By Jeanne Arnold
After my thirteen years working with my beloved people at my local hospital, I moved into The Big Leagues as the PR person for one of Milwaukee’s major hospitals, the Milwaukee County Medical Complex, formerly known as the County Hospital, later known as John Doyne. I started as a one-person new department of a 460-bed historic County-owned hospital with 1650 employees. Yikes.
Newspaper and TV reporters could call me every day and I kept a page-long list of victims of mayhem who’d come to the Trauma Center on Flight for Life’s helicopter, ambulances or police cars. Each morning I’d check in with last night’s nursing supervisor who was de-stressing with other RNs in their office near mine. We usually laughed together unless there was sad news. I loved those women and men, the pulse of this hospital.
We had to be careful and current with this information. Often we could not release a person’s condition or even if they were there. Had anyone died? Were families notified? Was there a criminal investigation? Sometimes I had to stay through the night or come in. This was all tricky business that could go on ‘round the clock.
Occasionally media would slip onto a nursing unit to interview a patient. Nursing supervisors would call for me to escort them out, though I needed to cooperate with them so they’d cover our positive news and events. I think the three local TV stations, their reporters and crews and two daily newspapers and their medical reporters grew to trust me.
One afternoon after two months in my job, an administrator bolted into my office shouting, “There’s gunshots in the back of the hospital.” Without thinking, I ran past him, down the back stairs, out the door, passed a frightened woman in a Security uniform who later fainted, and toward a tight circle of County sheriff deputies.
What the hell! Standing just outside their circle, I stared where they stared between two cars parked in the crowded parking lot. I saw a rumpled mound of coats covering what appeared to be two dead persons heaped together over blood on crusty old snow. A man lay humped over a woman’s body. Bits of a faded hospital gown showed from under his coat; from gaps in her coat, I could see the white hem of a nurse’s uniform. The woman dressed as a nurse helped the prisoner escape from Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital, our neighboring hospital on campus. They got confused, exited the wrong door and ended up in our hospital’s back yard. When the prisoner realized he was lost and trapped, he shot the woman and himself.
I became a regular with County paramedic communications guys and they would alert me on newsworthy events like two bank robbers hitting a tree after being chased by police. I made friends with the ER staff and I felt like a teammate with all the hospital staff that rewarded me with their cooperation.
In Surgery: Once a Trauma Center surgical team labored to save two policemen from bullet wounds. The dayroom was filled with wailing relatives, and I was among those trying to comfort them as best we could. Wives begged to talk with a doctor and when the time seemed right, I walked alone down the hall to the surgery door and rang the shockingly loud, clanging bell. Soon the door slid open before me and I was stunned at the sight of the imposing Armenian trauma surgeon with a bushy mustache and burly eyebrows staring down at me. He was covered with blood from his shoulders to his shoes. “They’re dead,” he said. “There’s nothing more to do. Transfused blood just oozes from their pores.” He read the urgent look on my face. “OK. I’ll clean up and come and talk to families.”
In Cardiology: Staff alerted me that a donor heart was to arrive in the night. This would be the only Milwaukee heart transplant in almost twenty years. My assignment was to keep everything secret or keep media out of the way until we could announce a successful result.
Staff expected pushy news people to get in the way when the helicopter landed at our heliport to bring a donor heart to the hospital in the middle of the night. I found a small room in the ER and pulled two twin-sized settees together to make a plastic upholstered box, fell asleep and, hours later, woke hearing the Flight for Life rotators roar. I expected a sterile, masked medical team with a neonatal-type crib with glowing plastic tubes connected to beeping monitors. I witnessed one smiling nurse swiftly climbing out of the helicopter, proudly holding a small red cooler. Rather than going to a picnic, this simple Colman container was preserving a freshly extracted human heart to be installed in another person who will return to his normal life a healthy and happy man.
No media came that night but my phone kept ringing during the day with constant questions from persistent reporters. I dragged myself back and forth through a creepy tunnel with bare light bulbs hanging from exposed wires to meet with my Medical College PR team deciding what to do next in their fancy wood-paneled offices.
I was on for 36 hours. Media people piled up in a receptionist’s room next to my office. One closed door separated them from our PR colleagues who would squeak into my small and humble office back door across from the men’s room. They were to help try to make the best of this dilemma. What do we say? How do we say it? When? It must be now. Our first heart transplant recipient died.
In Orthopedics: Ronald MacDonald asked me to escort him to visit with an orthopedic patient, a five-year-old boy who lost both arms in a farm accident. The clown gave him a soccer ball.
The 1993 cryptosporidium drinking water outbreak affected 403,000 Milwaukee residents who were ill and/or hospitalized. Media swarmed our campus professionals from three hospitals, a regional blood center, several labs, pathology departments and the medical college. Meeting at my hospital, we organized one voice to answer the media with correct information. One serious cryptosporidium patient was an American signing practitioner and a friend. He would be on-call with police to answer for deaf suspects wearing handcuffs. He was young gay guy and he died in my hospital. He also had AIDS.
Jeffrey Dahmer: I found hand-scribbled notes stuck helter-skelter in my hospital elevators. The notes requested information about a young Hispanic fellow who was to have had an appointment in one of our many out-patient clinics. He was missing. I arranged a meeting for his mother and sister with the nursing administrator and me. We told them that we knew he never showed up for his clinic appointment. They wanted an answer that we didn’t have. Sympathy didn’t help. Later we found out where his remains were found. A news photographer friend quit his job after taking photos of Dahmer’s apartment.
Except for my martinis when I came home, I had to keep cool and controlled without the official post-traumatic stress disorder therapy for me that other staff could receive, No wonder I started having panic attacks, scary mental images, sweats, feeling loss of control. Once I was talking with a Black colleague and heard myself quoting Jesus, speaking in tongues and spouting hateful racist slurs. She kept talking and in seconds she came back into focus for me. Shocked and scared, I asked her what I had said. “Why nothing.” I felt as though I was the demented girl in The Exorcist.
When our employee physician examined me for having that panic attack, I told him that it finally got me.
“Why do you say that?”
“Much of my mother’s life was spent in mental institutions because of that diagnosis. I’ve been waiting for that. I heard it was inherited and I’ve had that hanging over my head for years. And I think about my kids too.”
“Your medical record shows me your age.”
“That should be right.”
“If that’s right, you should have had schizophrenia years ago. You’re too old now.”
“Why didn’t someone tell me.”
“You probably never asked.”
While driving through the tangle of a complex Interstate exchange, the physical sweating and flesh crawls started and I shouted, “Not Now, You Bastard! NOT NOW!” The scary feelings stopped and I’ve never suffered another panic attack.
A trauma to all systems
A hired hatchet-man administrator traumatically forced me into early retirement. Who needs PR when your 135-year-old County hospital is sold to Froedert and all but one or two newer building are demolished.
Highly skilled nurses left or transferred to other County services like its jails. Its acute care specialties and remaining facilities like the Trauma Center joined the newer Froedtert that’s now staffed by all the Medical College of Wisconsin’s adult care medical and surgical physicians and interns. Our revered nursing school building refused to budge when an early wrecking ball smashed into her. Its faculty and I watched and cheered her grit. Beloved hospital building spaces turned into parking ramps.
Would I miss its demands, the excitement, the bloody traumas, compassionate healing, long hours and stressful politics of the job? I loved my job, my hospital and its uniquely diverse patients and staff.
So it goes.
Graphics by Mary Nelson
Next week—Our new UNsung Woman & Scotland’s Fingle’s Cave
UNsung Women: the UN-known Herstory History
Loreen Greene Mohr is our SUNG woman for March. More UNsung women nominees will be selected from April through June, 2022.
Submit written nominations about past or present women from Racine/Kenosha whose contributions to the wellbeing of our families, churches, schools, communities and beyond who have not or have been UNder acknowledged.
The nominator is asked to provide:
• answers to Who, What, When, Where, How and Why details of your nominee’s herstory in a document or resume format.
• photographs, drawings, illustrations to enhance herstory;
• a reference person or documentation serving as evidence of proof.
Submit your nomination details to <firstname.lastname@example.org> with your name and where you may be reached.
Please do not nominate women who have already been “sung.”