Germ Warfare

by Jackie Papandrew

They don't call it a waiting room for nothing. When I walk into my pediatrician's office -- two sick kids in tow -- I shiver, knowing the endurance test that awaits. The room, lined on all sides by irritable-looking adults and hordes of (literally) snot-nosed children, is deceptively bright and cheery; its walls are papered with smiling clowns holding balloons. I look around for a seat, then settle for a speck of wall next to the magazines.

We amuse ourselves for the first five minutes by staring at everyone else in the room. There are the usual suspects: young mothers with newborns clutched close; curious, germ-laden toddlers strolling about; even a few slouching teenagers, scowling to hide their embarrassment.

There are no toys or children's books here to spread infection, just a rack of magazines for parents and a few more austere publications like Time, Newsweek, even a stray copy of Scientific American. I stare at it, thinking this doctor must have a strange sense of humor.

The room's one concession to the amusement of children is directly across from me -- a big-screen TV. It plays one animated movie over and over. The movie is changed approximately every six months. Since my children cultivate ear and sinus infections faster than my yard sprouts weeds, I've had the pleasure of seeing it at least 5,000 times.

But it does seem to pacify some of the children, including my own, for the first hour. Then a very large woman, unable to find a seat, chooses to stand directly in front of the screen. This sets off a chain reaction of caterwauls and whines, and puts the screen-blocker in real danger from a group of adults who couldn't be more on edge if they were undergoing a mass fingernail extraction.

My son, who has an inborn talent for stating the obvious, says loudly, "Mommy, I can't see!" And then he proceeds to say it again and again and AGAIN. Finally -- most likely via divine intervention -- the obstructionist finds a seat. I breathe a sigh of relief and try to count the number of people still ahead of me. I get to 25 and am too discouraged to continue. I glare at the clowns on the walls. Their grins have now turned to hideous, malevolent leers.

During the second hour, we are approached by "The Infector." There's one in every pediatrician's waiting room -- an outgoing, pint-sized germ carrier with a big loopy grin encircled by caked-on mucus. She comes closer, spewing viral droplets all over my kids and then reaching out with the most terrorizing weapon of all: a well-lubricated finger.

"Hi!" says this biological time bomb. "What's your name?"

Mata Hari could not have been more deviously charming. I pull my children close and wonder how I can discreetly repel the tiny-yet-virulent threat. A surreptitious trip, a quick jab in the stomach? But a cold shoulder seems to suffice. The germ warrior moves on to the next victim. I take heart, realizing I'm now fourth in line.

After only 30 more minutes, the door to the inner sanctum opens and we are finally summoned. I rise, weak-kneed and convinced I can hear the sound of a trumpet and angels singing. We are ushered into another waiting room, this one with the doctor's name in a framed picture, each letter formed by those *!&#?$%@*! clowns.

Once inside, my offspring promptly start to fight -- punching, kicking and biting -- over positioning on the examination table. I console myself with the thought that any serious injuries they inflict on each other will receive medical attention within five hours. Children's screams echo up and down the hall.

I splash water on my face at the sink in the corner, then stare up into the little mirror over it, convinced I've developed a host of new wrinkles since I arrived. Suddenly, we hear an authoritative voice just outside. I hurriedly straighten up. My progeny stop pummeling each other and come to attention. The knob turns, the door opens, and there he is: THE DOCTOR!

"Long time no see," he jokes. I try to smile back, but my facial muscles, having atrophied, fail to lift my mouth. I reel off a list of symptoms and watch as he conducts a quick exam: eyes, ears, nose, throat, lungs.