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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Harvard Square, 1969, a Boston Hopsital & Walter Gropius

The Local Lens

Harvard Square, a triangular plaza in Cambridge, Mass.surrounded by parts of Harvard University’s campus, was as good a place to live as Paris or Berkeley in the late 60s and early 70s. I know, because when I walked out of the Harvard Square subway station from Boston for the first time in September of 1969, I was hit with a barrage of images, the most striking being a professor in a beret riding a bicycle. The professor was wearing tiny oval eyeglasses that called to mind thoughts of French writer Jean-Paul Sartre.
I had come to the Boston-Cambridge area to do civilian work as a conscientious objector in lieu of military service. I’d chosen this area because it was similar to Philadelphia and because it was near the sea. I left Philly without knowing where I was going to live or work but that quickly changed once I arrived in Boston on a Greyhound bus. In the bus station, I bought an issue of The Boston Globe, holed up inside a telephone booth and called available rooms for rent. I found one in a Harvard Square rooming house. Although I signed a year’s lease on the day I arrived in Boston, I still had to find a menial job in a hospital. That would come two days later when I was hired at Tufts New England Medical Center.
My boss at Tufts, Miss Dowling, was a short woman with red hair and a series of pronounced lines on her forehead — no doubt the result of too many summers without sun block on the Massachusetts coast. Miss Dowling was constantly giving orderlies, nurses’ aides and scrub nurses random orders and reprimands. She impressed me as a serious workaholic with boundless energy who expected those under her charge to have a similar work ethic.
“This is an operating room theater,” she told me the day I was hired. “We deal with life and death issues on a daily basis. Your job is crucial. If you foul up, that goes up the chain of command. The operations are on a strict schedule. We can not keep the surgeons waiting. It’s imperative that you stop whatever you’re doing and go for a patient when you are told to. Wear your lab coat when you leave the O.R.!”
People didn’t laugh or make small talk with Miss Dowling; there were no casual asides about how your weekend went; no questions about issues unrelated to the O.R. I was also never allowed to address her by her first name, Dorothy, although a few of the scrub nurses used Dorothy, even Dotty, with abandon. Nurse Shelley — a very feminine, Barbie Doll-type — was Miss Dowling’s pet. The two of them could often be seen in private huddles. Nurse Shelley called me Thomas and spoke to me as if I was a child. Her condescending attitude had everything to do with an orderly being at the bottom of the hospital totem pole. Like Miss Dowling, Nurse Shelley never exchanged pleasantries with subordinates. In fact, during the two years that I worked in the O.R. she would just issue me an order and walk away. Sometimes she’d issue an order without even making eye contact. It didn’t take me long to figure out that she probably had a big beef about the CO thing.
Nurse Shelley was very popular among the surgeons because she walked with a pronounced wiggle. Her walk, in fact, kept the eyes of many surgeons glued to her bottom when they were not throwing forceps, surgical scissors or other instruments across the room at an unsuspecting scrub nurse who wasn’t keeping up. Nurse Shelley knew how to coddle the egos of upset surgeons. In many instances she was called into an O.R. room to replace a scrub nurse who could no longer take a surgeon’s abuse.
“Nurse Shelley in Room 6, Nurse Shelley in Room 6,” Miss Dowling would announce on the O.R. intercom.
You would then see the ejected scrub nurse walking out of Room 6 in tears as Nurse Shelley wiggled inside to the rescue.
Surgeon temper tantrums were a common occurrence in the O.R. and they erupted at the slightest provocation. A tenuous synergy existed between scrubs and surgeons. One moment there would be jokes, flirtatious asides and laughter but then came the sudden downturn. A temperamental surgeon could act out at the slightest scrub mistake. There were some scrub nurses who refused to work with certain surgeons. Fortunately for me, I was never the victim of a surgeon’s wrath.
Spinal anesthesia necessitated that an orderly hold a patient tight so that the anesthesiologist could inject fluid from a syringe into the patient’s back. These procedures were rarely painless and took some time. Often it was the fault of the anesthesiologist if a good hit could not be mastered, although in some cases the problem had no known cause. While an operation might be painless, anesthesia procedures were often not.
I developed a good reputation for being able to calm the most nervous patients. My co-worker, Will, wasn’t as good as me but he could clean and remake an O.R. table faster than I could. Will was African American, my age, and lived in a room in Roxbury not far from his parents’ place. He shared a slightly different shift, 8 to 4, and began work after I opened the O.R. and had set up all the IV stands in the curtained off anesthesia area. He would usually arrive in time to help me get the 8AM cases from the upper floors.
“Anyone ever tell you that you look like Howdy Doody?” Will said to me one day, collapsing over a stretcher in fits of laughter. The Howdy Doody comparison would last two and a half years, the entire time I was at Tufts. It never failed to send Will into peels of laughter. Sometimes he’d point at me and repeat “Howdy Doody” over and over again, his laughter raging like a fever. Will had a talent for making me see the humor in situations. Sometimes just watching him laugh lightened my mood when the going got rough. I didn’t mind the Howdy Doody jokes so much because I was able to see myself through his eyes: a white guy with red hair and freckles. To an African American from Roxbury probably every white guy with red hair and freckles looked like Howdy Doody. So, I became Howdy Doody.
“I’m not taking this anymore, Popeye,” I’d tell him. A little later on, when we really began to feel comfortable with one another, I’d call him Buckwheat from the old Our Gangcomedies. Will would laugh as much as he did when he called me Howdy Doody. We genuinely liked one another and worked well together as a team.
During operations, once the patient was asleep, surgeons and scrubs would slip into banter mode. On a good day, there would be lots of sarcasm and joking, even outright flirting. The telling of jokes was common, as were stories about friends and families. In some cases, the jokes would turn to off color comments or innuendos. Working on hundreds, even thousands, of what T.S. Eliot referred as etherized patients upon a table had no doubt produced this edgy form of humor.  
One time, a very elderly woman was brought in for an obstruction in her lower abdominal region. She appeared to me as a quiet church lady-type. While the nature of the abdominal obstruction had not been noted on Miss Dowling’s patient list, when the woman’s x-rays were posted in the O.R. the truth of the blockage became apparent: a salt shaker-like object tilting slightly to the side appeared to float in space. The old woman, who had apparently lost the instrument during a pleasurable personal act, was now the brunt of O.R. jokes. One scrub nurse after another began to spread the word that everybody should come into Room Five and look at the x-rays. In no time, even the O.R. janitor, who routinely dressed in scrubs, came in and had a look as surgeons took breaks from other operations to take a sneak peak. The poor woman, asleep on the table, had no idea that her case had provided the entertainment for the day.
Amputations, mastectomies and late-term abortions always involved having an orderly carry the specimen to pathology or to the morgue. Amputated arms and legs went directly to the morgue, wrapped in blue linen with the name, age and address of the patient on the outside of the wrap. The wrapped (still warm) leg was carried out by a scrub nurse and placed in the arms of a waiting orderly who carried it to the morgue. Dead infants were also wrapped and transported to the morgue by orderlies and scrub nurses. The occasional dead baby was ushered quickly out of the O.R. because the scene caused a lot of emotional upset. I’ve seen the most hard-hearted scrub nurses escape to the surgical supply closet after an infant death and break down and cry, while the surgeons never seemed to shed a tear.
When a patient died, the mood of everyone in the O.R. became downcast. Deaths hit me in a big way, especially if I was the one who brought the patient into the O.R. earlier that day for his/her operation. While taking the deceased patient to the morgue all I could think of was what I remembered the patient saying to me while alive.
Since I had a good friend who worked in the anesthesia department, I knew the latest rounds of gossip about the staff. I knew which married surgeon was having a love affair with another married physician; which married (presumably) heterosexual surgeon was living a “down low” life in Boston’s Combat Zone. While working at Tufts, one of the scrub nurses died of a heroin overdose. She was a sweet young woman by the name of Melonie whom I never suspected had a problem with drugs.
One morning while opening the operating room for the 8AM cases, I found a resident and a scrub nurse in a full love embrace on one of the patient stretchers. In another part of the hospital the head male x-ray technician had a habit of inviting curious guys into the dark room for some “physical exercise.”
The most famous patient I ever brought into the Tufts O.R. was Bauhaus School founder and architect, Walter Gropius.
When I entered Gropius’ hospital room, I noticed the room’s wide scale window looked out over a construction site. The setting seemed perfect for the founder of the Bauhaus School. Gropius’ hair was unkempt and long and I immediately thought of Albert Einstein. His eyes were also fixed on the multiple bulldozers and working cranes outside his window. His bed was a mess of wires and tubes. He was in such a painful state that he could not move onto the stretcher. A surgeon suggested wheeling the hospital bed out the door but the bed, accented as it was with poles, IVs and many wires, would not fit through the door frame. We angle-yanked the bed back and forth many times and the jolts seemed to be causing Gropius a lot of pain. The surgeon was also beginning to lose his temper.
As a matter of fact, the surgeon crossed the line in terms of emotional outbursts. I remember wanting to apologize to Gropius for the doctor’s behavior. A week after his operation, Walter Gropius’ obituary was on the front page of The New York Times.