My feet were already moving briskly by the time I reached the elevator vestibule. As predicted, a large crowd had gathered already; all shaking off the cold and readying themselves for another day at Grady Hospital. Even if I hadn't just arrived, scanning that mixed group of employees and probable patient family visitors would've let me know of the wintry conditions outdoors. There were heavy coats worn by those with tightly folded arms and woolen hats still pulled down to cover chilly ears. At least two people that were still trembling from subpar outerwear; light jackets that underestimated the frigid outdoor temperatures or simply doctors who'd decided to make a break for it from the car to the hospital in threadbare white coats and nothing more. All of it was ordinary for a weekday morning at Grady Hospital.
Since I love people, there's something about the elevator people potpourri that makes me happy. I listen to their idle conversation and, on most days, join in.
"That hawk ain't playing out there is he?" I heard one man say.
"Shoooooot! What you saying? I liked to froze to death!" another responded.
And this--this banter about the cold peppered with down south slang--is all so very Grady. So, so very. One middle aged gentleman was holding a tray of four McDonald's coffees. He let out a big yawn and shivered his shoulders while still carefully holding on to what was surely a highly anticipated delivery.
"Heeey! You brought us all some coffee? Awwww, thanks sir!!" Right after I bellowed this out in a most singsongy way, the whole group erupted into laughter. I pretended to reach for one of the beverages.
"I don't think you want to come between my wife and her McDonald's coffee," he replied with a raised eyebrow. "I wouldn't recommend it, doctor!"
And all of us laughed some more and that was that.
Now you'd think that all of this transpired in far more than twenty seconds. But truthfully, that all occurred as I quickly strolled into and then through that main elevator hallway. I never had any intention of riding the lift; this week I'd made up my mind to take the stairs every single morning and every day after lunch--even though my home floor was ten flights up. And so. As my feet clicked-clicked-clicked on the linoleum like a trusty metronome atop a piano, these observations and commentary happened in passing. And, again, all of it was ordinary and so very Grady.
Once I cleared that lobby and entered the hallway toward the stairwells, I picked up my pace. Like always, I started coaching myself on the ten plus one hard flights ahead of me. Not too fast. Not too slow. Breathe. This is good for your heart. Take that, heart disease. It startled me a bit when I heard someone call out my name.
"Manning! Where you going so fast?"
I swung around and looked back to the elevator vestibule and noticed one of the unit managers from 9A.
"Stairs, baby!" I called back while still walking backwards. "Want to bust out your 9 flights with me? I'm going to 10A!"
She paused for a beat and then shrugged. "Let's do it, Manning!" And that was that. Ms. Harris trotted over to catch up with me and away we went toward the stairwells that go from the ground all the way up to the twelfth floor. Still, all of it very ordinary and very Grady.
So in we go into that stairwell and begin our uphill battle toward our respective workplaces. Our lighthearted exchange continued from the hallway into that vacuous space, both of us schlepping coats and pocketbooks since it was the start of the day.
"How many can we do without stopping, Harris?"
"Manning, you're doing good to have me in here period!" I chuckled again.
But right after that, I noticed something. A youngish man had popped into the ground level door just as we approached the first half of the first flight. He wasn't carrying anything nor did he look like an employee. The baggy coat he wore was too thin for the weather and too large for his wiry frame. And none of that was unusual, actually. It wasn't.
That said, there was one thing I noticed. Well, maybe two things. The first was that the minute I laid eyes on him, something inside of me immediately bristled. I wasn't sure what it was, either. Something about it was just . . .I don't know. . . . weird, maybe? I'm not even sure of the word. I just know my instincts told me that something about it wasn't right.
Then, in a fleeting moment, I saw his eyes dart from side to side and then back toward the little glass window between the stairwell door and the lobby. And then--right then--I heard a voice as clear as day in my head speaking to me:
"Get the fuck out of this stairwell. Now. Right now."
And, yes, my inner voice has a potty mouth when under duress. I think it's to make me listen. And so. Just like that, after only one flight of stairs, I grabbed the door handle and exited the stairs on the first floor.
"What happened?" Ms. Harris asked.
I paused for a moment and then spoke. "That guy behind us. Something about it wasn't right. Like, I don't know. I felt like he was about to rob us. Matter of fact, I feel sure of it."
Just when I said that, Ms. Harris stared at me for a beat without speaking. She took in a big drag of air through her nostrils and then shook her head.
"What?" I pressed.
"You know what? I saw that guy. He was coming up the hallway and had passed the stairs already. It was kind of weird because he double backed, I guess, and came into the stairs once we did. And I didn't want to assume nothing, you know?"
"What were you feeling?"
Ms. Harris shook her head. "The same thing, to be honest. Like something about dude wasn't right."
"Like he might try something."
She sighed. "Yeah. But I guess I sort of ignored it, you know? Thought maybe I was tripping."
So we stood there in silence. All I could think about was how ordinary the last few minutes had been and how, deep down in my soul, I knew that something, something was not right. And that I am learning to listen when I feel that way and respond before I'm sorry.
We took the rest of those flights up to the higher floors. We kept chatting and enjoying one another, too. But you could tell that both of us were lost in thought. Wondering about the near misses that occur every day and pondering what it is in the universe that gives us notice.
Do I know for sure if something bad was about to happen to us? No, not for sure. But the chilling wave that washed over me said get out. And I don't think that was on accident.
Working at Grady is a people-lover's dream; mornings that start with jovial exchanges with strangers and those familiar Gradyisms like winter blasts being referred to as "the hawk." But I constantly have to remind myself that it is a place that attracts people of all walks of life--some of whom have nothing to lose.
And this? This is Grady. And Grady is life. Laughter, humanity and flashing moments of the most beautiful and most ugly aspects of it all.
Honestly? I write this blog to share the human aspects of medicine + teaching + work/life balance with others and myself -- and to honor the public hospital and her patients--but never at the expense of patient privacy or dignity.
Thanks for stopping by! :)
"One writes out of one thing only--one's own experience. Everything depends of how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give."
~ James Baldwin (1924 - 1987)
"Do it for the story." ~ Antoinette Nguyen, MD, MPH
Details, names, time frames, etc. are always changed to protect anonymity. This may or may not be an amalgamation of true,quasi-true, or completely fictional events. But the lessons? They are always real and never, ever fictional. Got that?