Saturday, October 27, 2007


[memories evoked by the Sunday Scribblings prompt "hospital"]

The hospital in our town served a lot of folks all over the county. It was a 3 or 4 story brick building built in the mid-1950's and it was just a couple of blocks away from my house. Since my dad was a doctor in town, I was no stranger to the hospital, and my view was probably quite different from that of most kids my age.

Some of my earliest memories of the hospital are of the doctors' lounge. If you went in the door closest to the administrative offices, it was the first door on the right. It seemed like a big room to a small kid, and there was a large table in the middle, big enough for all the doctors in town to have meetings. There were shelves on at least 3 of the walls, with tons of books, but there was also a wooden box on a lower shelf. That box contained crayons. Sometimes my dad left me in that room to draw while he did his rounds of the patients upstairs. I'm sure he had someone in the offices look in on me once in a while, but with paper and crayons, I was quite happy to stay put.

Another early memory is of the emergency room. The doctors in town were always "on call" for their own patients and if someone had an emergency, my dad would meet them at the hospital. The doctors took turns being on call for patients without a regular physician. And if a doctor went out of town, he made arrangements for someone to take his patients in an emergency. So there were plenty of times that our plans were interrupted by a call from the hospital. If my dad suspected that it would not take him long, I was sometimes brought along. I was not exposed to the trauma patients, but instead I went into a small room where the emergency room nurses worked. There was a small desk, with an extra chair or two. On one wall next to the desk was a bank of pagers that the doctors could use as long as they would be in-range (about a mile or maybe two). These are not the little beepers of recent years, but about the size of an adult's shoe. And all it did was beep as an indication to call the hospital -- no messages or two-way communication - this was years before that.

And one more early memory was of the trips we made in December. My mom would make sure that my younger brother and I were dressed up, then she'd take the two of us over to the hospital to deliver boxes of chocolate candies to the people who worked there. She had different sized boxes, depending on how many people worked in the different areas. One was left in the front office, another in the kitchen, one in the emergency room to share with the lab. I think we left one in the basement but I'm a little vague on what was there. It could have been the morgue, and if so that's probably something they kept from me. Then we went upstairs to the floors. One for the OB ward, then one for the other nurses' stations. And back on the first floor we dropped one off in the nursing home (which was originally in a different building, then moved into a new attached wing of the main building). At each stop the nurses or pink ladies (the volunteers) or staff members made noises over us and how much we had grown or how nice we looked.

The pink ladies really did wear pink. One of them sat at a desk in the main lobby and helped people figure out where someone's relative was. The lobby was, at the time, decorated in the latest furnishings -- with straight lines and armless chairs and long cushioned sectionals. I seem to remember a dull orange and a dull yellow as two of the colors. There was a television in one corner.

Skipping forward in time, during the summer between my junior and senior years at college, I took a part-time job at the hospital in an attempt to have a "real job" on my resume before I graduated. I had been a camp counselor and a substitute life guard, but I thought an office job would be better, especially since I was majoring in Computer Science.

My job was to help out in the office area. I think I worked 3 days a week. The first week (maybe two) all I did was file. There were 3 or 4 women who typed up paperwork to submit to "third party billing" (aka insurance companies). When they finished with the billing paperwork, they stacked it under one side of their desk. Each of them had a stack between one foot and two feet tall waiting for someone to have time to file them away. I was just what they had been waiting for. My brain went numb, but I had filing experience at my dad's office, so I was pretty good at it.

Officially, I reported to the comptroller. I don't remember who the comptroller was, but I do know that I finally got to do something with the computer. They were going to let me help reconcile two or three bank statements. I don't know why they had two or three to do, but I guess that person was as far behind in her work as the women with the typewriters. The task entailed watching the computer screen as it presented one check number and dollar amount pair at a time. For each pair of numbers, I had to click either "yes" or "no" to indicate if it had been cleared on the statement in front of me. If I thought my brain had gone numb from filing, this completely put me to sleep. I would fall into a pattern and realize a split-second too late that I had clicked "yes" when I meant "no." I make a note of the error on a piece of paper and asked what I should do - was there a way to correct it. I got a long-suffering look and was told they'd take care of it and took the note from me. When on the 2nd statement I again made errors, they let me finish that one, but then found something else for me to do.

My next task was to again help the billing office. Their back-log of filing done, I next helped them with finding the accurate diagnoses for the paperwork. I would get the patient's name and the time of their stay in the hospital, then would walk next door to the medical library. This room was between the billing office and the doctor's lounge where I spent time many years before. The arrangement was not by accident. On the back wall of the doctors' lounge was a dictation machine. When the doctors dictated their charts, it was convenient to the people who translated the dictation onto paper for filing. The file room was wall to wall shelves with what seemed like millions of folders containing patient records. I had to find the patient record, then usually I had to get help from the medical librarian to decipher what the diagnosis was. I got a few on my own, but it wasn't easy finding it among all the info there. Once I had the diagnosis, I carried it back to the billing office for the person who had asked for it.

That was certainly a more interesting job, although I wasn't very fast at it. As it turned out, it was not the best summer for me to be working there. The hospital laid off quite a few people. None from the offices I worked in were let go, but at least a dozen other people were. They weren't going to be able to pay me any more. I suppose I could have kept working there for free - if what I really wanted was the experience. But I had had enough and called it quits.

These days I think most doctors are expected to type their diagnoses directly into the computer. That means that the billing people don't need a lackey to go look up those diagnoses - they just link to it through their computer screens. But I bet there is still someone who has to do endless filing - we don't have paperless offices yet!


Matthew said...

Thanks for sharing these memories, nice to here about the other side of the hospital--an extension of the family.


sister AE said...

Hi, Matthew. I'm glad you stopped by.

Jo said...

I've never looked at hospitals this way before -- thanks.

sister AE said...

Hello, Jo. You are welcome. I admit all my hospital memories are not so fond, but these from my childhood are definitely rooted in me to balance the not-so-fun times.

Herb Urban said...

That was a very interesting perspective of hospital workers. I never gave much thought to those who work there on a daily basis. To be surrounded by sickness and paper work would be be a real challenge.

Robin said...

You've reminded me of a truly awful job I had one summer during college (I think I'd blocked it out until now) where I was highlighting alternate rows of numbers, and then razoring out the rows with an exacto knife. Even at the time I kept asking why they couldn't just use a computer. I thought I was going to lose my mind that summer.

Thanks for the stroll down memory lane. I've just remembered how very far I've come.

tumblewords said...

Interesting. I spent time around hospitals and your writing, well-done, brings back a ton of memories which I thought had fallen in that black hole of mind. Nice!

gautami tripathy said...

Thanks for this article. It is very imformative and interesting. The other side of a hospital.

sister AE said...

Hello, Herb. I'm glad I gave you something to think about.

Hi, Robin. That does sound like an insane task.

Thanks, tumblewords. There is more stuck deep in our memories. I, myself, had forgotten things like the basement and the lobby furniture until I purposefully started remembering the other pieces.

Hello, Gautami. I'm glad you found it interesting.

Patois said...

I've never heard from the worker bees behind the scenes at the hospital nor the child of a physician describing sojourns. Quite interesting. Thanks.

sister AE said...

Thank you, Patois. Glad I could give you a glimpse, at least of what it was like decades ago.