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On the Job: Rose Mech


Veteran telephone operator Rose Mech has heard it all.
Johns Hopkins: This is Rose.” You’ve heard that greeting so many times you even know where the emphasis falls—on the HOP. Now meet the person behind 955-5000: longtime telephone operator, Rose Mech.

It’s the morning after Memorial Day, and the calls are coming fast and furious. Wearing a headset, seated at a computer specially equipped to process calls, Rose is transferring them as quickly as she possibly can. People want their doctors, their clinics. Some are urgent; a few, outlandish: A woman wants to speak to her surgeon but doesn’t know his name (“He’s tall, with short hair and glasses”). Two callers ask if Hopkins really is offering a reward for blue-eyed cicadas. (“No, that’s a rumor,” Rose replies succinctly.) Then, there’s the woman who announces she got pregnant over the weekend. With the air of someone who’s heard it all, Rose gives her OB.

You can’t help but think how much fun Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine, the telephone operator, would have had with that one. But unlike the “Saturday Night Live” character Tomlin made famous, Rose has no time to gab. Each weekday, she and the other operators field between 5,000 and 7,000 calls, on average. According to their supervisor, Pat Morrow, the volume has been reduced by text messaging, and yet, she notes, on the Friday before Memorial Day, the operators logged close to 10,000 calls.

They take calls from the outside and inside, calls to physicians’ answering services, calls for patient information, even all calls to Homewood. They do all the paging. They are the very first of the first responders. They dispatch teams when medical emergencies (code blues) occur within the hospital. They answer 5-4444, the number for fires and hazardous chemical spills, and 5-5555, the disaster control line. They handle snow emergency calls and also monitor the fire and oxygen alarms.

Altogether there are 17 operators working in shifts around the clock. Of them all, Rose is most senior. She has been manning the phones at Hopkins Hospital since 1962, when she worked in the basement of Phipps at an old-fashioned, manual switchboard. “I loved it,” she recalls fondly. “I felt like a real telephone operator.”

In 1964, the operators moved to Marburg B-101. The four-room, basement-level suite may be modest, but it is really the heart of the massive medical complex, the engine that makes it work. The calls pour in, one after another: for Outpatient Psychiatry, The Flower Cart, Wilmer Clinic, CVDL, Brady, Human Resources, Medical Records, Surgical Pathology, Harriet Lane Clinic … Rose knows these numbers by heart. Those she doesn’t know she quickly finds by scrolling down an endless alphabetical list. Even before the caller has finished making his request, she’s keyed in the number, and her index finger is poised over the key that will transfer the call. Taking the next call automatically activates her “Johns Hopkins: This is Rose” salutation. (Yes, it’s prerecorded.)

“There’s always something different happening,” Rose reflects, recalling events that played havoc with the phones: the riots of 1968, the 1987 train wreck in Chase, Md., the time Broadway caved in during subway construction in 1988. She remembers, too, the snowstorms during which she spent the night at the old Sheraton Inn—on an expense account, no less. (Now she must deal with the indignities of an air mattress on the office floor.)

Soon, though, Rose will say goodbye to all that, because this coming fall, she will turn 65. In March, she will retire. After 43 years on the job, it is hard to imagine what it will be like when there is no one left to say: “Johns Hopkins: This is Rose.”

Ann Bennett Swingle

 

 

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