At midmorning of a broiling summer day the life of Three Counties Hospital ebbed and flowed like tide currents around an offshore island. Outside the hospital the citizens of Burlington, Pennsylvania, perspired under a ninety-degree shade temperature with 78 per cent humidity. Down by the steel mills and the rail yards, where there was little shade and no thermometers, the reading – if anyone had bothered to take it – would have been a good deal higher. Within the hospital it was cooler than outside, but not much. Among patients and staff only the fortunate or influential escaped the worst of the heat in air-conditioned rooms.
There was no air conditioning in the admitting department on the main floor, and Madge Reynolds, reaching into her desk for her fifteenth Kleenex that morning, dabbed her face and decided it was time she slipped out to make another application of deodorant. Miss Reynolds, at thirty-eight, was chief clerk in Admitting and also an assiduous reader of feminine-hygiene advertising. As a result she had acquired a horror of being less than completely sanitary and in hot weather maintained a shuttle service between her desk and the women’s toilet down the corridor. First, though, she decided, she must locate four patients for admission that afternoon.
A few minutes earlier the day’s discharge slips had come down from the wards, showing that twenty-six patients were being sent home instead of the twenty-four Miss Reynolds had expected. That, added to two deaths which had occurred during the night, meant that four new names could be plucked from the hospital’s long waiting list for immediate admission. Somewhere, in four homes in and around Burlington, a quartet of patients who had been waiting for this call either hopefully or in fear would now pack a few essential belongings and put their trust in medicine as practiced at Three Counties. Holding now her sixteenth Kleenex, Miss Reynolds opened a file
folder, picked up the telephone on her desk, and began to dial.
More fortunate than the Admitting clerks in the heat were those awaiting treatment in the outpatient clinics, now in full session over in the opposite wing of the main floor. They at least would enjoy air conditioning when their turn came to enter one of the six offices leading off the general waiting room. Within the offices six specialists were making their exclusive talents available free to those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, afford the private-patient fees charged on the specialists’ home ground in the Medical Arts Building downtown.
Old Rudy Hermant, who worked periodically at laboring when his family bullied him into it, sat back and relaxed in cool comfort as Dr. McEwan, the ear, nose, and throat specialist, probed in search of the cause of Rudy’s growing deafness. Actually Rudy didn’t mind the deafness too much; at times, when foremen wanted him to do something else or work faster, he found it an advantage. But Rudy’s eldest son had decided the old man should get his ears looked at, and here he was.
Dr. McEwan fretted irritably as he withdrew the otoscope from old Rudy’s ear. “It might help a little if you washed some of the dirt out,” he remarked acidly.
Such ill humor was unusual in McEwan. This morning, however, his wife had carried to the breakfast table a running fight about household expenses which they had started the night before, causing him, afterward, to back his new Olds out of the garage in such a temper that he had crumpled the right rear fender.
Now Rudy looked up blandly. “What was that?