Today marks the 35th anniversary of my first day of pediatric internship at the University of Michigan. The first day is nerve-wracking for any doctor-in-training, and mine was even more wrack-y because I was assigned to Wayne County General Hospital, a forty-minute drive from my apartment in Ann Arbor. Not much for planning ahead in those days, I didn’t think to take a trial run beforehand to see where I needed to go.
So early on the morning of June 25th, 1979, I rolled my silver Mercury Bobcat (more or less a thinly disguised Ford Pinto) under a large gate with “Wayne County General Hospital” arched overhead in wrought iron. The hospital was about as far from what I’d expected as it’s possible to get: an ancient, sooty, red brick pile, with cracked front stairs and crumbling, mossy masonry. Cardboard covered a row of windows. A broken gutter leaked the last of a morning shower. Toss in a few bats, some lightning bolts and a couple of flapping shutters and it would have made a perfectly fine Munster Mansion.
I stood rooted on the sidewalk, all starchy white coat and black doctor bag (actually, a repurposed shaving kit with a waterproof, royal blue liner), not sure whether to pull open the massive front door or flee. But I had my assignment—the County’s neonatal intensive care nursery—and punched-out windows be damned, I wasn’t about to let those babies down. A deep breath, a squaring of the shoulders, and in I went.
The inside of the place was, if anything, worse than the outside: peeling paint, mildew, broken lighting, the strong smell of urine. An elderly security guard dozed behind a small wooden desk. Behind him, far down the hallway, a snoring man lay fastened to a bed by leather restraints. They seemed to be the only people in the place—no scurrying crowds of doctors and nurses, no gurneys wheeling by, no overhead pages of impending medical catastrophes. Just an old man at a desk, a tied-up snorer, and now me.
I cleared my throat. The guard startled awake, clearly irritated by my intrusion. “What?” he croaked. “What?”
I smiled my shiniest please-please-help-me smile. Would he be so kind as to direct me to the neonatal intensive care nursery? Please?
“Nursery?” He leaned back in his chair. “You mean with babies and such?”
Yes, I assured him, with babies and such. And other people besides the three of us, hopefully.
He paused for a moment, lost in thought, and then slapped his hands hard on the table. “You want a nursery? With babies? Now that’s rich!” He threw back his head and let out an eerie, Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining-caliber cackle. The racket soon woke the tied-up man, who commenced howling. Things got very loud, very fast; this was not at all how I’d expected my morning to go.
“There’s no babies here, son!” The guard wiped tears from his eyes. “There ain’t never been no babies here!” I scanned the empty hallway, my heart sinking. Then where were the babies? I wondered a bit desperately. What had he done with them? The cackling resumed.
The noise slowly died down, and at last the guard fell silent. He rose from his chair and spun me toward the door. He pointed to a newer, reassuringly hospital-like building across a large parking lot. “Try them folks,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they got your babies over there.”
He held the door open, waving me on my way. “This here’s the loony bin, son,” he called out as I race-walked across the lot. “I don’t expect you’ll make that mistake again.”
I never did.
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Photo courtesy of anoldent: https://www.flickr.com/photos/anoldent/