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Sunday February 05, 2002

The day was quite unlike any other I'd experienced in London thus far. The sun was shining and large white clouds drifted across a blue sky and the streets seemed decidedly happier than they had previously. I wove my way through the narrow, winding Soho streets until I found myself at a large, tree-lined road. Looking to the right I noticed something that looked rather palacial and turning that direction I soon found myself in front of, well, a palace, which I suppose they have in this country.

More than anything else, it was an open plaza with no grass and an unusually large number of Japanese tourists, with some Germans and flight attendants thrown in for good measure. Someone got very angry with me for standing where she wanted to take a photograph, but I decided not to ask her for her nationality. Strangely enough, it offered me very little in the way of awe or wonder, the palace, leaving me more with a sense of distance and boredom. And perhaps that's part of the point, not being so much of a welcoming place as a photo opportunity containing royalty.

So once the parade of guards on horseback sporting their fuzzy hats and red coats trotted past, complete with police escort with scooter and little police car (and I wonder what car chases in the UK must be like. I mean, really, how fast can those little police cars go anyway? And aren't there a lot of sports cars around? I mean I've seen enough CitroÎn cars driving about here but I've also seen enough Audis and Porches to realize that if you want to get away from the cops you should just hop your butt in something that will move faster than a go-kart and you should be fine, right?), I headed off through the park that borders the palace and wandered about, noting the time and calculating when it was that I was going to need to make my way back through the streets of London for my lunch date.

With forty-five minutes to spare I headed out of the park (making a brief stop at the public restroom that was there and marvelling at its cleanliness and the stead stream of 50s pop hits that were being piped in from parts unknown) and back up to Trafalger Square where I encountered a large statue on a big pole and crossed the street in something called a "subway" which was a charming way to get from one side of a busy intersection to another without needing to maneuver through cab drivers who would rather run you down than avoid a traffic violation. In a country with a national healthcare system there seems to be the common believe that being hit by a car is not as big of a deal as it might be in other countries.

Passing by St. Paul's cathedral, I noted the wonder of the juxtaposition of the old and the new in London, which is probably why I was not as enamored of the palace and why the rest of the city is just so fabulous. For me, the most exciting place in New York is downtown, where the foundation from some of the earliest buildings in the city can be seen through glass exposures in the sidewalk beneath the buildings that make up the financial district. A similar situation can be found in much of London with the exception that London (and, of course, most of Europe, as opposed to the United States) has been around for centuries longer and is able to hold on to so much more history, in fact has so much more history, than the US is even able to provide. Which means that my walk through the streets of London, despite having to turn my head the wrong way to avoid being blowed down by a wayward taxi is that much more exciting, passing by buildings and cobblestone streets and streetlamps that could (though may or may not necessarily) be incredibly old.

The light changed and I looked, first right, then left, as I have finally learned to do, and began to cross the street when a gust of wind came along and nearly blew me over. As I was regaining my footing I noticed an old woman on the other side of the street who was caught up in the same burst of wind and who was not as lucky as I get picked up into the air and tossed to the ground in front of a truck that was waiting at the light. I rushed over to her and asked if she was alright, which was the best thing I could think of to do at the time. She was, it seemed, but upon putting a hand on her right shoulder to help her up, she winced and noted that she had just broken it. Another passerby as well as the truck driver (lorry driver would that be?) helped me to get her to the island in the middle of the street where said passerby, a middle-aged man in a suit attempted several times to call for an ambulace on his mobile phone, repeatedly looking forlorn and annoucing "Damn. I've been cut off."

When finally he did get through, the woman expressed her exaspiration and mused that it would probably be some time until the ambulance finally did show up to fetch her. I opted instead to flag her down a cab and had it take us a couple of blocks to the nearest medical center. The man with the mobile phone had, by this point, disappeared, having made gestures over to the side of the road while mouthing "it's too windy here, I'll go over there and cancel the ambulance."

The trip to the medical center cost one-pound sixty and I tossed the driver a two pound coin and thanked him as I helped the woman out of the cab and up the ramp toward a sign marked "Minor Injuries Unit." She told me that this hospital had stopped pulling its own weight in the London medical circuit and that all serious injuries were now being taken to the Royal London which would, she would later lament, "be a time for suicide" if ever one should be taken there. She was not a frail woman, by any definition of the word, and all the while she chatted away quite unlike someone sporting what she claimed to be a broken arm.

Upon reaching the Minor Injuries Unity, I made our presence known to the receptionist who, after looking at the woman I was escorting, told us to take a seat and that she'd get to us when she was done with her current patient. Which, I suppose, is fine, except that she seemed to be making no effort at all to process her current patient with any sort of haste. Rather, she, the twenty-something receptionist in jeans and sneakers with nails so long they elicited a "do you have trouble typing with those things?" comment from the current patient, idly tapped away at her keyboard and read out questions from her computer screen.

It was finally time for us to approach the desk, which we did, to a barrage of questions covering all of the basics of name, date of birth, address and doctor's information, the last of which seemed to be something of a sticking point as the receptionist was having trouble with the concept of a doctor with a private practice, that is, not part of a medical group or hospital. When everything was entered, we were told to wait again for a nurse.

Time passes, and not too slowly at that, and Mrs. Robinson (whose name I have finally learned through the aforemention process of data entry) is called in to be seen by a nurse. I enter with her, to provide peace of mind and as something of a center in this otherwise convoluted process. Or so I'd like to believe. After giving all of her information again to the nurse, including name, date of birth, address and doctor's information, the nurse feeds her a couple of Percaset (or something similarly mind numbing) to take the pain away from the movement that she is going to come as part of the coming examination. I took this opportunity to head out to the waiting area and spent the next block of time studying posters arguing the benefits of not drinking to excess.

The examination complete, I find that it is time to wait as there is only one porter in the building to transport patients about and that he is currently indisposed and that Mrs. Robinson must be taken to X-ray. So we wait. And chat about my job and what I'm doing in London, and whether I like my time there. And we wait some more, and it has finally been half an hour and the nurse is unable to tell us when, if ever, the porter will arrive, so the dear Mrs. Robinson finally announces that if it's all right, that she will take herself up to X-ray, which is all of three flights away, up an elevator. The nurse, who does seem geniuinely concerned about this woman, says that this is fine, if it is indeed what she wants. It is noted that anything, at this point, is better than waiting, and I play escort out the door, to the right, to the right, and up three flights where we find that her data has not even been sent up to the x-ray room again.

More waiting ensues, after which time she is called into x-ray and I am left in the waiting room. I survey the scene and watch two older women, one in a hospital gown, one without, complaining that it had been over three hours since they'd gotten there. I looked at my watch and realized that it had only been a little over and hour and began to dread this situation into which I'd placed myself. Another couple enters. She appears not to speak any English, but the man that she is with, her husband, says that he will translate for her. There is trouble at the desk. He is told that she will not be let into x-ray until they know for certain that she is not pregnant, and he is trying to tell them that she is often late with her period, and they are telling her that he is not doing a very good job of convincing them of the information that they need to know. They are sent away for a checkup, and I look at the clock on the wall. I have been at the hospital and am now one hour and forty-five minutes late for my lunch date and I do not have a book with me to pass the time.

The waiting area is now empty but for the receptionists, the older woman having gotten her x-ray taken care of and having since departed. Two other patients have come and gone and I am preparing to ask when it is that I will be able to leave, when it is that Mrs. Robinson will be let out and am preparing myself for the inevitable exaspirated sighs and an appology of "we're sorry, we don't know," when I hear here coming around the bend. She is with a technician who is holding a large envelope and I am asked to bring the patient and the envelope back down to Minor Injuries where the nurse will take care of her.

Down the lift, a left and a left (and I do the hokey pokey and I... right) and we are back in Minor Injuries, a room that now contains a couple, a young woman, and no receptionist. I go to the counter to find a notice infoming me that the Minor Injuries unit does not have a receptionist on duty today and that I'd best call up the main receptionist who will take my information and inform a nurse that I am waiting. For all other enquiries, I am to go across to the examination room where I am to accost a nurse and tell her that I want to see someone immediately. I walk across the room and see the only nurse in the room occupied with a woman in a wheel chair. Things seem to be moving very slowly in the interview process so I return to reception and phone the main reception desk. The phone rings. And rings. And rings. And I look across the room to the woman who finds herself in my charge and she looks at me and I am forced to shrug my shoulders and tell her that I don't know what is going on. Again.

Finally, the original nurse that we had dealt with appears (from seemingly thin air) and snaps the x-rays from us. We are back in the examining room and she is off to the side, at the light box, examining the film. She looks. She ponders. She looks again. She approaches us. "Right, so you've not only broken your arm but you've also dislocated your shoulder. We're going to have to send you to the Royal London to see the orthapedic resident..." and by this time Mrs. Robinson's eyes have glazed over at the mention of the hospital of doom. "Shan't I be waiting there for hours if I get sent there? Can't I get sent to my own hospital?" she asks, begs really.

"Best not to," says the nurse and goes on to note that she can't make that sort of recommendation anyway. She steps back over to the phone to talk to her orthapedic resident. The speakerphone is on and it rings and rings and rings with no answer. Once again, this is not boding well. Mrs. Robinson is not a happy person, but has resigned herself by this point to put herself in the care of the British medical system. It seems more like a defeat than a relief. The nurse finally gets through and after much calling and arranging we find that a cab has been called on the hospital account and that the resident is waiting at the Royal London. It has been two hours since our entry into the Minor Injuries Unit at St. Bart's and things are moving along.

Mrs. Robinson, Dorothy, once again informs me that she is feeling terribly guilty for keeping me so long and I gladly take my leave. The cab is on its way and I feel that there is little more I can do. I stand outside the double glass doors. "Lost are you?" I hear from behind me. A young man is standing there and I tell him that what I really am looking for, besides the way out, is ten pence for a phone call. The pay telephones in this country do not take five pence coins and I have a pocket full of them. I am ten short of a phone call and he hands me a twenty, "enough for the full call" and sends me on my way. "Have a nice day" I tell him and he turns back to me. "In this weather? Not possible." The day had been sunny and bright, a rarity in this city, but when I finally made it outside I was greeted with a storm, complete with thunder, lighting and driving rain.

Two hours late, I headed in the approximate direction of my original destination. Of course I had no umbrella. Of course.

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