Riding the hospital common elevator

The elevator area on the ground floor of our hospital is split. As you enter, the common elevators are on the left, and to the right is a set of double doors, with a sign posted reading, “AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.” And behind those doors are the employee elevators, elevators for hospital beds, and large elevators where we can run a code while traveling up or down.

The employee elevators are private, clean, and well lit. They come quickly when called and move quickly between floors. The doors slam shut with a confident rattle. You can stand outside the code elevator and hear it far away: First, metallic clanks at a distance, and then, the whir of maintained machinery.

The crowd on the employee elevator is relatively homogenous. Some have matching uniforms. Friends and co-workers meet here. Familiar exchanges are the usual.

“Good morning.”

“Hey, how are you?”

“Slick out there, be safe.”

“Will do.”

The common elevators are a different story. They are styled differently, more dimly lit, with wood paneling. The elevator button lights faded long ago. You push the button; the light doesn’t come on, you push it again, it still doesn’t come on. Then you look across to the other set of buttons. The light is on over there.

“OK, going to four.”

By the end of the day, these elevators smell of humanity. The interactions here are diverse, communal, and poignant. If you will allow them, they make an impression. They allow you to feel the pulse of the world around you. Riding the common elevator is an experience for the soul.

A few vignettes come to mind.

An elderly gentleman joins me on the elevator early one morning. He is carefully dressed, decorous, and polite.

“Good morning.”

“Good morning.”

“Which floor?”

“Two, please.”

The second floor is where pre-op is. Is he going for surgery? I don’t know. He glances nervously at the array of elevator buttons. I note the arthritic hands, the fingers, splayed outward, clutching crisply printed papers and a tweed newsboy cap, and adorned by a wedding band, with luster decades old. If you watch him closely, a lump develops in your own throat. You imagine the unknown he might face, and quietly wish him Godspeed.

“Goodbye, now.”

“Have a good day, young man.”

At noon, after rounds, our team waits for the same elevator. The door opens. The elevator is nearly full. Another group of residents is already on board, along with hospital visitors. We climb aboard, and in front of the visitors, each of us subconsciously folds our papers, clutching them against ourselves or slipping them into a white coat pocket, hiding patient names and room numbers. Smiles silently flash back and forth between the groups of doctors. We interned together. We say nothing of shared patients; for now, in front of the hospital guests, we are simply old friends. And then, in quiet tones, suspended somewhere above the earth, greetings are exchanged.

“Hey, Medicine.”

“Hey, Neurology.”

The hospital visitors, a woman, and her adult daughter, suddenly realize they are outnumbered. They grin, and clearly feel increasingly conspicuous. Then the mother laughs.

“I feel like I need a white coat!”

“Didn’t you get the memo?”

We all laugh. The bell rings. The elevator stops.

“We’re off here.”

“Take care.”

“I’ll call you later.”

In the afternoon, I share the elevator with another lone gentleman. He appears older than what would be his stated age. His eyes are piercing and dry. The elevator smells of cigarette smoke. His jacket reads “DISABLED VETERAN.” The elevator is quiet. I find myself watching my co-passenger out of the corner of my eye. Then we stop. The bell rings again. He limps for the door.

“Thank you for your service.”

“Thank you.”

Late in the evening, I climb aboard the elevator one final time. It’s heading down. Hospital visitors fill the elevator, having come after regular work hours to visit loved ones. Young and old. Some eyes are not dry. With a growing sense, year by year, of my own imperfection, I ride with them. The air is full of a sense of brokenness. None of us talk.

I don’t always ride the common elevator. But it is an occasional, necessary rite. Here I am forced to be physically present, for a short time, undistracted, in an enclosed space, with the people of my region, reminded again of my home and of my obligations.

Nicholas Brennecke is a neurology resident and can be reached on Twitter @nic_brennecke.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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