Tuesday, March 25, 2014

An Epic Journey and an Important Life Lesson

Dear Ellie,

Every day before the NICU opens, I stop by a little hospital coffee shop to grab a cup of coffee.  Now, I don't know if you drink coffee yet, but in case you don't you should know that it has a tendency to make your intestines do the Mamba.  And trust me, there is no worse place to have your intestines do the Mamba than in a hospital because the only place to go is the public hospital bathroom.  If you are faint of heart, avert your eyes because the following descriptions may give you PTSD (indeed, using a hospital bathroom every day is uncannily similar to the unrelenting stresses of war).

Yes, public hospital bathrooms.  In no other place on Earth will a higher density of people experience sneezing, coughing, vomiting, explosive diarrhea, and "poor aim" induced by dizziness and nausea.  Every time you walk in, its like a kind of russian roulette but with human excretions.  Sure, maybe you get lucky from time to time and the cleaning ladies just came a second ago, but not often.

Will you encounter mucus soiled tissues, tossed on the ground near the garbage can?  Will it be urine in places other than the toilet?  Will it be poo blasted on the toilet seat and flush-handle, shotgun style?  Some of the bathrooms are unisex too which means women have the unusual experience of encountering toilet seat urine and men get to witness, uhm, unflushed feminine hygiene products.  After leaving, I always have the urge to peel off the first three layers of my skin and toss them into an incinerator.

So dearest Ellie, if you ever find yourself in a hospital with poopy cramps so bad that you resort to using a public hospital restroom, remember this: don't look into the toilet bowl.  It's like staring into the Eye of the Devil.  Stare long enough into it, and it also stares into you.  Once you have finished what you came for and flushed, a part of your soul flushes away, too.

So as you can imagine, after a few days of these unpleasant experiences (and the fear of facing months and months more!) I decided that something had to change.  I set out on an epic journey through the sterile labyrinth of Saint Mary's Hospital in search of an oasis in the desert.  A green valley between harsh mountains.  A myth.

The Secret Bathroom.      

What is The Secret Bathroom, you wonder?  Well first off, it's a secret so don't go blabbing about it to everyone on a blog or anything.  The Legend of the Secret Bathroom is a family secret, passed down from generation to generation (it just happens to be that this is the first generation its been passed down).  I learned very early on that in every major complex--- in every large and maze-like building--- there is always a secret bathroom in some distant recesses.  No exceptions.  The Secret Bathroom, simply put, is a public bathroom that experiences low traffic and is, therefore, clean.  Over the years, due to my immense anxiety of pooping in public places and my irrational urge to wash my hands after touching any object that might conceivably have germs on it, I have become an expert at ferreting out the secret bathrooms.  In middle school, that bathroom was behind the dean's office.  In high school, that secret bathroom was in the journalism room.  And in Saint Mary's?  It was there. Somewhere.  It had to be.  But finding it wouldn't be easy.  It would take guile, dexterity, and the kind of determination that can only be induced by someone that desperately needs to use the potty.        

I began my search in the hallways that were open to patients and their family, but even the bathrooms at the back of the hospital were all trashed.  I should have known better.  Tragedy of the Commons (Google it).  So I turned my efforts in a more... elicit direction.  Only a fraction of the hospital was open to idle wanderers so soon, I had "an aunt in radiology," a brother "getting a CT scan," and a child "undergoing surgery."  When, still, the secret bathroom eluded me, I began searching further and deeper.  Places that no hospital guest was supposed to visit.  Maintenance corridors.  Supply rooms.  At one point, late at night, I even discovered a secret, unused floor at the very top of the children's hospital.  It was like some post-apocalyptic landscape: devoid of life, ransacked, and gutted.  There were even faded murals on the wall.  For a second, I thought I could even hear the distant, ethereal laughter of children.  Creepy.  Unfortunately, while the plumbing up there was indeed working, there was no toilet paper what so ever.

I tapped every last one of my unique skills during my mission.  Every last line of defense.  My most useful skill was my "air of confidence."  Rather than glance about nervously, I instead peeled off my hospital badge and marched through the hospital back corridors like I knew exactly where I was going.  "No need to stop me!" my strides exuded, "As you can see, I'm familiar enough with the surroundings to indicate that I'm supposed to be here!"  That worked most of the time, but on occasion, it wasn't enough.

Thus, at times, I was forced to deploy a second line of defense so that I may either continue on my way or at the very least, evade getting into trouble: "the benign lie."  

"Uhh, are you looking for something, sir?" employees often asked to which I had an arsenal of replies at the ready.

"Yes, I am.  I'm looking for Labor and Delivery/ The Children's Hospital/ the vending machines/ Dr. Patel/ Dr. Seuss."  And of course, if ever the person scrutinizing my presence looked especially austere, I'd put on a innocent, pleading expression and say simply, "I seem to have somehow stumbled through three security doors by accident and now appear to be lost."

A few times, if all other excuses seemed to escape me, I'd even tell the truth.  I'd plant my hands on my hips, hold up my head high, and puff out my chest heroicly before declaring: "I'm on a quest to find The Secret Bathroom."  One person laughed.  Another took a wary step backward and perked an eyebrow.  As it turns out, if you can either make people laugh or scare them, they will let you go on your way.  However, on one occasion, there was a young technician that thought about it for a moment, then gave me an expression that seemed to say, "I've been looking for The Secret Bathroom all my life, too..."  At that moment, we were like two soldiers in a trench.  Two soldiers who had never met, but wordlessly exchanged nods of camaraderie as mortar shells burst overhead.  "Let me know if you find it," he said with a grin, then we went our separate ways.

Eventually, after plunging the far corners of the hospital, I finally came to the very heart.  The old hospital, built nearly a century ago before all of the modern buildings were built around it.  It was here that Hospital Administration dwelled.  If anyone was holding out with a secret bathroom, it would be the bureaucrats.  And sure enough, at the very end of the hallway next to a lavish boardroom, there it was.  I slid through the door unseen and what I witnessed was a bathroom utterly pristine.  Unused.  It was like the toilet that time forgot.  The noonday sun spilled in through the window and cast a heavenly glow upon the seat.  There was even a sign over the toilet: "Please keep the bathroom clean for our special guests!"  The Holy Grail indeed exists, and it is made of porcelain.

It was there that my journey finally ended.  Victory was mine.

So this might all seem quite banal to you.  You might be wondering: "Why are you making such a big deal about bathrooms?"

Well, you see Ellie, for every good thing in life--- for every "in"--- there has to be an "out."  Every late night of fun has a bleary morning.  Every day of leisure has a day of work.  Every delicious, two-pound-refried-bean-burrito at Chipotle has... the thing that comes a few hours later.

 Yes, we must cherish all of the in's--- all of those delicious morning cups of coffee in the hospital--- but if we can also make all of the out's bearable or even enjoyable, then life can be a wonderful, pleasant place.  So go forth, Ellie.  Find all of life's secret bathrooms.

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