John Wooding of Medford, Mass., is professor emeritus in political science at UMass Lowell and the former provost on campus. His next book is a biography of Richard Gregg, champion of nonviolent practice and the philosophy of simplicity. The book is due from Loom Press this fall. He is an occasional contributor to our blog. We look forward to more regular contributions.–PM
The Ladies of Central Sterile Supply
By John Wooding
So, we have finally realized that a functioning health care system is critical—and that those who work in it are heroes. As the world falls apart, and we begin to focus on the need to protect and honor our medical workers, some switch flipped in my head and I got to thinking about a job I had in England, some forty-odd years ago.
Great Ormand Street Hospital (Web photo by Nigel Cox, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5364709
It was the mid-1970s and I was fresh out of college, looking for work along with the then millions of unemployed in England during that depressing decade. But I was lucky, landing a job as a delivery driver at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in central London. While this was not precisely the occupation a newly minted graduate, anxious to join the middle classes, hoped for, it turned out to be a blessing. I had mostly forgotten about it until now.
The Children’s Hospital is spitting distance from Bloomsbury Square, home to England’s twentieth-century’s intelligentsia, and the likes of Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and all that lot. I used to think about these luminaries as the Number 19 double-decker took me from Finsbury Park, where I lived, down through Islington to the Square and on to Great Ormond Street. On foggy mornings, I’d be on my second cigarette, sitting “upstairs,” staring out of a rain-soaked window and thinking about the usually crappy day ahead. The working life. I used to wonder whether the author of Mrs. Dalloway had ever taken the bus.
I worked in the Central Sterile Supply Department (CSSD). I still have the ID badge they gave me. This was where equipment was packed and sterilized for use by the nurses and doctors, and the little patients above. Folks like me didn’t go in the main entrance but went around the back, next to the loading dock where the white van I drove spent nighttime hours. A door just to the side of the dock took you into a tunnel and the dark places, the basement warren of the hospital. In the tunnel the steam pipes and cables hung from the ceiling and showed the way. I can still see the asbestos-wrapped conduits with the word “STEAM” and an arrow stenciled on the side and the string of buzzing fluorescents that made pathetic efforts to light the way. A short walk under stalactites of hangers and rusty bolts, past the main boiler room, got you to the door of the cleanroom of CSSD, my workplace. Someone told me later that the gigantic boiler had been sitting there, doing its thing, since the end of the last century. It sure looked that way to me. The basement of the hospital, honest to god, was like being in the bowels of the Titanic. People who work in white-collar jobs rarely see the underbelly of the buildings they are in or the people who labor there, and I am pretty sure that was true for the passengers on the Titanic, too. But the cleanroom was as bright and spotless as the tunnels were dirty and dark. I still remember the feeling of relief on opening that door, like getting into a warm car on a frigid evening.
Mostly the job meant pushing a cart that was probably older than the boiler, loaded with supplies, back and forth along the subterranean path from the CSSD to the loading dock. My task was resupplying the wards and hospitals with medical equipment. Every morning I would take the ancient elevator up the floors of the old building, put supplies in a small room of each ward, check out the cute nurses, and pick up bags of used equipment. In the afternoons, I would head out across the city to the two other hospitals in the group to do the same thing. That was the best part. I liked driving the streets of London and getting out in the air. The van I drove had a blue light for emergencies. I only used it a couple of times to get through traffic, so I could get to my favorite fish ‘n chip shop before it closed. I still feel a little guilty about that.
The original hospital building was old. It was founded in the mid-nineteenth century, by a Dr. Charles West, specifically for the care of children. Dr. West was a personal friend of Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria—connections help—and it quickly became one of the leading children’s hospitals in the world. In the 1920s, JM Barrie signed over the rights to Peter Pan to the hospital, providing it with a pretty substantial and constant source of funding. By the time I got to grace its doors, it had long been part of the NHS and is still recognized as one of the best hospitals for kids in the world. I knew none of this at the time. This was a job.
On Saturdays, I would work in the main building only, collecting incubators and bringing them downstairs. Saturdays were great, I got paid time-and-half (we were all in the union), and the incubators were cool. I was a little bit in awe of these wombs on wheels, seeing as they had held babies who were tiny, sick, or weak. The tubes and gauges that snaked into the transparent plastic canopy had to be cleaned and disassembled. The whole unit had to be disinfected and put back together with care, a job I was eventually entrusted to do. I felt like a doctor.
But it was the cleanroom of Central Sterile Supply that was my base and my home. It gleamed with stainless steel counters and cabinets, like an operating theater. Spaced around the room three or four autoclaves sat looking smug and intimidating. They were huge, like the base of an Atlas booster rocket, festooned with gauges and serious-looking handles and knobs. These babies “cooked” equipment in super-hot high-pressure steam. They hissed and puffed throughout the day, tended by the five women who worked on sorting and sterilizing the medical equipment. I remember these ladies (they always referred to themselves in this way) better than anything else about the job. They were all from somewhere in the West Indies, and, for this lad from the Midlands, they were terribly exotic. They called me “honey-child,” which absolutely delighted me. They would sing reggae together as they worked, especially on the Saturday shift, when everything was a little bit different, a bit more like a party. They taught me much more than I realized at the time. The ladies were led by Mrs. Robertson, who was never called by her first name, although I think it was Elsie. Not that anyone one ever dared use it. She was a bit stern and a little scary and always immaculately dressed. I think, though I may be wrong, that she was from Jamaica.
One Friday, payday, we all picked up our wages at the bursar’s office and collected our little brown envelopes full of cash (yes, in those days, we were paid in cash), and headed to the pub for lunch. Somehow or other I lost my envelope on the way. A week’s wages! I was devastated. The rent was due for the little-more-than-a-slum flat I shared with four others, and getting the money together for that was always a challenge. Damn near impossible when you had been stupid enough to lose your wage packet. Worse yet, no money meant a struggle to find the shillings for the electric meter so we had lights and the scant comfort of the one-bar electric fire that pretended to heat the living room. That was a rough weekend.
Dragging myself to work the next Monday, I wondered how I was going to make it through. When I got back to the clean room with my bags of used medical equipment that day, Mrs. Robertson pulled me aside and gave me a small parcel. “This is for you, honey-child,” she said, with a rare smile. The room went quiet, the ladies had stopped working for a moment, and were looking at me as I opened the package. Inside were forty pound notes held together by a piece of tape. I remembered looking up, puzzled. Mrs. Robertson grabbed my hand and whispered, “We had a whip-round, couldn’t let you starve.”
Writing this now, I still get choked up. Six hard-working women, who had come to England in the 60s from a much warmer place, and who did their job with quiet professionalism, had jointly made up the lost wages of the young white lad who worked with them. I don’t recall what I said to thank them, probably some mumbled dumb thing like “Thank you.” I do remember I was embarrassed and close to tears. Even then, I knew this was an enormous sacrifice for them. None of us working there made much money. I did know that many had families (I’d seen pictures of some of their kids), so giving away their money had to have hurt. But I remember this act of kindness was done without fanfare or pretense, Mrs. Robertson just said, “This is what we do.” The other ladies simply smiled and turned back to work.
I worked there for about a year. In addition to the wonderful women in CSSD, I also got to know the utterly dedicated nurses upstairs and the blokes who did building maintenance. These were the men who kept the old boiler running, made sure the oxygen supply got to the wards, and that the plumbing functioned. We used to gather when we were on break, sitting on a couple of old couches near the ancient steam pipes on the cold mornings, dunking our biscuits in mugs of tea and complaining about the government.
Although the job was hard and tedious (I did the same thing almost every day), it was the folks in the basement who made it worthwhile. And I think that we felt a kind of purpose, supporting the doctors and nurses upstairs because we were all part of looking after really ill kids. Can’t knock that. This sense of a common goal hit me hard when, occasionally, I made a few deliveries to the “Sunshine Home,” an old mansion that was a few miles out of London. It was the place they sent the terminally ill kids. Those trips always tore me up.
After about a year doing this, I quit. I was planning on going to America, and I left all the ladies behind, together with the lads down in maintenance. I rarely thought of them or the work again. But COVID-19 has finally woke all of us up, and we realize not only how fragile life is but also how dependent we are on ordinary, decent people doing their jobs. Across the world, there are many, many thousands of workers (often immigrants) who are packing and sorting and cleaning and looking after each other. They keep our hospitals running. They are there, in the basements, holding up the floors above, making sure that the institutions we rely upon for our survival continue to function. I thank and honor them all, especially the ladies of Central Sterile Supply. I, for one, will not forget them again.