Cathy Hamilton: Future of health care: Take a number

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I am sitting in Surgery Waiting Room 1, doing what a person is supposed to do in such an aptly named place: I'm waiting. Waiting for someone to call No. 37.

It's a little like waiting for a pizza, except there's no cold beer, and the aroma is different.

Thirty-seven is the number assigned to my mother, the patient. Fortunately, her surgery is relatively routine, with highly favorable odds for success. Still, there's always anxiety involved in waiting for a loved one to go in and then come out of the operating room.

Paranoid questions swirl in the brain:

What if the surgeon sneezes at just the wrong moment? What if the anesthesiologist inhales the gas and falls asleep on duty? What if a dyslexic nurse confuses 37 with 73, and Mom gets an appendectomy instead?

My apprehension is now heightened by a new fear: What if I forget my mother's number?

"37, 37, 37," I repeat to myself aloud.

Fortunately, I have with me two younger sisters whose short-term memories still are intact. At least, more than mine, but that's not saying a whole lot.

Of course, this whole number assignation deal is the hospital's nod to HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).

Obviously, a committee of hospital administrators and interested parties decided to protect patients' privacies by taking away their names.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I ponder the pros and cons.

On the one hand, it seems so cold and impersonal, this McMedicine approach to health care. On the other hand, there is something oddly comforting about anonymity in a situation like this.

Nobody looks up out of curiosity when numbers are called, like they might if surnames were used: "Look! Those are the Jacksons from church. Wonder what Mr. Jackson is in for? Mrs. Jackson just had that hysterectomy last year:."

"Number 37!" the volunteer calls. My sisters and I jump to our feet.

"BINGO!!" I cry, forgetting for a moment where I am. The elderly man next to me jolts awake.

"What'd I win?" he asks.

"You can see her in pre-op now," the gray lady informs us. "Second blue door, Room 12. Afterward, go to Waiting Room 2."

"Second blue door, Room 12. Waiting Room 2 : Number 37:" I repeat as we enter the surgical holding area.

After a chat with the doctor and pre-op kisses all around (just Mom, not the doctor), my sisters and I obediently make our way to Surgery Waiting Room 2, where we're given a pager that looks a lot like the lunar module.

"If you leave the waiting room, take this in case we have to find you," explains a second volunteer. "Patient number?"

"Uh ..." I answer. Omigod, I've forgotten already!

"Thirty-seven," says one of my sisters, as the volunteer makes note.

"Show off!" I sputter, cursing her 7-year youthful advantage over me.

We find three chairs in the corner and place the enormous pager on the table. It's the kind that's covered with LED lights. Suddenly, I feel like we're waiting for a table at TGI Friday's.

Nachos, anyone?

Meanwhile, numbers are being called like in a busy New York Deli:

"32 ... 14 : 27 : 35 ..."

Each time, I glance over at my sisters, who shake their heads as if to say, "That's not us, you menopausal moron."

I lecture them indignantly, in my head. "Do you have any idea how many numbers and letters and passwords I have running through my brain at any given minute? This morning, I tried using my ATM pin number as my Facebook password. It's overload, I tell you!"

"Thirty-seven?" someone calls, and my sisters sprint to the volunteer's desk while I trail behind.

"Surgery's over," the woman says, gently. "The doctor will see you in Consultation Room D. Down the hall on the left. The patient will be in Room 962. Second bank of elevators to the north."

As we trudge toward Consultation Room D, I whisper to my sisters, "Are you remembering that? Nine-six-two. Second bank of elevators. North.

"You have to. It's beyond me."

I'm suddenly exhausted. And very hungry. But, I can't decide whether I want pizza, bagels, nachos or a Big Mac.

"After this, let's get some lunch," I suggest to my siblings.

"Where do you want to go?" one of them asks.

"I don't care," I reply. "Anywhere you don't have to take a number."

Cathy Hamilton is a 53-year-old empty nester, wife, mother and author, who blogs every day at BoomerGirl.com.

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