving with green and wobbly youngsters. Which means that the people who turn up without an appointment have had to wait. Half-past ten, and the natives were getting restless. The queue was dropping more quickly thanks to the people who had realized that their colds weren't as urgent as they had believed when they'd got up this morning. Gloria was in the back making the teas and I was having another scan of my letter - Dear Ms Marshall, We are pleased to inform you that your application... - when I looked up to find that there were two people approaching. From the door came a man-mountain with a tattoo of a bulldog on the arm revealed by his midwinter t-shirt. And coming from the depths of the waiting-room, a woman in her mid-fifties in a fur coat and stilettos.
The man got there first. Grunted a bit. "Have you got an appointment?" I asked. He shook his head. "I'm afraid it's going to be a bit of a wait, then." "Oh," he said. The face twisted into a grimace and the tattoo rippled a bit. Oh, don't, I thought. I can do without it today.
He was opening his mouth to form some more grunts when the woman stepped past him, slapped her hand down on the counter. "I've been waiting," she said, and her voice was one of those blank and arrogant ones that reeks of unappreciated privilege, "for two hours."
I put my letter down. "I'm sorry," I said. "It's very busy today. If you'd like to make an appointment, you're much less likely to have to wait."
Her face flushed. "Don't talk to me like that!" she snapped. "Remember who pays your wages."
Probably whoever bought that fur coat for you, I thought ungraciously. "Well, I'm sorry," I said, "but a queue's a queue."
She gestured at a laden pushchair emerging from Ginger's office. "They came in after me," she said. "They jumped the queue."
Tattoo man was glaring slack-jawed at her, shifting from foot to foot. She ignored him, glared at me.
"Yes, well. Children get priority, I'm afraid. They can deteriorate very quickly."
"Two hours," she repeated.
"I heard you. I'm sorry. we're very busy, as I said."
"Well, how much longer?"
"I really can't say."
"Oh, for God's sake! I'm busy! I don't have time for this!"
She picked up a pen from the counter-top and started fiddling with it.
"Girl said there was a queue, love," said tattoo man.
"Oh, shut up! Keep out of it!"
"I was just saying..." he mumbled.
"Look," I began. Reached across the counter in a gesture of propitiation. "There's really nothing I can..."
A searing pain in my forearm. She had stepped back and was looking at me with a mixture of astonishment and triumph. I looked down. The pen was sticking out from my flesh, a rivulet of blood streaming onto the counter-top. I felt the color drain from my face.
"Now see what you've made me do!" she shouted.
With my good arm I reached under the counter and hit the button. The alarm sounded, throwing dozens of people from their seats. Tattoo man launched himself on the woman. She started screaming. Gloria rushed out from the back room to see him wrestle her to the ground.
"What the hell's happened here?" said Gloria. Caught sight of the pen, still standing upright from my punctured arm, and added another shriek to the rising cacophany.
"Get off me!" shouted the woman from underneath his pressing beer belly. "Get off! It's a bloody disgrace! It's like the bloody Third World!"
Well, I guess I'll find out soon enough.
Past Episodes Of Jackie's Trials And Tribulations In The NHS...
The Seven Deadly Sins Of The National Health Service
November 27, 2006
Surgery Etiquette 101
November 20, 2006
Co-Dependence, Don'tcha Love It?
November 13, 2006
The Doctor Most Likely
November 6, 2006
The Tattoo Solution
October 30, 2006
Flu Jab Fracas
October 23, 2006
The Terror Of The Visiting Nurse
October 16, 2006
A Jar Of Poo
October 9, 2006
The TouchScreen Debacle
October 2, 2006