“A workplace is like a family, a home,” Megan says aloud as she faces her computer. She is thinking about the eight hours that people spend together at work, which is more than the time they spend awake at home.
It makes sense. Some even say it’s like an arranged marriage. Like it or not, you have to work with people, unrelated to you, hour after hour, day after day, and year after year.
Megan has worked in the Rehab Department for almost thirty-eight years. That is a long time. As people live longer and have more rehab needs, the rehab service has expanded gradually with “fresh blood,” words that are used by the chief of the service more and more often.
The latecomers are much younger. Betty and Michelle were hired about fifteen years ago and are in their early forties. Then, Adam and Huiling came several years ago. Huiling, an immigrant, is forty, ten years older than Adam. Stephanie, twenty-five, the newest addition, joined them only several months ago.
As part of the growth with the new hires, the service had to convert a-six-feet by twenty-four-feet storage space into a “new” office. On one side of the wall, they placed six eighteen-inch depth metal desks. Each desk has enough surface space to accommodate a bulging, box-shaped computer and a keyboard supported by two three-drawer cabinets underneath. That leaves little legroom under the desk. In front of each desk is a black fabric, ergonomic chair with wheels. If one wants to stretch his or her legs by pushing the chair backward, the chair would block the passage behind.
For the moment, the office fits all six therapists perfectly.
Hearing Megan’s mumbling (not the first time) about “family” and “home,” her colleagues turn a deaf ear without stopping what they are doing. Ah, that’s like my family, Stephanie observes. When my parents say something that she and her elder siblings disagree with, the smartest and the safest thing to do is to be silent; or, the most is to say uh-huh or just nod.
After a period of peace and quiet, Adam rolls his eyes and says, “Family?” sounding more like Are you kidding me.
Megan doesn’t mind Adam’s sarcastic attitude. She is sixty-three and was born after World War II, the generation that carried the spirit of D-day and the pride of being a citizen of the country that sent the first human to the moon. She is well aware of their age gap and understands why they are not speaking. One day, they’ll agree with me. It’s a matter of time. When I was their age, I was just like them, maybe worse.
“Why not?” Huiling disagrees with the rest. “At least, an adopted family? Just like me. America is my adopted country, my second home.” She remembers the words “adopted country” from the U.S. naturalization oath ceremony last year.
Huiling is originally from Chengdu, China. She came to the U.S. ten years ago and finds the idea of being a family in a workplace natural, even familiar. It’s like back home. People were a big family.
She thinks that being a family means people care about each other. They like to share their joy, sorrow, and concerns. But sometimes too much affection and intimacy can be overwhelming. It is natural that people are nosy. Back home, many people like to know one’s age, marriage status, occupation, and income, as if these are “family matters.” For instance, if one is not married or dating by a certain age, it may be considered a pressing concern. Someone, blood-related or unrelated, typically an elder person, would take the matter in one’s own hands to “solve the personal problem,” or at least to offer a piece of advice and wisdom.
“Why the secrecy?” usually a concerned person asks with a tone of entitlement.
“It’s not secrecy, but privacy,” one replies with an air of resentment.
It is not unreasonable that other therapists disagree with Megan and Huiling. They want work and family to be balanced but not mixed. Just look at the facts: at work, you can’t lie down, can’t talk loudly or listen to music, can’t undress when it’s too hot, can’t swear when you’re upset, and can’t argue with your co-workers the way you do with your significant others or parents. On day one at the job, your supervisor, Kelly—wait, doesn’t she act like a parent?—tells you “to learn to agree to disagree.” Why doesn’t she translate that into plain English, Do what you are told? At home, there isn’t a supervisor. One can be oneself. Well, more or less.
Despite their conceptual disagreement in this department, they act like many families do. Megan, like a mom, takes care of everyone. And people let her as if they deserve it. But moms are still moms, even in America, even if people don’t admit it.
Megan cleans up the office, the gym, and the storage areas. She changes dirty sheets and pillowcases. She brings new linens and orders supplies such as disinfectants, conduction gels for ultrasounds, electrode pads. She even picks up things, such as thera-bands and weights off the floor as if they belong to nobody or no one sees them. Megan keeps on doing this and doesn’t complain. She likes to be active. For her, activity is vitality.
This activity is why she stays as fit as a fiddle. She walks with brisk steps and does not slouch when she sits. In fact, her back is so straight that it doesn’t touch the back of a chair. She doesn’t use overly noticeable makeup and wears inexpensive metallic or fake-stone jewelry that nonetheless matches perfectly with the seasons and notable dates. If one looks at her earrings, one knows what holiday it is—like a calendar reminder. Megan always wears clean and well-pressed plain T-shirts, blue jeans and gym shoes, and she looks not only athletic but also twenty years younger than her actual age.
In contrast to Megan, some of the hospital staff as old as she is are not doing as well. Some have shown early signs of aging. They walk at a slower pace, and some waddle. A few crack their necks or stretch their backs everywhere they go, such as in the hallways or cafeteria. One staff, in his fifties, dozes off all the time in department meetings (just like a couple of our presidents did at some events and were caught on camera). A physician, in his mid-fifties, has picked up a hobby of reading the obituary section of the newspapers the first thing in the morning, which gives him comfort, especially when he sees that the deceased are younger than him.
Megan has one trait that tells her true age. She is obsessed with thriftiness. She has the habit of shutting windows, turning off lights in the gym and offices, and tightening faucets in washrooms before she goes home each day, and as if she didn’t do it, the hospital electric and water bills would double, or she would be the one paying for it. And one more thing. That sound! Megan can’t stand to hear the sound of someone pulling toilet paper in the washroom like a slot machine. Her upper limit is three, and beyond that her nerves begin to tingle. She would knock on the wooden stall and speak with grandma’s authority. “Hey, there, you’re not in a casino.” No wonder Megan reminds her co-workers of their own mother. But who can blame her? After World War II, most people did what Megan does now. Save, save and save. That was what her parents did to make ends meet and send their five kids to schools. They succeeded. Now, that thriftiness is in Megan’s blood.
Occasionally, Megan’s frugality exceeds its boundary and is less appreciated. She is not a tactful person and does not choose the right moment to voice her opinion.
The day after the July 4th weekend, Adam shows off his daughter’s first birthday party event at lunchtime. He pulls up the photos on his computer screen. Therapists hover around him as if they are watching a movie.
“Wow, how many people did you invite?” Stephanie, not married, asks with an air of curiosity.
“Hmm, maybe a hundred. My wife has a large family, including siblings and cousins. You know how it goes. They all have kids. So, she invites them all. And I pay for it,” he says, rubbing his thumb against four fingers.
The pictures change on the screen. They see several large white tents, an inflatable bounce house and a jumping castle. Michelle, a mother of two toddlers, asks, “You rent all of these?”
“Yeah. We also hired caterers. This way we can relax and have fun. What kids liked the most were the magician and the clown.”
“Wow, I’m sure kids loved it.” Michelle stares at the screen.
“Yup.” Adam’s finger continues to glide on the mouse wheel.
Sitting next to Adam, Megan glances at the pictures a few times. She starts to feel annoyed. How extravagant! Just for a one-year-old baby’s birthday? She understands that Adam is proud of his daughter, his first child. But to spend this much money for a birthday party? Pretty soon, he will turn into The Great Gatsby. Then she has the urge to speak. “In my day, my family hardly celebrated any birthdays. Of course, there were five of us and Mom didn’t work. As a matter of fact, we hardly had any new clothes. All of our clothes were handed down from the older children. Most of my clothes were patched either at the elbows or at the knees. We didn’t have toys. But we were happy simply playing hide-and-go-seek or jumping ropes on the street.”
Adam frowns and tosses his head back. He lets out a long breath to decompress and says, “Yeah, yeah, Megan. You sound like my mother.” He refrains from saying another word. He thinks, This is exactly why I don’t want the workplace to be home. Having one pair of parents is more than enough. He rubs his chin with his fingers and adds pensively, “Jesus, how come after people turn sixty, all they can do is think backwards?”
A couple of therapists chuckle. Adam folds his arms over his puffed chest and says, “Uh, uh, I don’t want my kid to live an Amish way of life. I want her to enjoy her life. After all, how many first birthdays does one have?”
He’s spending like Madame Bovary, except he’s a man, Megan says to herself.
Clearly, Megan has read too much English literature in college. She compares real people around her to the characters in novels. Fictional characters are drawn from real lives, she was taught.
Megan glances at Adam. She notices dark circles under his eyes. Enjoying life? You work two jobs just to be able to spend money like this? No wonder young people are stressed. Everything is commercialized, even kids’ play.
The gap between Megan and Adam is obvious. What Megan considers high cost is high value for Adam.
Huiling likes being cozy in their ever-crowded office. She is used to this. In Chengdu, people often walk side by side in public places, such as sideways, subways, malls, parks, and even tourist spots. In the winter, a body beside you can be a heater; while in the summer, that closeness feels like a steamer. Yet people, young or old, like to be together, to be close, to be Re-Nao (Re means warm, Nao means playful). To her, seeing a lot of people or being with them means vitality. People even dance on the street in groups every night. They can’t get enough of each other. It’s their way of living. She misses going to the night markets in Chengdu, eating all kinds of finger foods in the summer and hovering around hot-pot tables in the winter. So Re-Nao.
As one can imagine, to change such habits is not as easy as changing one’s citizenship. Fortunately, her co-workers are also food and party lovers. They find a happy common ground.
So, every now and then, Huiling brings foods, such as fried rice, fried noodles, kung-bo chicken or orange chicken, pot stickers, or sticky rice cakes to the staff lounge and invites her co-workers to join her. The staff lounge is a medium-sized room with metal wall lockers and a large, round, wooden table plus several wooden chairs. A perfect space for a party.
Huiling worked as a home-health therapist before she came to this hospital. Initially, her English was not good, and she communicated with her clients mostly with gestures. To prepare herself, she printed exercise handouts and circled the important steps with red markers. She demonstrated exercises to her patients. Sometimes, she had to press or pull the patient’s limb gently to correct them. She used thumbs-up or thumbs-down to tell her patients if they did something right or wrong. She always repeated instructions until a patient got it right. She never spent time during therapy to write notes or fill billing forms. That was why people liked her despite her language shortcomings. And her glowing recommendation letters landed her this job in the hospital.
Huiling has a ten-year old daughter. Like Adam, she also tends to brag about her. Who can blame them? A child is the apple of parents’ eyes. At least up to a certain age.
One day, Huiling shows her colleagues two tickets to La Bohème at the Chicago Lyric Opera. They can see that the tickets are wrinkled and dog-eared.
“Opera?” Adam is surprised. “Can you understand opera? I don’t go to the opera because I can’t understand it. Plus, it’s too slow. I like rock music and raps. More exciting.”
“No, I don’t understand anything. But my daughter was selected to sing in the choir in the second act, and my husband and I want to see her on the stage. We’ve been waiting for this day. But you know what? She was so shy that she kept on hiding behind other singers. I tried to catch sight of her and didn’t dare close my eyes. But I couldn’t see her, not even for a split second. Anyway, we knew she was on the stage. That’s the fact. You see, I’ve saved the tickets.”
Her co-workers chuckled without malicious intention. Poor Huiling. It sounds too funny. Parents can be pretty silly sometimes.
“I would save the tickets and put them in an album,” Adam suggests. He can relate to that. He remembers his daughter’s first “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” drum class on the weekend. He sat with her in the room, and his eyes didn’t leave her the whole time as if she were the star, the only one. And guess what, his daughter sat there, waved her arms in the air and didn’t even touch the drum. She is only one-year old.
Megan says, “Huiling, thanks to your daughter, you had a chance to go to the Lyric Opera House. Isn’t it gorgeous?”
“Yes. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. I saw many paintings on the wall and sparkling chandeliers. If she didn’t sing in the choir, I would have never thought of going there.”
At the end of August, Huiling brings a large tray of stir-fried noodles, green beans, and a tray of pot stickers at lunch time. Michelle prepares a fruit salad and Betty brings drinks. At noon time, Huiling microwaves the foods and puts them out on the lounge table. Delicious smells fill the room.
“Wow!” Adam inhales the delicious aroma.
“It smells good!” Betty fans her hand in front of her face.
“A special day?” Stephanie asks, her eyes darting around.
Huiling puts her finger across her lips and whispers, “It’s Megan’s birthday today.”
Stephanie winks and gives her a got it look.
Therapists gather in the lounge and wait. The moment Megan walks in, they shout loudly, “Happy Birthday, Megan!”
Megan’s face turns pink. She says, “Thank you, everyone. At my age, I don’t celebrate birthdays anymore.”
“Why not?” Huiling says. “In my country, some elders celebrate their birthdays twice, once according to the Western calendar, and once according to the lunar one. It’s Re-Nao. Whoops, I mean fun.”
“That’s what I call enjoying life,” Adam agrees. He hands Megan a plate and says, “You start, Megan. Let’s eat. I’m hungry.”
“Adam. This is what I call a family. You,” Megan circles the room with her hand, “are my family.”
After everyone sits down, Huiling picks up a forkful of noodles and holds it at eye level. “Megan, you must eat noodles today. It means you’ll have a long life.”
“Oh, okay.” Megan reaches for the noodles.
Huiling continues, “I’m forty-four. So according to my zodiac sign, I’m chicken.”
Adam almost chokes, trying not to laugh.
“Which year were you born, Megan?” Huiling asks.
“We don’t ask people’s age in this country,” Stephanie reminds her.
“Oh, sorry,” Huiling says.
“Don’t be, it’s just a cultural difference.” Stephanie waves her hand in the air.
“I don’t mind,” Megan replies lightheartedly. “1947, I belong to the baby boomers.”
Huiling makes a quick mental calculation and says, “Uh...You’re pork.”
Everyone bursts into laughter.
At first, Huiling doesn’t know why it’s funny. Then she realizes her error. She was so embarrassed and can’t stop laughing. Then, she thinks to herself, Why do people take the trouble to invent new words for the same thing? Why not just call pork, pig-meat, beef, ox-meat and chicken, rooster-meat, like we do in Chinese?
Adam clears his throat and also raises a forkful of noodles up to his mouth. Keeping a straight face, he says, “I know my zodiac sign. I’m beef.” Then he bites on it.
All the food is gone in no time. Adam gives a satisfying belch, just as if he were at home. After all, people are different only above the neck, Huiling thinks.
Huiling loves her job and is happy here.
A Faux Pas
After such a hearty lunch, Megan goes to the warehouse to get supplies. The warehouse is across three adjacent buildings. It is perfect for an after-meal exercise.
Back in the office, even though the party is over, the attention around Megan’s age still hangs in the air. Michelle says, “I can’t believe Megan has worked here for forty years. Gosh, if she retires, we should have a real party.”
“No offense. When I’ll be sixty, even if I’m as healthy as Megan, I’ll say bye-bye. There are plenty of things that I want to enjoy besides working.” Stephanie flips her hands back and forth as if washing her hands of the job.
“Stephanie, you just came. You have a long way to go,” Michelle says teasingly.
“Megan is very healthy. I doubt she’s ready to retire,” Betty says. “Plus, my mom said, when people get older, their kids are gone, they want to be more social. Keep working is one way to socialize. That’s why some don’t retire even if they are at retirement age.”
“Tell you the truth, she can’t.” Stephanie cups one hand on the side of her mouth, making sure that her whisper reaches everyone’s ear.
Her secretive gesture carries an air of importance. Like in many workplaces, gossip is an important social ingredient, if not an incentive to come to work.
Stephanie’s prying personality makes her the core member of the gossip club. She has made more friends in a few months than anyone else in the department. She enjoys sharing all kinds of rumors about who is getting married, expecting, promoted, separated, or even disciplined. Nothing escapes her eyes and ears. Naturally, everything has a reason. Stephanie was born an “accident,” as per her parents. She grew up with three sisters who were ten, thirteen and fifteen years old, a typical range when everything qualified as a secret. She was trained by her siblings to be inquisitive in order to know what was going on.
Curious, Huiling asks, “Why can’t she?”
“She’s married now,” Stephanie says, lowering the pitch of her voice.
“Married?” People crane their necks toward Stephanie. Their eyes widen.
“Her husband was one of her patients. He’s fifteen years younger than she is. The tricky part is”— she pauses— “is against the patient and provider relationship protocol.” As if she wants to prove her point, she taps on the New Employee Manual on her desk. The rules are still fresh in her mind.
“Married a patient?” Huiling senses the seriousness, afraid if Megan is in trouble.
“Mr. Greene, the tall skinny guy with curly hair,” Stephanie says.
“Oh. That one. He used to be a frequent flyer. Everyone knows him.”
“No wonder he hasn’t been here for a while.” Adam smacks his lips after finishing his food, mentally calculating how long they might have dated.
“If I remember well, he used to be an alcoholic,” Michelle says pensively.
“I think he’s recovered.” Betty sounds more positive.
“One can’t be sure about that.” Adam shakes his head.
“She’s so brave to fall in love with a young man,” Huiling says with a mixed feeling of admiration and caution. “I hope he’s not taking advantage of her.”
“There is no guarantee.” Adam says. “Megan’s problem is that she reads too many romantic novels. It’s like in Rouge and Noir. That young man fell in a love with the rich mayor’s wife? You would think, by now she knows fiction isn’t reality, but illusions only. That’s something authors want us to believe. That’s all. I used to like literature in college. My dad told me to find a real job so that I can put food on the table. I’m glad I listened to him.”
“Megan is not rich, but she has a heart of gold. I think she wants to help him,” Huiling says pensively.
The gossip about Megan’s marriage lingered on for weeks like a soap opera. People are hooked on it. They want to know what’s the next saga. There is a sense of suspense or worry. What if she is used by this guy? Does he really love her? Why did Megan fall in love with him? Can’t she find someone else? This marriage is going to ruin her retirement. The list of questions goes on and on.
Wait, why do they care? They are not even related.
Well, when one worries about someone else, one’s own troubles feel lessened. And sometimes it’s almost therapeutic.
As much as Megan’s colleagues dislike the notion of a family at a workplace, they are concerned and are worked up by Megan’s reckless move. Something is not right. Something will go wrong. This is a time bomb.
It turns out their worries are groundless. Megan proves that her marriage isn’t passion-driven but a rational decision. Just look how much she’s changed. She tells her colleagues that she no longer needs to worry about her yard work or if her car breaks down. When she goes home after work, the dinner is ready. She and her husband, Michael, go out to movies and restaurants at least once a week. She puts on more makeup. Her face is more radiant, rouge brighter, silver hair trimmer. She even holds her chin higher. “Michael needs love, so do I,” she tells her friends at work. On her desk, she places a new photo of her and Michael, heads leaning toward each other, in a heart-shaped silver frame.
Gradually, rumors die down like a flame in a closed jar of oxygen. Suspense usually can’t last long. Thirty days? The most sixty. Or else, people would fall into a state of anxiety.
About four months later, Stephanie suddenly asks her colleagues in the office in her typical mysterious manner, “Do you know Megan is in trouble?”
“No.” Her colleagues raise their eyebrows.
“Her husband started drinking again.”
“I knew it.” Adam snaps his fingers.
“She almost lost her job this time.”
“How?” Their eyes are wide open.
“Her husband asked her for money. Of course, cash, since he has bad credit. Megan didn’t have cash. They live paycheck to paycheck. You know Michael doesn’t work. He told her to take some walkers from the hospital for him to sell.”
“To take or to steal?” Adam says impatiently.
“She did?” Huiling feels a lump in her throat. She starts to worry: first, she dated a patient, and now, she stole walkers?
“She had to. Where else do you expect her to get it?”
“How much money can he get from selling walkers?” Huiling frowns. “If she had asked me, I would lend her money.”
“Enough for him to buy drinks for a few days. Fortunately, he agreed to go back to AA.”
“Let’s hope so,” Michelle sighs.
Hmm, a faux pas that has turned a romance into a drama. Adam takes a deep breath. Too much literature.
Kelly, the supervisor in her late thirties, calls Megan into her office the next day. “Megan, I heard that you...took...?” She avoids the “S” word.
Megan replies, “Yes, I’m sorry. I meant to replace them once I get my next paycheck, which is only two days away. I never wanted to keep...” she looks into Kelly’s eye hopelessly, pleading for trust.
Kelly is speechless. She trusts Megan. But that is not the point. She wishes Megan were wiser and not so impulsive. How dumb! How could she lose her mind like this? Michael couldn’t wait for two more days?
Most people, even healthcare professionals, can’t imagine how desperate a person with substance abuse condition can be. Two days can be a long time for them.
Kelly thinks, Can’t she get these from somewhere else, so that no one would know at work? Doesn’t she know that we have surveillance cameras here? Kelly knows that it’s wrong of her to suggest such things. Now it’s too late. As a supervisor, she has to give her a written warning. This is the worst part of her job. Fortunately, over the last five years of being a supervisor, she has had to do this only once. And per hospital policy, she knows if Megan doesn’t have new behavioral issues in six months, her written warning can be removed from her personnel file without a trace. Kelly writes up a formal warning letter and gives it to Megan.
Knowing that Kelly could have given her a much worse reprimand, Megan thanks her supervisor.
“That’s too bad. He couldn’t wait for two more days.” People in the office pity Megan. Pity isn’t the right word. It makes them seem to be superior to Megan, but that’s not what they think. They feel no moral superiority. They know that Megan can be annoying but wouldn’t do something like this if she had other choices. Megan just tries to help Michael survive a crisis in his life, in the least disturbing way. She was unlucky to get caught.
What can they do now? Nothing but to hold their breath for Megan for the next several months.
Several months later, the hospital announces that Joint Commission (JC), a national hospital survey organization, will arrive in two weeks. The JC survey is designed to ensure patient safety and quality of care. It takes place every three years as long as there are no major safety findings. It is an important evaluation of the hospital.
As usual, Megan volunteers to keep the gym clean. She makes sure linens are covered on the shelves at all times, expired items such as ultrasound gels and disinfectants are discarded and replaced, and parallel bars, stationary bike handles and seats, and treatment mats are cleaned with alcohol wipes after each use. She piles up medical supplies, layer by layer, in the storage closet: ankle, knee, elbow, back braces and arm slings on one side; canes, crutches and walkers on the other, leaving six inches below the ceiling. After she is done, Megan straightens her back and looks at the neatly arranged closet. She can’t be prouder: By anyone’s standard, this is a model closet.
A few days before the survey, a group of people from the Quality Management (QM) Section arrive at the gym to do a mock inspection. There are four of them, each with serious expressions. In fact, people have rarely seen QM staff smile. If they do, they are well-trained professional grins by necessity only. The QM inspectors walk around the gym, from corner to corner, side to side. Kelly and Megan follow them closely, each holding a pen and a notebook in their hands. One inspector wipes the top of a side table with her fingers, then looks at them closely with her nose. No dust. Another takes a bottle of sterile isopropanol alcohol, removes her glasses and squints at the label to read the expiration date. After a couple of seconds of staring, she gives them a nod. “Good, two more years.” Someone lifts the corner of a sheet on a mat and bends down to inspect. Then she frowns and points to the edge of the mat. “What’s this?” It’s a small tear of the plastic cover, about one centimeter long, likely from a scratch by a wheelchair part or the edge of a brace or a prosthesis. Megan runs to the office and takes a Flex-Seal tape from her drawer. She rushes back to the gym, cuts the tape with a pair of scissors and patches the hole on the mat skillfully. There! The inspector touches the patch, then gives them a nod of satisfaction. Kelly maintains a neutral look, while giving Megan a quick thumbs-up behind her back. In the meantime, all sheets on the mats are removed. No additional signs of damage are found.
The inspectors are satisfied and walk toward the double door to leave. Suddenly they spot the large closet next to the entrance.
“A closet?” one asks.
Megan can’t wait to open the doors to show off her “masterpiece.” She slides the doors open with a measured speed as if opening a curtain on a stage.
“Neat, huh?” Kelly winks discretely at Megan.
“Umm...it looks too crowded.” Words are squeezed out of the inspector’s teeth slowly like toothpaste.
“Well, we need these. As you know, we’ve been short of storage space for quite some time now,” Kelly explains.
“This isn’t the time to complain,” the inspector interrupts sternly.
“We’ve never been dinged for this in the past,” Kelly insists.
“This is definitely a fire hazard. They block the sprinklers.”
“What should we do? We have no other places to put these.”
“We used to...to donate old items...to Africa, I remember,” Megan stutters.
“The hospital’s policy has changed. We no longer can do that.” The inspector raises her arm and looks at her watch.
Everyone’s eyes fix on the closet, their minds as blank as a sheet of paper.
“Plus, we don’t have time. I warn you. Surveys come and go. Every time, it only gets tougher. We can’t just scratch the surface with the mentality of getting rid of “low-hanging fruit.” If we want to pass this time, the safest thing to do is to throw these away.” The inspector circles one third of the closet with her hand decisively.
“But...they’re new. You see they are...” Kelly reaches for a brace and makes rattling sounds with the plastic bag, “still in bags and boxes.”
“We have to do what we have to do. I’m telling you the hospital can’t afford to take any risks. We don’t want to be in the news next week.”
“No. Of course not.”
“You need to have at least two feet distance from the ceiling. Do it today. I’ll come back to check on this tomorrow.”
So, that’s that. No need to be a hero. The stakes are too high. Megan brings out a cart. She loads it with boxes and bags of new knee and ankle braces until the top three-foot space of the closet is cleared. Then she pushes the cart to the dumpster. Ouch! This hurts her. More than the two walkers that she stole.
One week later, the hospital staff receive an email from the director who congratulates everyone for a job well done. “We passed the survey with flying colors,” he writes. “This result is a testimony of our hospital’s mission commitment to our patients and our values.” As usual, he ends his email with, “On behalf of the hospital leadership and patients, I thank all of you for your dedication and professionalism.”
Everyone is relieved. “No need to worry about surveys for three years.”
One month later, at the sixth month mark, Kelly emails Megan and tells her that the written warning is removed from her personnel file.
“Thank you very much,” Megan writes back. “By the way, Michael is doing well lately. He has been volunteering at his AA group,” she adds.
“Terrific news!” Kelly sends three thumbs-up and one heart emoji.
A week later, on her desk, Megan adds a new photo of herself and Michael in a rectangular frame with Happy First Anniversary engraved at the bottom. “Michael is taking a class. He wants to be a counselor at the AA group so that he can help others,” Megan tells her co-workers.
“Fantastic!” Michelle and Betty speak in unison.
“That’s a big change. I hope he’ll stay on the right track.” Even Adam agrees.
Huiling listens. She has a feeling of uncertainty. Marriage is a tricky thing. A fragile state of balance, especially in Megan’s case. On an impulse, she asks, “Megan, you and Michael are so different. He’s so much younger. How do you get along? Do you quarrel with each other?”
What an intimate question. But, in fact, everyone in the office has been yearning to know that, too. So, they are quiet.
Megan smiles. “Huiling, every couple have ups and downs. But, at my age, I don’t sweat for small things anymore. And I’ve realized I’m not always right. So, now I listen more. When Michael and I got married, or when he was my patient, we talked a lot. I saw kindness in him, his good side.”
“Hmm, the good side...” Adam repeats. “My wife and I sometimes quarrel about small things. But usually, after a few days when I think back, I know it isn’t worth it. At the spur of the moment, I see only my side. I’ve always wanted to be the winner, the right one.”
“People are the same,” Michelle admits.
Megan continues. “I was the same way when I was young. I’ve changed. Since Michael and I are married, I learn more about him every day. I realize that people are like kids, even adults. Which kid doesn’t want to be a good guy? Michael too. But his challenge is that he doesn’t know how to deal with setbacks. He tends to fall back to drinking, even though he knows that is wrong. He thinks he has to deal with his problems alone. People in his AA group have similar issues. Some drink, others smoke or use drugs. I’m not trying to justify their drug problems. I’m only saying that it’s complicated.”
Life is complicated.
Now, the survey and the disciplinary warning are out of the way. Michael is on the right track (at least for now). One would expect Megan to sit back and relax.
Unfortunately, she can’t. Something still bothers her. It is the ankle and knee braces that she threw away before the survey. “They are still in bags and boxes.” What would her mother say if she knew? She would rise from her grave and grab them. Megan’s mom used to save everything: pieces of thread from old clothes, empty fruit jelly jars, and wrapping paper from people giving her gifts. It wasn’t the fancy idea of saving the planet but simply not wasting things, big or small.
“It’s not your money, Megan,” Stephanie tells her.
“It’s not right,” Megan insists.
“Think about it. We passed the survey. Isn’t that more valuable?”
“I wish we didn’t have surveys like this.”
“How do people know if a hospital is good or not?” Stephanie challenges her.
“The hospital has performance data. They can put them out there for the public to see.”
“Performance data? Like what?”
“Like mortality rate, infection rate, heart failure rate, and readmission rate. And the rate of amputation, length of stay in the hospital and rate of discharge to the community. Just let the outcomes speak for themselves.”
“That’s a good idea.” Adam presses his lips and raises his eyebrows as if to say I’m impressed.
“Megan, you have been here long enough to know so much about the hospital. Perhaps you can make suggestions to the hospital.” Betty agrees.
“Anyway, the survey is over. We won’t be throwing away anything anytime soon. So, relax. Let the leadership do their part. This is not your home,” Stephanie says.
Relax? Relaxation is not in her blood. Megan looks around the hospital, floor by floor, to find a storage space. She finds out nursing units have much larger storage areas, and some are not fully occupied. She talks to a nurse manager about storing assistive devices on the ward. The nurse manager says that is a good idea and offers a five-tier shelf on her unit. It turns out this arrangement is much more convenient for both nurses and therapists.
“A terrific idea. Kill two birds with one stone.” Kelly pats Megan on the shoulder and gives her a fifty-dollar “On the Spot Award” for thinking out of the box.
An Empowered Megan
Megan can’t believe it. This is her first award, a cash award, over the last forty years. This incentive is a part of the hospital performance improvement project, aimed at empowering its employees. Now, Megan feels “empowered.” When she walks in the hospital hallway, her feet glide as if on rollerblades. She wants to do more, not for money, but for patients. She volunteers to replace all rehab supplies on different nursing floors in addition to the gym. She uses her lunch breaks to do these. She becomes so busy that sometimes she skips lunch and buys snacks from the vending machines in the hallway.
One day, Megan stops by the vending machines on her way back to the gym. She scans the items in the machine and finds her favorite choice: pistachio nuts. She inserts a dollar bill and presses on A6 of the panel. A bag of pistachio nuts moves forward and falls to the slot below. Megan picks it up.
Before she leaves, a middle-aged man sitting in a wheelchair, comes to her side. He says, “Hey, there, can you get this one for me?”
Megan turns and sees him with one amputated leg elevated on the leg rest. His arm stretched out to her with a dollar bill in his hand. He points to the Coca-Cola row in the vending machine with drinks. His breath smells like cigarettes, and his fingernails are dark brown.
“Coca-Cola? How about this one?” Megan points to Diet Coke next to Coca-Cola.
“Did I ask for that one?” he frowns annoyingly. Why do old women always want to be people’s mothers?
“No problem.” Megan inserts the dollar bill and presses on the number. Well, at least I’ve tried, she consoles herself. A bottle of Coca-Cola rolled down into the slot below. The man picks it up, puts it on his lap, and says, “Thank you.” Then he wheels away.
Megan feels sad every time she sees someone like this. He’s going to lose the other leg if he drinks Coca-Cola every day. She turns to the vending machine and notices some of the rows have dime-sized white stickers in the front. She is curious, so she leans closer. She squints her eyes to read the tiny words on one of them. It reads, Healthy4You in italic font. “This is great.” She inhales with joy at this discovery. Then she counts. Only six out of forty items are labeled “Healthy4You.” She knows that patients must be given choices, good or bad. But if at least half of the items are healthy ones, patients would have more healthy choices. Plus, the fonts are way too small to read, even for her.
Megan hurries back to the office. She begins to draft an email to her dietitian friend, asking who is in charge of the vending machines. Her friend forwards her email to the Dietary Service supervisor, who replies, “Try the Kitchen supervisor.” Megan sends an email to the Kitchen supervisor, who in turn tells her that this is a contract matter, and she should contact the hospital business office. By now Megan’s afternoon patient has arrived. She stops writing her email and goes to attend to the patient.
The next day, Megan resumes her email quest. She writes to the business office. “Can we add more Healthy4You items in the hospital vending machines and change the stickers to a larger font? I think our patients will benefit from these changes. Thank you.” Megan copies the Kitchen and the Dietary Service supervisors on the email and presses the send button.
The supervisors give her a smiley face and a thumb up emoji as their responses. “They liked my idea,” Megan thinks.
Two days later, the business office staff emails back: “Thank you for this wonderful suggestion. We agree with you and will work on it.” Sure enough, one week later, Megan sees about twenty items in the vending machines that are now labeled with white Healthy4You stickers with larger font. Megan is thrilled. With more healthy choices, that patient with an amputation and others will no longer lose their limbs.
Another Faux Pas
A few months later, Megan walks in the hallway. She has forgotten about the vending machines. Suddenly, she hears a husky voice, “Hey, ma’am, can you do me a favor?”
“Sure, what can I do for you?” Megan turns around and sees a patient behind her, sitting in a wheelchair. She leans toward him but straightens up instinctively due to a strong odor. She notices his feet are bandaged in thick white gauze with yellowish drainage oozing out.
The patient points to the vending machine with his chin and says, “Number C3. I want two of them.”
Megan realizes that she is right next to the vending machines. She looks at the C3 item: Caramel Snickers Chocolate Bars. As a habit, she scans other items swiftly and finds a row of Oatmeal Bars. With a big smile on her face, she proposes, “How about the Oatmeal Bars?”
“Nah,” the man waves his hand dismissively. He pulls two dollar bills out of his waist pack and hands them to Megan.
Megan spots a box of cigarette in the pack. She glances at his feet and says, “Sir, you know it’s not good to smoke...”
“It’s not your goddamn business.” The patient grabs the bars from her hand and leaves.
Megan stands in front of the vending machines and looks. What happened? Six? Only six Healthy4You stickers left. There were twenty of them a few months ago.
She feels her face turn warm and her heart pound. All of her pride that she accomplished a few months ago evaporates in an instant.
After work, she writes a new email to the hospital business office and copies the same supervisors. This time she adds Kelly. She needs all the support she can get. In her email, she asks why there are fewer healthy items in the vending machines. She thinks perhaps people forget to order the right items. “If you need help, I can remind you monthly,” she volunteers.
Megan waits for a reply. One day. Two days. Three days. No response. Not even from the supervisors. Maybe the business office staff is busy or on vacation? She knows that this is not an emergency, so she decides to wait.
Two weeks have passed. Megan still hasn’t heard anything back. Anxious, she goes to Kelly’s office during lunchtime.
Once she enters the office, she asks directly, “Kelly, do you know why the business office doesn’t respond to my email about the vending machines?”
Kelly has been supervisor for five years. Yet, it feels more like fifty. Imagine having three kids, ages seven, five, and two and half. Even the two-year-old starts to say, “It’s not fair.” It isn’t cute anymore. How do you make it fair to the three of them? And now Kelley supervises thirty therapists across four campuses. And they too, like her kids, want to be fair. How many patients does one see? What kinds of patients? Who covers the weekends and who doesn’t? And who is expecting, or who takes sick leave, and who covers for them? It is endless. Work and family balance is the theme nowadays. But to make things fair to everyone, one has to be a superman or a superwoman. It’s easier said than done. It is no surprise that Kelly likes staff like Megan. Megan doesn’t complain and cleans up after the rest without being asked. Where else can she find a person like her?
Kelly looks at Megan and says, “Megan, don’t bother. It’s not our job to worry about vending machines. You’ve done your part. I appreciate it. I really do. But our job is treating patients.”
“No buts. Megan, that is not our business.” Kelly lays her hand on Megan’s shoulder.
“No?” Isn’t this about our patients’ health? And the reason you gave me that award?
Kelly reads what’s on Megan’s mind. She regrets having given her that “On the Spot Award.” Who knew Megan would take the word “empower” literally.
In fact, it is true that it is more than an award for Megan. It’s like putting her empowered ego on steroids! That “D-day” spirit had been imprinted in her chromosomes from her World War II veteran dad.
Kelly doesn’t say anything. It’s too complicated to explain. She hopes that things will cool down with time. Just like other problems in the past.
Unfortunately, things don’t cool down. When the kitchen supervisor explains to Megan that vending machines are one of the ways for the hospital to generate revenue, like everything else, Megan becomes infuriated. “To make money at the expense of patients’ health?” She writes these very words in her next email.
Kelly calls her to the office the next day and tells her sternly, “Megan, you need to mind your own business.”
“But this is my business, our business,” she insists.
“We’re therapists. Vending machines are not our territory. You need to know your boundaries.”
“Whose territory is it? What boundary? How about patients? Aren’t we supposed to...”
“Megan, your job is treating patients!” Kelly interrupts her and her face hardens.
Megan leaves Kelly’s office, but her mind is like a steel rod that won’t bend. She keeps on thinking about the vending machines. Aren’t hospitals supposed to provide healthy snacks to our patients? The hospital said that we should put patients first, not cash. They said that prevention is the most important step toward a healthy life. She writes these words in her next email and presses send.
What a tough, stubborn woman. She doesn’t give in. She knows she is right and will fight for it, even if she has to go to the moon.
But all Megan gets is silence—icy cold silence.
Two weeks later, Kelly receives an email from her boss. It says that she needs to discipline Megan because someone had reported to the hospital Human Resource Section that she had dated a patient before.
“They got married more than a year ago,” Kelly types. “And that ‘patient’ hasn’t come back after they began dating.” Before she presses “send,” she adds, “thank you for reminding me. I’ll reinforce this policy in my department.”
“No matter. Rules are rules. She must be disciplined for what she did,” the email states matter-of-factly.
Kelly sighs. Oh, Megan.
But you can’t just blame Megan. The leadership is the group of people who wanted to empower employees. Isn’t it? Don’t they know the risks of doing that? Even my three-year-old has heard be careful what you wish for. You praise kids and they ask for more. “I want this...or that.” Now what? See, a bull-headed person is empowered.
Regardless, her hands are tied. Kelly calls Megan to her office to do what she hates to do but does it anyway. After a brief conversation regarding “dating patient is not allowed in the hospital setting,” which Kelly feels silly even mentioning and goes straight to the point. “I hope you understand, Megan, running a hospital isn’t as simple as replacing vending machines. Our system, the healthcare system, is a complex one, an industry. It’s beyond what you and I can understand.”
“I know. It’s all business,” Megan says without concealing her disgust.
“I know you have good intentions. But you should have chosen your words more carefully. Remember, we have said many times ‘not to show emotions in our notes’ and that includes emails. You see, your emails were full of question marks that reflect an accusative tone. I wish you had asked me to read it before you sent it.”
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to be clear with my message.”
“The hospital is not your home. People are not your children. You must have proper manners to communicate with people.”
Megan makes a maybe shrug.
“You see, I can’t even talk like that with my kids.”
“Your clarity or frankness defeat the purpose of what you are trying to change. People have egos. We all do. We have to put ourselves into other peoples’ shoes. Nobody writes to the business office staff like you do. Plus, you don’t know that the hospital has its priorities.”
Megan tilts her head, half confused, half amused. “Priorities?”
“Megan, there are a lot of things you don’t know.”
“Yeah, I’m ignorant, but I’m not a hypocrite.”
“You make me feel I’m talking to my three-year-old at home.”
“That’s because a three-year-old doesn’t lie.”
“It’s not lying, it’s reality. Life is not fiction.”
“Reality?” Megan makes a sound coming from her nose.
“You know one can’t catch bees with vinegar. This is a workplace, not a kindergarten.”
“It seems to me that both tell fairy tales nowadays.”
“Megan...” Kelly interrupts abruptly. “If the hospital doesn’t make money, people will lose their jobs. It’s as simple as that. Do you understand?”
“At what expense?” Megan presses on.
“Compared to tobacco, guns, and opioids, what is a can of Coca Cola?”
“I hope you’re just being sarcastic.”
“I’m not. I’m just telling you not to be naïve.”
“I’m not. After all, a hospital isn’t just any business. It’s our job to make patients healthier, not the contrary.”
“The reality is that hospitals must make money too, one way or the other. Or else, none of us will have a job. How will you help patients if you’re out of a job?”
Megan doesn’t say anything, not wanting to admit That’s true.
“Megan, I don’t want to argue with you. You shouldn’t burn your bridges. I hate to give you another reprimand,” Kelly says helplessly.
“Maybe you don’t need to.”
Kelly sighs, saying to herself, it’s not my need, but theirs.
“It’s time for me to retire anyway,” Megan says with a mixed sentiment of relief and defeat.
“Megan, don’t rush into a decision like this when you’re upset.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
“Why don’t you take a week off. I know that you still have vacation days left this year. Let me know your plan when you come back. I won’t force you, one way or the other.”
The news of Megan’s pending retirement spreads quickly in the department. In no time, everyone knows about it. Well, she is now sixty-five and it’s about time.
On Wednesday, Mr. Gould, one of Megan’s patients, comes to see her as scheduled in the morning, but instead of Megan he sees Stephanie.
“Sorry, Mr. Gould, can you just wait here. I’ll be with you once I am done with this,” Stephanie says while swiftly changing the sheet on the mat.
“Oh, is Megan on leave?” The patient is surprised. Megan is never sick. Not that he can remember. She usually lets him know ahead of time if she is on vacation.
“Hmm,” Stephanie stops what she is doing. She turns to the patient. “Megan is considering retirement.”
“She is?” Mr. Gould’s head drops on his chest like a heavy sunflower. He can’t hide his disappointment. He has seen Megan on and off for more than ten years. He likes her because she is the best at manual massage, the most helpful treatment for his back pain. He raises his head, rubs his stiff back with his hand and says, “I thought she’s going to be here forever. She looks young and her hands are strong but also gentle. Well, I guess everyone has to retire someday.”
“It’s only a rumor, not carved in stone yet,” Stephanie adds.
Toward the end of the week, the therapists have not heard anything from Megan. Huiling becomes edgy and asks, “Should we have a retirement party for her?”
Her colleagues don’t want to concede Megan’s retirement just yet.
Indeed, the news of Megan’s decision to retire comes as a surprise to everyone. It is not Megan’s style. This place is—the preferred tense—her home.
At noon time on Thursday, Kelly comes to the office to see if everyone is doing okay. She smells agitation in the air.
Adam asks casually, “Hey, Kelly, we heard Megan plans to retire. Have you heard about it?”
“That’s her personal decision. At her age, it’s natural that she would consider it.”
“A personal decision?”
Another silence. Silence as a way to avoid conflict or express discontent.
There’s no smoke without fire. Through the grapevine, Stephanie finds out that Megan’s decision to retire has to do with her “harsh” emails to the business office.
“That’s her,” Betty says. “She’d rather leave.”
“I knew something wasn't right,” Adam says, crossing his arms on his chest.
“But she didn’t do anything wrong.” Huiling opens her eyes wide.
“She did the right thing. But have you heard, ‘It’s not what you say, but how you say it?” Adams says, shaking his head.
“I’ve worked with Megan the longest time here. I know her personality. The key thing right now isn’t what made her decide to retire, but what can we do to make her change her mind,” Betty says thoughtfully. “I feel that deep inside her she’s not ready to leave.”
“I agree with you. I’m afraid that she’s not financially ready either. Unless Michael is doing so well and has a real job now,” Michelle adds.
Adam says, “I have to admit that Megan had good intentions and even good ideas. I wish she were more tactful. She doesn’t know her limits. The way she did it, she pushed people away.”
“What can we do? We don’t want her to make another wrong decision, right?” Huiling asks, feeling helpless. All she can think of is making pot stickers, which is useless now.
After a while, Adam says, “I think if we write an email together and let her know that we need her, and so do her patients like Mr. Gould and Mr. Hampton, and others need her too. If we mention these patients’ names, I bet she’ll change her mind.”
“That’s a great idea.” Betty raises her hand as if she is voting for a bill.
Betty has known Adam for several years. She knows that if Adam wants something, he will fight for it. As he said before, he had to be the winner. Sometimes ego is a good thing. Fortunately, he is more tactical than Megan. The idea of writing an email proves it. Betty sees a lot of changes in Adam, especially since he has had a daughter. He is more considerate, flexible, and “humane.” Betty wonders, if having a child softens one’s heart.
People always say that no one can change anyone. Yet universally, they never fail to try. Just now, knowing how stubborn Megan is, her colleagues still believe that they have a chance to make her change her mind.
With that, Adam drafts an email and adds everyone’s names to it. At the ending, he writes, “Megan, just to let you know that Mr. G was sad to hear that you might retire. He and others need you but for privacy reasons, we can’t mention any names here.”
Ah, being needed are the magic words. It’s not a bait but something that touches a tender spot in people. This is the magic of psychology, Adam thinks.
After the email is sent, they wait. Waiting is not a good feeling. It is unsettling. Huiling tells everyone, “For Chinese, number three is a lucky number. I bet...” she pauses and touches a lucky charm relic, a golden GuanYin figurine on the wall next to her. “On the third day, she’ll come back.”
Adam gives Huiling a so weird, but whatever look.
Who said God is dead? Nietzsche? Reality proves he’s dead-wrong. People can’t live without the notion of God. One has to have faith. Without faith, how does one explain fate, or, as a matter of fact, explain many seemingly impossible things?
The therapists wait for their fate. They leave the matter in the hands of God.
The atmosphere is subdued in the office while they wait. As if their lives are in suspense. They remind themselves, no news is good news.
On the next Monday, Megan comes back to the office and announces, “I’ve changed my mind. I’ve decided to stay. I just can’t leave this place. Plus...,” she pauses and takes a deep breath, “Michael was diagnosed with acute hepatitis last week. He lost his best friend to an overdose a week ago. And that triggered him to drink again. Within a few days, his liver flared up and he became very ill. Now, he’s in the hospital. The doctor said he has acute hepatitis. But I’m sure he’ll recover. The doctors said so.”
The doctor said so, or she hopes so too.
Oh, dear. What a shock. They thought it was their collective email that brought Megan back.
“I hope so,” everyone says wholeheartedly.
“It’s tough to lose a friend while fighting his own battle.” Adam rubs his chin pensively.
“You’re right, Adam,” Megan nods.
Human beings are odd. Remember, when Megan got married to Michael, the co-workers worried. They foresaw him drinking, getting one DUI after another, and eventually ruining her retirement. It’s almost like they need to prove they are right. Now, they hear Michael is ill. Nobody wants to be “right” anymore.
Megan sits down by her desk. Carefully, she takes out a new photo of the two of them. Their heads lean toward each other. On the wooden frame it says Love Is Patient. A well-known Bible script. She places it next to the other two pictures.
At a time like this, people tend to draw strength from faith.
Megan senses heaviness in the air. She says, “You guys are so sweet. To be very honest, if it weren’t for you, especially your heart-warming email, I wouldn’t come back, even when Michael is ill, and I have medical bills to pay. I could find another job closer to home. But that wouldn’t be the same. You make me feel at home here. This is where I belong.”
People are speechless.
To break the quiet in the room, Stephanie says, “Megan, I’m glad that you’re back. And your patients are going to be happy, too. You should have seen Mr. Gould’s face last week. It was this long.” She presses on her cheeks to make her round face into a long one.
“Oh, poor Mr. Gould,” Megan says.
At this moment, patients start to arrive. Among the first ones is Mr. Gould. When he sees Megan at the door, his eyes sparkle.
Megan smiles and waves at him.
Kelly is happy that Megan is back. She was worried if her words were too harsh that they made Megan decide to leave.
She calls Megan to her office and says, “Megan, I heard Michael is sick. Let me know if you need more time off.”
“Thank you. For now, I’ll save my hours for later when I need them.”
“You know everyone is happy that you’re back,” Kelly adds.
“Yeah, I feel at home here.”
Kelly nods with restraint. The idea of being at home could be “dangerous” or imprudent in Megan’s case.
She changes the topic. “By the way, Megan, the hospital has a new mandatory class. Everyone has to take it. I hope you don’t mind signing up for it. It’s a two-hour course that takes place on the next three Mondays, from eight to ten in the morning. It’s in the hospital conference room. You can choose one of the dates that’s convenient for you.”
“Sure. What’s the class about?”
“The Art of Communication.”
“Oh. Okay. I’ll do it,” Megan says agreeably.
Two days later, at the end of the day, Megan does her routines. She tightens faucets in sinks, closes windows, and turns off lights in the gym and office. Then she locks the gym door, goes to the parking lot, and drives home in her blue Toyota Corolla.
Upon arriving home, she is surprised to see a basket of beautifully arranged sunflowers, chrysanthemums, and daisies at the door. She takes out her key, opens the door, then picks up the basket.
Once inside, she places the basket on the kitchen table. She takes out an attached card and reads: “Dear Megan, we wish Michael a speedy recovery! Sincerely, Your family at work.”
Oh, how sweet they are! Her eyes well. Warm tears run down her cheeks.