Kerplunk in the Basement
By JIM NICHOLS
Perhaps you feel as I do that sounds during the night seem different than the same sounds in the daytime. The blowing wind is more noticeable, the living room clock strikes more clearly, car and truck traffic usually drowned out by other noise now comes to the surface.
It is not exactly an inner-city hospital, but it is not far from it. Established in 1886, the medical center is surrounded by businesses and homes that have been there through several generations. There are other hospitals in the city, but they tend to be farther from the city center toward the suburbs.
There were perhaps eight chaplains and during the day, all of us were there in action. At night, however, there was only one. Having the night call meant that at 5 p.m. the others left until 8 a.m. the next morning.
The general activity level of a hospital begins to slow about 9 p.m. and by midnight it is rather quiet in most areas. At the nurses’ stations there is general conversation, but the rooms mostly contain sleeping patients. The emergency room/trauma center and intensive care units maintain a steady level of activity.
At this hospital being on night call meant you had access to a “sleep room.” This was, frankly, just a regular mundane hospital room on a floor that had been taken over for hospital offices and other uses. During the night, the offices were not occupied so this sleep room was isolated from everything else. It contained a hospital bed plus plastic mattress and one chair. There was a sink and a toilet. There were what some call dust bunnies on the floor, a comment on lax or no janitorial service. It was as quiet as one could imagine. The redeeming feature of this room was that it was on the seventh floor and from this top floor of the hospital there was a large window facing north toward downtown. The city lights were magnificent and, on the night I am best remembering, it was snowing heavily.
The chaplain for the evening was issued two sheets, one thin blanket, and one towel, but the only soap was in a squirt dispenser on the wall. When I thought it was possible to go to sleep, I would make the bed. At the end of the shift in the morning, it was my responsibility to dis-assemble the bedding, wrap the towels in the bundled sheets, and drop them down the hallway clothes chute. From there, my ears could follow the bundle as it bounced through the seven floors and finally into the basement. Kerplunk.
You could not sleep more than a consistent couple of hours before your pager alerted you to head to (usually) the trauma center or ICU. On that snowy night one trip ended in a conversation with young ER physician. We had worked together a few times already but had not really had a time to visit. Sitting in rolling chairs in the ICU, we compared notes as to our roles. I appreciated the fact that she seemed to value the work of chaplains. We were both new to that hospital. She had just finished her trauma training in Omaha and said she had chosen specifically to come to this city hospital where we were because it had such a high percentage of “penetration wounds.” When I queried her about that, she explained that such wounds were caused by bullets or knives and that the hospital we shared had a high 30 percent of such wounds entering the trauma center. She knew about car wrecks, strokes, and heart attacks, but she liked penetration wounds.
When our conversation ended, I headed back upstairs for another brief sleep. The pager went off several more times that night, although I never saw that same physician again.
In many ways, it was a routine hospital evening. Patients were hurt or sick and talented people were using good skills to try to help. Out my seventh-floor large window the snow continued and it reflected the lights of the cars. It was incredibly silent, and I felt that I was simply waiting for my pager to alert again, perhaps for a penetration wound.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain