In Their Shoes: Not a waste

Nathan Liewicki
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Nathan Liewicki spent a morning working as a waste porter at the Moose Jaw Union Hospital, hauling garbage and broken downcardboard boxes to the compactor, and handling biomedical waste. 

Sporting old running shoes, red athletic shorts and a blue T-shirt with a yellow, green and white-coloured dodgeball logo, I arrived at the Moose Jaw Union Hospital on Thursday morning.

It was 6:45 a.m. and I was groggy.

I wasn’t there to visit a friend, receive medical treatment myself, or interview a member of the Five Hills Health Region. I was at the hospital to work.

After changing into my scrubs, and seriously considering whether or not to keep my shorts on underneath the scrub pants, I joined my fellow environmental service workers in a brightly lit basement room.

It was in that moment I met Val Trudel (who I’ll be referring to throughout this story as Val), who I’d been told the day before I’d be working alongside for four-and-half hours.

The blue soft cast on her wrist was easily noticeable, as was her graying hair and simple-looking spectacles.

After introducing myself and engaging in small talk with some of my newfound peers and being jokingly mocked for admitting that I only clean my bathroom once a month 7 a.m. arrived and it was time to get to get to work.

Within minutes I found myself inside a room with a giant refrigerator. The biohazardous sign on the door told me all I needed to know.

“That’s where we store the biomedical waste,” said Val. “It’s picked up once a month.”

I didn’t go inside yet.

Val then grabbed a cart with six blue bins, each lined with yellow bags for biomedical waste, and we headed to an elevator and our first stop: the fifth floor.

I consider myself a fast-paced walker, but I immediately realized I had to pick up my pace so as not to fall behind the 57-year-old during my shift.

Inside the fifth floor closet we stopped at was a pile of garbage bags and cardboard boxes. Buried beneath it all were bins of biohazardous medical supplies that we needed to transport.

“I didn’t expect there to be this much garbage in here,” Val said aloud.

So, back down to the basement we went to retrieve a massive garbage bin that had brown and purple stains. I didn’t ask Val what they were from and it smelled odd, but it wasn’t overpowering.

“If I have a few minutes during my day I try and clean it out,” she said.

After collecting the garbage bags and broken down boxes, which we had to do ourselves, we went down to the main floor.

Val and I threw on bright orange safety vests before heading outside to the waste compactor for the first of what I estimated were eight trips.

“It’s emptied once every five days,” she said, as threw trash into the compactor. “The last one was Wednesday.”

We eventually returned to the fifth floor and gathered the biomedical waste bins and containers, but not before Val made sure they were completely sealed.

“You have to make sure it clicks twice,” she said of the little containers.

As we went from floor to floor and department to department, I too collected some of the biomedical waste.

Since I was wearing gloves, I wasn’t nervous transporting it, but Val made a great point about the smallest of the containers. The little tabs on these containers aren’t always put in the holes properly.”

After collecting all of the biomedical waste, we put most of it in the fridge, including a bin with materials used from a chemotherapy treatment, which I learned was classified as cytotoxic waste.

Also, that fridge smelled pretty rancid much different than the cream of cauliflower that infused my nostrils when Val and I collected garbage from the kitchen later in the morning.

Then again my stomach was also rumbling at the time.

Unlike most of my colleagues porters, housekeepers, caretakers, laundry services and a lab service worker I opted not to eat a small snack during our 9 a.m. coffee break. In fact, Val was kind enough to buy a small coffee for me.

During the break I spoke with Dayle Currie, 23.

She performs an array of tasks, but is primarily responsible for laundry and is a self-proclaimed cleaning addict.

Unlike me, Currie cleans her bathroom every second day something she blames on her obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In the past, she has had to perform Val’s job and admitted that there are plenty of gross things about being a waste porter.

“There was a wound bandage with dead skin attached to it and you could see the different layers of puss,” Currie explained of a biomedical bin she once opened. “It was the first thing you saw when you opened the lid.”

She’s also had to clean up messes of explosive diarrhea mixed with vomit. Needless to say, an environmental service worker’s job is far from glamorous.

Unfortunately there are times when they feel disrespected, including by the hospital’s doctors.

“I had a doctor tell me I have more to my life than being a cleaner for the rest of it and that I should get an education,” Currie said.

Environmental service workers are essentially the underbelly of a hospital and patient safety is these health-care providers’ top priority. Just imagine how smelly and unsanitized the hospital would be without the likes of Val, Currie and Marilyn Waller, the province’s only laboratory services worker.

Waller deals with specimens that include urine, blood cultures and bacteria cultures. Using an autoclave, she decontaminates medical equipment and supplies.

She showed me a sealed bag with what looked like black goop that was destined for the autoclave. Clearly, she has a strong stomach because for a second I almost didn’t.

Val also needs a strong stomach to deal with the waste she routinely transports to the compactor. And she moves at a tremendous pace.

Walking up, down and all around the hospital on a daily basis, Val quickly racks up the steps. On Wednesday, her size six feet had taken about 18,000 steps. By lunch on Thursday, we had walked 11,407 steps and contributed kilograms of waste to the compactor.

I don’t know how many kilometres those steps are equivalent to, but I was gassed and had worked up quite a sweat when my shift ended. Evidently, it was a good thing I chose not to keep my red shorts on underneath my scrub pants.

Nathan Liewicki can be reached at 306-691-1256 or follow him on Twitter @liewicks.

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