Chance to make a difference lost

I should have helped him.

He was an older man with slightly slumped shoulders and an uneven cadence that slowed his pace.

“May I help you?” the young receptionist greeted him with an overly bright smile. I wondered if she needed to speak so loudly. We were the only two in the waiting area.

I looked down at the clipboard in my lap that pinched a half dozen pieces of paper — medical forms to fill out, check off and sign my life away.

He replied to her in a soft tone, his phrases short, but precise. I glanced up to see him fumble with his wallet, pull out the cards he was looking for and then give her his forms.

“Have a seat,” she said, standing up from behind her desk, pointing to a chair.

I studied her briefly and wondered what kind of receptionist she would be.

My father had a special “term of endearment” he used when speaking of receptionists. As a minister for 46 years, he had hired quite a few and experienced even more as a patient or a customer.

He called them, “Big Berthas.”

Not to say they were large, at least in stature. He contended they were large in their power. They were the gatekeepers, the one person who helped you or hindered you from getting to the person you wanted to see.

At least this one was polite.

“Mr. So-and-so,” she said as I tried to check the right box for family history of. “You don’t have the correct referral,” her voice still louder than it needed to be.

And I winced, wondering what Big Bertha would do.

He shuffled back to her desk.

“You have the referral, but it isn’t the right one. You need the blah-blah one. Not this one, Mr. So-and-so.”

The man froze, then his shoulders slumped a little more.

“I know this doctor. They send patients here all the time. I don’t know why they would give you the wrong one. But, you can’t be seen without the blah-blah one,” she lectured.

“OK,” was all he said.

“Do you want to call them?”

“No,” he said. “I had to take the day off to get here. I’ll sort it out at home.”

I should have helped him right then. I should have asked if she could call, since she knew their office anyway. Couldn’t they fax over the referral?

But I didn’t. I was trying to squeeze in the dosage and frequency of medications in the tiny boxes on the form. Besides, I wasn’t sure I wanted to start off my relationship with Big Bertha by telling her how to do her job.

“Let’s reschedule,” she said with an awkward cheeriness, as if that was a problem she liked to fix. She spouted off days and times.

“I can’t come that early. I have to get my handicapped son on the bus,” he said, “and I’m afraid I’d be late.”

That should have done it. I should have wheeled over there myself to see if I could help him.

But I didn’t. I had three more signature pages to complete and another patient came in, adding to the confusion. I saw Mr. So-and-so leave with an appointment card in his hand.

As I signed the last forms, I heard a deep male voice ask Big Bertha about Mr. So-and-so.

“Didn’t have his blah-blah form,” she quipped. “We rescheduled.”

Soon I met the doctor, the owner of the deep voice. He was excellent, listening to my storied medical history before offering his opinion and advice. His assistants were helpful and compassionate as they helped me move from my wheelchair to the narrow exam bed.

On the way home, I thought how Mr. So-and-so lost the chance to get good medical care and how the doctor lost the chance to see a patient. And I lost the chance to make a difference.

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in The Baltimore Sun.