Small Talk

(This month, I have the honor of showcasing my sister’s whimsical artwork. I hope to share more of Shaun Judith King’s artwork in future posts!)

I work on a critical care unit in a city hospital. In the peak days of the Coronavirus pandemic, our leaders moved us around like human chess pieces, depending on the need.  Operating room nurses worked in critical care. Unit secretaries worked at the main entrance, taking temperatures and screening employees for suspicious symptoms. I was asked to pinch hit on the switchboard. 

Our hospital switchboard is stationed in the heart of the building. A tiny room without windows, the switchboard is jam-packed with security cameras, fire and gas panels, code phones, a coffee pot, and of course, a console. The space for humans is no bigger than a pony’s stall.  

In the course of a single day, the hospital operator might handle a cardiac code, a security dispatch to a combative patient, and a report of suspicious activity on the security cameras. 

The ‘board’ is no place to kick back and relax. 

Scott, veteran switchboard operator and a long-time friend, offered me some training. 

“Most important, Karen,” he said as he shuffled around the tiny space to put on a pot of coffee, “is to leave your critical care voice in critical care.”

“What do  you mean by that?” 

“I know that on the floor, your job is to work things out for people,” said Scott, “but on the board, you have to get to the bottom of things quick. ‘How may I direct your call?’ is your mantra.”

“Sounds good.”

Scott peered at the coffee pot and set it for bold. “Just find out what they need and then…zoom!…send it off to someone else. Otherwise, you’ll get overwhelmed.”  

“Got it.” I nodded. A couple of times for emphasis because Scott seemed doubtful. 

He unlocked my console and I took my first call. 

An elderly sounding woman with a gravely voice asked for the Corona Virus Hotline. “One moment while I direct your call,” I said. 

I took four more calls and patched them through to various departments. “One moment while I direct your call.” My voice took on a sing-song quality. This felt like a cake-walk. 

The fifth call was the same elderly woman calling back.  

“Hello,” she said. I recognized her gravely voice. Years of cigarettes, I imagined. “You just put me through to the Corona Hotline.” 

“Yes, I said. Did you get through to someone?” I was quick to check the history. Maybe I’d sent her call to the wrong department.

“Well, yes,” she said, “but I have another question.” 

“Oh, of course. How may I direct your call?” I recognized the danger of getting stuck on that phrase for the rest of my life.

I could hear her take a deep intake of breath. Maybe she was smoking a cigarette. “Um…this whole Corona thing is scary, don’t you think? I…I just wanted to know how you felt.”

“Oh. Well, yes. It is scary.” I felt Scott pause at my elbow as he filed some papers. Just in time, I caught myself. “Did you get an appointment to get tested? How else may I help you?”  

“As it turns out,” she said, “I don’t need an appointment. I can just drive through at any time. That’s what they’re doing now. People just driving through like it’s nothing more serious than a bag of fries and a shake.”

“Oh. Well. That’s good, I guess. No appointment. I mean.” I went silent. 

“Do you know I stay in my house all day. Some retirement!”

“Well, I…”

“Alone!” 

“Ah. I see. You know, maybe if you take a walk around your neighborhood or sit on your porch and watch the people go by.” 

Illogically, I imagined her front porch was from a long-ago era, the 1950’s. I could see her sitting at her kitchen table, elbows on Formica, a black and white linoleum floor under her fuzzy pink slippers. She’d dialed me on an old black rotary phone with nails she’d painted a seashell pink that morning. On her front porch sat two rockers.

Years ago, she and her husband (surely there had been a husband at one time) would sit outside to watch the kids play stickball in the street. I imagined the youngest of the Tillman’s brood, wheeling her baby doll along in its pram.

I saw a simpler time, a better life than now. All I had to do was convince her to go out on her front porch. If she did that, perhaps we’d all be in a better place.

“Well,” she let out a deep sigh. “I’m sure you have other responsibilities.”

But, here she was…a friend, really, now that I knew her. I gently swiveled my chair away from Scott’s elbow. 

“In the beginning,” I confided quietly, “I was almost too afraid to come to work.”

She stirred. “I knew you would be,” she said,” as if she’d known me all my life, and then, remembering… “Of course, not you, precisely, but all these hospital workers. I kept saying to myself- aren’t they afraid, too? How do they make themselves do it?” 

“I honestly don’t know,” I confessed. “Meltdowns every day, if you want to know the truth. And the masks are suffocating, especially if you feel a crying jag coming on.”

She clucked. “You poor thing.” I could hear her settle deeper into her chair. 

“Still,” I brightened a little for her sake, “as my mom would say, look for the silver lining. At least we had a reason to get out of the house. We weren’t shut in like yourself.” 

“Oh, your mom was right,” she said. “At least you see things first hand. All we have is the news and they’re no great shakes! I’m so chockablock full of anxiety!”

“Well, I can’t tell you what to do,” I said. “but I think getting outside is helpful. Of course, I’m not a medical person.”

“Oh!, why you most certainly are a medical person! Just look at what you’re doing! The responsibility! Why, you never know who might call you next. A person, for instance, might be picking up the phone at this very instant with some sort of emergency, bypassing 911 altogether, in the way people surely do.”

“That very thing just happened yesterday when I was still in training. I probably shouldn’t share, but after all we…a young man called. Well, I think  he was young, I have to make assumptions because it’s all over the telephone.”

“This is true. I mean look at me. I said I was a retiree. All you have to go on is my word. I could be any age, really.” 

“That’s true, but I think by now we know each other well enough. So, anyway, this guy says, ‘I think I might have broken my leg.’

“Goodness!”

“Yes, then he tells me a bone is sticking straight out of his pants and asks me if the emergency department is still open. He thought it was closed!”

“Oh my. The misinformation.” 

“And he was talking in that sucked in voice you get when you’re teeth are clamped together in agony.” 

“Oh, I know that kind of pain,” she said. “I bit the tip of my tongue right off when I had my firstborn.”

“Ouch.”

“Well, back in those days, they just let you writhe. No matter how big the baby. Just get on with it, was the motto.”

I heard Scott give a little cough.

“Say,” I asked, “you have a porch, right?”

“Why, yes, I do.”

“Well, you’re safe from the virus on the porch. Pretty safe, anyway. I have to um…take a few other calls now, but I do feel the porch could be your saving grace. You know, a little sunshine and watching people go by.”

“Thank you, and I do feel a lot better. I suppose you’re right. We can’t stop living just because of a little old virus!”

“Certainly not, we have to find ways to live around it, is all.” I straightened my pens, shifted my notebook.

“You’re so right. I’ll go outside right now. Bye now!”

“Bye!” I put down my handset. 

Scott smiled. “Karen, that was your critical care voice.”

5 thoughts on “Small Talk

  1. I really enjoyed reading this piece. I was just thinking recently how I make up entire lives in my head about people based on seeing them at the bus stop or a phone call. This story shows I am not alone!

    Like

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