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"On my floors, you're not going to see gook on the edges or raggly corners or dust bunnies behind the doors"
Wax On, Wax Off
Their work gets walked on every day, but the producers of Hopkins' floor show take it in stride.

Three things make Tina Jackson-Wallace cringe. A pailful of blue water. Anyone dragging furniture. People who think they're exempt from Newton's laws of motion.

The first two mean Wallace's day just got tougher. The third, she's seen end up in the emergency department.

Wallace is a floor tech, one of more than 200 at Hopkins Hospital alone, whose job is keeping the institution's floors not merely clean, but beautiful. To her, blue water means too much germicide, a chemical that in stronger-than-needed concentrations turns meticulously waxed and burnished floors into a gummy mess no amount of wet-mopping can cure. And merely pushing a chair, instead of picking it up and carrying it, also can undo a morning's work in seconds.

But it's when someone ignores Wallace's warning about using an alternate route to avoid stepping on wet wax that she inevitably holds her breath.

"Wax is like ice," she says. "It's hard for us to wax the floor and not slip, and we're trained." One woman who insisted she could walk without benefit of friction, recalls Wallace, needed several stitches after her feet went out from under her. Minutes later, another employee tumbled not once, but three times in rapid succession trying to navigate the same hallway.

The problem, says Wallace, is that there's no good time to do a floor. In a place that never closes, someone always wants to walk where you're working.

At Hopkins Hospital, it takes three floor-tech crews working around the clock to keep up with the building's 23 acres of cleanable square footage. The first shift handles inpatient units, the second, corridors, and the third, entrances and basements. "It's every floor, every day, seven days a week," says Environmental Services' John Highsmith, who manages the hospital's medical and surgical floors. "We want the techs to be efficient, of course, but they also need to be able to do a good job. If there's enough time between patients, they'll totally strip and rewax the room, which takes about two hours."

The two biggest challenges, he says, are getting into patient rooms when the hospital census is high, and stripping and rewaxing the inpatient corridors. That task is often done at night, when foot-traffic is comparatively light.

Patients and visitors do appreciate the results, says Highsmith. "They're perceptive. Just last week, the wife of one of our patients asked to have her husband transferred to another room where the floor had just been done. It's noticeable when we give a room a fresh start. That high gloss helps make patients feel well cared for."

It's also a point of pride (and friendly competition) among the floor techs.

"Everyone thinks their floor looks the best," says Wallace, whose regular domain is Marburg 2 and 3. "Your floor reflects you. On my floors, you're not going to see gook on the edges or raggly corners or dust bunnies behind the doors."

Wallace's day begins at 6:30 in the morning, when she dust-mops and then wet-mops her "first impressions"-the areas customers see first (in her case, the main hallways that link each of her two Marburg floors with the Children's Center). Then she decides, among her 44 rooms, what's next. "I do whatever I think needs to be done," she says. "I know better than anyone what my floors need."

As everyone who's kept house knows, even a just-washed floor can look dull, so the trick is learning to tell the difference between a clean, waxed floor that simply requires buffing to restore its shine and one that has to be started from scratch. "If people have been pulling chairs," says Wallace, "nine times out of 10 the floor only needs to be buffed. But if dirt is coming up through the wax, it needs to be stripped."

Both tasks require know-how. Buffers, with their 20-inch diameter burnishing pads spinning at up to 2,000 revolutions per minute, can lurch out of control. "I see people all the time getting too close to someone operating a buffer," says Wallace. "I would never do that. Even after I'd been doing floors for a couple of years, I had a buffer get away from me. It went around in a circle and ate the top of my shoe."

Though proper burnishing techniques can be learned in a day, stripping and waxing are trickier. "It took me a while to catch on to stripper," says Wallace. "It's slippery, and I was afraid I'd fall. When you're training, one person stands behind you to catch you in case you start to go down. You have to wear the correct shoes-rubber soles or booties with grippers on the bottom. Even so, if you've been doing floors long enough, you're gonna slide."

After the tech takes up all the old wax, the freshly bared floor needs four to six new coats, both to protect it and to provide plenty of depth for polishing, since buffing burns up the wax. Here, too, there's an art. "First, you do the edges of the room, then you mop on the wax in the shape of an S," Wallace says. "That way you don't miss any of the floor. I lay my first coat thin and put a fan on it-that takes about 15 minutes to dry-and my next coat thick, which takes about 30 minutes. Two thick coats together take too long."

With the exception of a small number of "floaters" who fill in wherever they're needed, most of Hopkins Hospital's floor techs take care of the same units each week. They also work every other weekend, when they can be responsible for dust- and wet-mopping as many as six different areas. "They might send you anywhere," says Wallace. "I get called to a lot of surgery floors. I've been called to the trash docks."

Getting the chance to see what goes on all over the hospital, Wallace says, is what keeps her job interesting. Still, watch her work on Marburg and it's clear that these are her floors.

"Tina has a lot of initiative," says Marburg 2 Nurse Manager Carol Kersch, "and she's very intuitive about what needs to be done. If she sees we're having a bed crunch, she just helps the flow. I remember one weekend we were short-staffed, my support associate was out, and we must have had six or seven discharges. She pitched right in, stripped and cleaned the beds, even though that's not her job. Later, there must have been four notes on my desk from other staff saying, You need to let people know how much Tina helped."

Kersch did. And last month, at Hopkins Hospital's Employee Recognition Ceremony, Wallace received a Baker-King Award for outstanding job performance.

"I know how to get dirty when I need to get dirty," says Wallace. "If it's gonna make it beautiful, I'm gonna do it."

-Mary Ann Ayd

From the Ground Up


At age 36, floor tech Dale Keel has found a home on the cardiology care unit. "I feel welcome here," he says. "I hear 'Good morning' and 'Excuse me, I didn't mean to walk on your floor' about a thousand times a day. I say, It's not my floor, it's our floor. And it's meant to be walked on-that's what it's there for."
For the many nurses, support associates and others who got their start at Hopkins as floor techs, the job became a stepping stone. For Dale Keel, it's been a milestone.

On the evening of Dec. 27, 2000, with temperatures heading into the low 20s, Keel bypassed a homeless shelter in favor of an abandoned West Baltimore house where he thought he could spend the night drinking undisturbed. Instead, a man pulled up in a van and asked, "Where are you going?" Keel, who says he already had an alcohol problem by the time he was 12, replied, "I don't know." The man told him to get in, and Keel's decision saved his life.

"I didn't know my toes were frostbitten," he says. "I didn't feel any pain until I got to the mission. There was a reason my toes [one on the left foot, all on the right] were amputated at Hopkins. I try not to figure out God's plan, but He took me out of Park Heights. If I'd had the surgery at Sinai Hospital, I would have gone back, with no toes, to that corner."

Keel spent two months attending Hopkins' First Step Day Hospital, a program that gives hospitalized patients a jump start on recovering from addictions to drugs or alcohol. Then he moved on to the outpatient program known as 911 Broadway, returning in the evenings to the Helping Up Mission on East Baltimore Street, where he still lives.

As his recovery took hold, Keel found out about job openings at Hopkins. Though at first he wasn't sure he could handle being on his feet for eight hours, he told himself that if he could clean at the mission, he could clean at the hospital. This spring, he signed on as a floater with Environmental Services, learning, he says, "to beautify the floors."

In July, Keel's schedule took him to the cardiology care unit, where Nurse Manager Karen Davis found his work so thorough that she immediately called EVS Director Todd Gartrell and demanded that the rookie be assigned permanently to her unit.

"I love to see things clean," says Keel. "Whatever a man puts down, a man can get up. There was a rust stain on the floor in the supply room, from steel wool. I was told you couldn't get it out. I took some degreaser, let it sit there for about five minutes, then came back with my spatula and scraped it up. You have to be patient. If you wear something down, it'll get just as tired of you as you do of it. They say even iron wears out."

Keel pauses, then continues in his softspoken voice.

"Trouble doesn't always last. I never gave up on myself."

 

 

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