How Long Would You Wait at a Free Clinic?

When I walked into the hall at 8:30, I was given a number and a piece of paper to fill out. The man who handed it to me wore a surgical mask.

I sat next to a young woman, who leaned over conspiratorially and said, “They don’t care about us. It’s all about them. It’s a TB zone, and they only have masks for themselves.”

Another couple sat on the other side of me. “Is it a boy or a girl?” the man asked.

“A boy,” I said.

“I can’t tell,” he said.

I nodded to the baby his wife was holding. The baby looked at me somberly. I guessed two months. “A girl?” I asked. Her hair was much longer than Spencer’s, sticking straight out from her skull.

“A boy,” she said.

20 minutes later, I was called in a group of ten to wait in line and be seen at the window. I was first. The man behind the window asked what service had referred me. “No service,” I said. He told me to sit down and wait to be called again. I was one of two white people there. I sat among the babies, toddlers, and bleary eyed adults crowded into too few seats.

30 minutes later, a young Indian man in his late twenties came into the room and asked for everyone’s attention. “I am the only doctor here today,” he said. “It is impossible and inhuman for me to see all of you today. If you have a non-threatening appointment, you will be rescheduled for six months from now. If you really want to wait, you can wait in line over there.”

I wasn’t there to see a doctor for myself, so I waited. I was called back to the window. They were creating a file for me, the man said. I asked about my baby’s file. Someone else will create that, he said. “So how do I get to the baby clinic?” I asked.

He hesitated, and then dashed in a few keystrokes and printed me a yellow card. “Take that to the baby clinic. After, go back there and see about your file.” He gestured vaguely to the back of the room, where an open doorway bustled with people in masks.

Down the hall at the baby clinic, I asked a woman what to do with my card. “Are you waiting?” I asked, gesturing to the baby suckling at her breast. “No, I’m not working here,” she said.

“No, waiting,” I said. She smiled briefly, and said something I couldn’t quite catch, but what sounded like, “I go in, and then you go after me.”

A nurse called her in a few moments later, but I never saw the nurse again and the woman didn’t come out either. After another 45 minutes, I walked around the corner she’d passed, and saw a box nailed to the wall, where I now realized women had been depositing their files. I tucked my yellow card in front.

A few more women were called into the clinic. A jackhammer started outside. Spencer started crying. Wind blew in from the windows. A woman next to me said, “It’s raining!” I nodded and shivered. I hadn’t dressed Spencer for the cold, and put my sweater over his feet before he finally fell asleep.

When I knew that he would wake up soon wanting milk I didn’t have, I turned the corner again. I looked into the box, now empty of files, and saw my yellow card forgotten at the bottom. I paused for a few moments before pushing the office door open. A man my age sat at a desk, eating a sandwich. I showed him my card and he said, “Didn’t they give you a file?”

“They haven’t finished making it. I’m new. They said I could be seen with this yellow card,” I said.

“You need a file,” he shook his head sadly. “Go back to Window 1 or Window 3 and ask about your file, and then come back here.”

Spencer started crying, awake and alone, out in the hallway where I’d left him.  “Okay,” I said.

My breasts swollen with the milk he’d never learned to take from me, I wheeled Spencer, still crying, into the parking lot and left.


  • Toufeeqah says:

    Oh my “free health care is clearly full of conditions”,as it actually Only works for certain people. The rest of us must just grinn and bare it as you get treated as though you don’t belong there.

    The staff at these clinics act as though they work for free? Everyone is always waiting for someone to fill in something,meanwhile they send you from you pillar to post,only to end up at the very starting point they’d sent you away from as though you’re a total idiot for waiting there in the first place?

    Its soooo pathetic and frustrating. Walking out was probably your best move because when your kids cry, your tolerance for that sort of attitude is at an all time low.

  • luxpat says:

    Exactly. I really appreciate a free service, and I expect there to be pretty long wait times. I sympathized with that young doctor, and so did the other people waiting, since no one grumbled much or made a fuss when the doctor said they wouldn’t be seen. I was impressed at everyone’s calm attitude. What drove me to the edge was the lack of internal communication. I waited an extra two hours and my baby became upset (hearing him scream drives any sane thought from my head), because two people gave me different instructions. New people without files must come all the time, and they didn’t seem to have a process for that? I really sympathize with the hardship of running a free clinic and appreciate the fact that it exists, but I find it hard to blame not having an intake process on poor funding or bureaucracy.

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