The big departments are Urology, Orthopedics and Mental Health.
If you see anybody who’s less than sixty years of age, chances are good he’s wearing scrubs and a name badge.
The vet is in a wheelchair and he has a white plastic “Patient Belongings” bag in his lap. A loop of plastic tubing peeks out from under his coat. He’s going home after surgery and since he’s pulling faces to make the little boy laugh I’m guessing his surgery was a success.
In a few days his hometown physician will pull the catheter and then, for the first time in years, this vet will be able to sleep more than a couple hours at a time. That’s a big deal in a man’s life; believe me, I know.
Somebody has parked him by the front door and gone to get the car. The little boy has been running up and down the hallway making his rubber boots squeak on the waxed linoleum, but something about the old man with the white plastic bag on his lap caught his attention.
This old man is a vet like all the others who come to us: gray hair, lined face, and a well-worn coat. I’d bet a dollar that at some time in his life he owned season tickets for Jayhawk football. I’d bet another dollar he’s never owned a car that wasn’t made in America.
Until an hour ago he was upstairs in a gown and in a bed; he was waited on hand and foot by the hardest working nurses in town and it made him cringe every time they so much as fluffed his pillow.
He hates to have people do things for him.
I know him because I spend every day in this building trying to help him and people like him. It’s not part of my job, but I’ve cleaned his urine off the floor. I’ve brought him coffee in his room, because he loves good coffee and the stuff in the staff break room is way better than the stuff in the day room.
I’ve called all over Pittsburg trying to find his daughter-in-law because he’s anxious she’ll make the long drive and the doctors will decide to keep him an extra day and she’ll have to drive home alone in the dark.
It worries him. He says, “Nobody should have to make that trip alone.”
I’ve cut his meat for him and carried his boxes of discharge supplies down to the car. I’ve helped him find the fishing channel on the TV and I’ve brought him books from my home because he doesn’t like what’s available in the day room.
I’ve given him directions to his clinic a thousand times because you can’t leave your office in this building without coming across a lost veteran. And I’ve said “Thank you for your service” a thousand times because that’s the absolute least I can do.
He notices me watching him goof with the little boy and he smiles at me. The boy notices that and he smiles at me too. It’s like I’m in the middle of a long dark tunnel and the two of them are smiling at me from opposite ends – and I’m glad they’re here – because none of us should make this trip alone.