29 August 2013

The People Who Do The Real Work

A little stay at the local hospital this week gave me a chance to meet some of the people who do the real work.

Oh, I’m not much at all for the “woe is me” thing. For a minimal description, see a note at the end.

A hospital may be a healthcare delivery system, but the healthcare still has to be delivered by people. Just as the point of the spear has to be sharp, the shaft of the spear has to be sturdy. I met lots of folks from both parts.

Two physicians I dealt with are interesting guys. 

One is a primary care doc who put himself through medical school by working as a coal miner. To me, that says so very much about character and work ethic. The other is a specialist who served a hitch as an enlisted sailor in the U.S. Navy.  He credits that experience with a lot of his own success in life.

Wow, there is a lesson from those guys. So many people see themselves as “too good” for this or that kind of work. But there is dignity and honor in any job done well. There are opportunities to learn beating at your door all the time. All you have to be willing to do is answer the door. True, it takes a little effort. Tell me something worthwhile that doesn’t.

This hospital has a “transport staff,” people whose job it is to wheel patients from here to there for medical testing and so forth. Well, I suppose that sounds like an easy job on its face. It is anything but. Pushing a wheeled carriage of some sort with a patient, let alone a “man-sized” patient, is a workout. Add to that the financial realities which keep staffing in all businesses below optimal levels. So the very pleasant lady who transported me constantly answered her portable phone to keep a running tab on the next three or four patients who had to be taken from here to there. In the meantime, she kept up a positive and upbeat demeanor.

Late at night, into the room came a guy while I was sleeping. When I stirred, he identified himself as “just a housekeeper.” Well, that always provokes a reaction from me when someone identifies himself as “just” anything. As he was disinfecting the place, he talked with me a little bit about his job and his understanding of it. And this guy takes his job very seriously. A hospital is a dirty place both because of the high traffic and constant presence of disease organisms. These “just housekeepers” have to stay on top of both the visible and the invisible debris and dirt. And of course the market does not bear a very high wage for that work. I wonder – who reading these Dispatches would be willing to do that work at all? Years ago, I read an amusing essay by a an institutional housekeeper about the four kinds of shit stains. Amusing though it may be, one of the facts of life is that humans make shit stains which somebody has to clean up.  They are the ones with true dignity.

And have you ever noticed that healthcare people these days exclusively wear athletic shoes? That’s because they spend so little time other than up walking or running around. And yet it seems that some of the public expects them to act like personal valets. That has to be difficult for these professionals. I really doubt if they are doing these jobs for the money. I heard them involved in what were obviously some sorts of medical crises.  Then they would come and apologize for not having attended some minor need. Well, if it’s me in the big crisis, or somebody in my family, I’d like to think that the other system users are going to chill a bit while these healthcare people triage what needs done first.

It’s also interesting to observe the spectrum of experience levels. A couple of people I encountered were old friends from Marion County Rescue Squad who now do healthcare jobs for a living, guys with lots of grey hair.  (OK, Paul and Jerry, you’re also downright ugly at times.)  Sometimes, grey hair just makes people self-righteous. Not these guys.  To them - and I hope to me – the grey gives one a relaxed and wry perspective.

One of the experienced people I ran into was a nurse-manager, someone in charge of an entire unit. Because everyone else was busy, she came in to reinsert an IV line. We had a nice chat about the need for managers of professional workers to show constantly top-level hands-on professional skills. It sounds a little bit counterintuitive. After someone has been in a profession for 30 years and is supervising others, it’s a different skill set that is invoked.  They’re just not going to be called upon nearly as often to do that hands-on care. But the reality is that when they supervise the young, aggressive people who get into these lines of work, they will be much more effective supervisors if the younger people know that the boss has top-notch hands-on skills.  I have always found that applies to every profession. Nurse-managers have to be able to start IVs better than anyone else in the place. Police chiefs have to be able to perform difficult arrests as well as the fittest patrol officer. Old, supervising lawyers have to be able to stand up on their hind legs in Court with every bit as much ginger as any young Turk in the house.

Well, I don’t have any strong political or social points to make this evening. You just run into opportunities to learn and make friends everywhere you go.

Note: My stay was occasioned by a little cardiac arrhythmia. But as we all know, arrhythmia is better than no rhythmia.

14 August 2013

Missing the Point; Oprah and the Handbag

This week, Oprah Winfrey recounted an experience on a shopping trip in Switzerland. She asked a clerk in some ritzy boutique to show her an ultra-designer handbag with a $38,000 price tag. The clerk suggested that she might want to look instead at something less pricey. The moral of the story, I believe, was that the store clerk automatically thought that a “woman of color” could not afford the $38,000 purse.

Wrong assumption, of course – needless to say, Oprah is über wealthy.

There has been a lot of “Isn’t this awful?” reaction. Oprah herself has downplayed it, saying that she was making the point, not portraying herself as some sort of victim.

By the way, I don’t think anybody can legitimately pick on Oprah. She started out with intelligence and talent, added hard work, got a couple of breaks, and has ascended on her merit.

And I suppose the racial assumption is a legitimate point and one that we need to recognize.

There’s another point, however.  It seems rather more basic and itself considerably important: A $38,000 handbag? And we’re taking that seriously?

People with the means to do so can buy whatever they want, whenever they can afford. That doesn’t mean that these purchases are rational nor that they add favorably to an economy. 

Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” for the process of spending money to impress. I think he meant “to embarrass favorably,” although for my part I am really impressed all to hell about a $38,000 handbag. I’m impressed that it is a belly laugh absurdity and I am impressed that anybody would look at such a thing with $38,000 worth of admiration. Mind you, I bet the leather and other materials are absolutely top-notch and that the craftsmanship and stitching are things of beauty.  But $38 grand?

Rolex and Philippe Patek watches and such like also are things of beauty and marvelous miniature machinery, as well as being useless and rather ridiculous given what is available with timepieces these days.  Quartz crystals made mainsprings a touch passe.  You really want to impress somebody that you had $50,000 for a watch? Why not impress somebody that you bought a really good watch accurate to a second per century for 500 bucks and then funded some charitable organization with the other $49,500.

Or buy 1000 watches at $50 each and give them to a high school.  Teaching youth the value of punctuality locally sounds to me like a better investment than funding European watchmakers.

This is not to denigrate quality goods. It is indeed a better idea to buy something well-made than something shoddy. But if a $38 handbag it’s okay and a $380 handbag is outstanding, that doesn’t make $38,000 handbag magnificent.
Somewhere around 500 bucks, the logic goes on a lunch break.

Who knows, maybe this whole polemic is because I’m not rolling in riches.   Maybe if I gather together $100 million in my pocket, I would start buying ridiculous stuff, too.

I just hope not.