Chapter four First day at work
It was cold. Very very cold. I thought I came prepared to face a cold Chicago winter. When I exited our warm, cozy apartment in Berwyn to travel to the town of Oak Park, where I was to start my first day of work, the bitter cold that assaulted me was nothing that I could have expected.
I know since then that all new experiences are relative to what we have encountered in the past. But, being transplanted from Trivandrum, South India, where it is 110 degrees in the shade, to Berwyn, Illinois, at 10 degrees in the Sun, I was shocked. Despite my warm woolen pajama pants under my white silk saree, and sweater inside my winter coat, I shivered until the car heater kicked in.
When we reached West Suburban Hospital in Oak Park, two friends who worked there, doctors Radhakrishnan and Bose met me at the lobby. Balu Chettan returned to his hospital in Berwyn and his Rotating Internship. Dr. Bose said hello, and rushed off to attend patient rounds with his attending Physician.
The lobby in this hospital was totally different from anything I had seen in India. Upholstered chairs, glass top tables, handsome hanging lamps and lovely lampshades were a far cry from the bare bulbs which hung in many of our hospital corridors back home. Even in the private rooms for our more affluent patients, the chairs were bare backs and just minimum cushions softening the seats.
“Shaku,” Radhakrishnan interrupted my thoughts, “I will take you to the Pathology department on the 9th floor. Dr. Kent, the Chief of Pathology is expecting you.”
I nodded my head and followed him to the elevators. When we reached the 9th floor, I followed him past the histology laboratory, which I recognized from the smell of formalin and alcohol wafting out the doors. I saw two curious heads peeking out the large double doors and I was struck by the golden blonde hair atop one. I knew an occasional blonde girl among the members of the United States Information Library in Trivandrum, where I spend one Saturday a month participating in cultural programs and checking out books, while I was in middle school and high school. The type of stark gold blonde hair I saw was a total surprise.
We walked past the Histology laboratory and another large room with a plaque on the door which declared “Microbiology,” and on to the room at the very far end of the corridor. Radhakrishnan knocked on the door, and waited for the ‘come in,” response from within before we walked in.
I was introduced to Dr. Geoffrey Kent. Dressed in a tailored suit, he looked professorial behind his desk, a wooden desk that took up more than half the floor space of a not-too large room, and at one end of the table sat a microscope. Trays of glass slides, which I knew were samples of tissue processed for diagnoses under the microscope, were piled haphazardly to the left of the microscope. Piles of printed paper, with hand written notes all over them and a few books crowded the rest of the desk. One wide window was to the left of the door we entered from, and on the opposite wall I saw another door, partly open. On the wall to my right, two bookshelves were filled with books that brimmed over to the carpeted floor. This was a typical professor’s room, and I felt quite at home.
Dr. Kent rose from his desk, came around the table, and I had to look up to meet his smiling eyes. An English gentleman, I noticed, as his eyes narrowed and his freckled face crinkled around his eyes when he smiled. He seemed a good twelve inches taller than me.
“So you are–,” and he purposely drew out the pronunciation of my name, “Dr. Sha-kun-tala Raja-gopal.” He shook my hands, taking my right hand in both of his, and kept talking. “You realize I cannot call you by this whole long name. It would take too long. What do your friends call you?”
I was by no means a timid girl by any standards where I came from, but I felt a tad shy and slightly intimidated by his height and his huge hands.
“Shaku.” I replied.
“So, Shaku it will be.” He stated firmly.
He led our way out of the room, onto a corridor which led to a few other rooms. Radhakrishnan said ‘bye to me. “Page me when you are ready for lunch.” He said as he walked back to the elevator.
Passing one or two doors, Dr. Kent turned left into a long narrow room with three desks on each wall, many carrying microscopes. At one desk a lovely white lady with soft brown hair, combed and coiffed in a flattering way, sat peering into a microscope. She turned, smiled and got up to greet me. I guessed she was about thirty years. Dr. Kent spoke. “This is Eleanor, our Cytologist.” Then he turned to look around, and asked, “Where is Dr. Bruce?” He asked this of Eleanor even before he told her my name. (That must be someone important; Dr. Bruce, I said to myself.)
“Clara is not here yet.” Eleanor replied.
“This is our new Resident, Dr. Shaku” Dr. Kent spoke as he looked from her to me and back. “She says she is a doctor.” He leaned towards Eleanor and whispered, but loud enough for me to hear, “I think she is too young to be one. I am sure she is fibbing.” Then he laughed, very pleased at himself at his own joke.
His laugh put me at ease.
Right then the sounds of the elevator door opening not too far from us and the arrival of two people deep in conversation, a woman’s voice loud and fast, and the other a man’s, speaking softly, slowly, and deliberately, caught my attention.
At the door of the room we were in, they stopped, finished whatever they were discussing, and the woman entered the room. Tall, with a light brown complexion, she looked bossy.
“Dr. Clara Bruce, meet Dr. Shakuntala Rajagopal.” Dr. Kent introduced us. As we shook hands he continued, ‘we will call her Dr. Shaku. O.K. Clara?”
With that he turned around and returned to his room.
“So, you are Dr. Rajagopal.” Dr. Bruce sat down at the far end of the windowless room, at which I presumed was her desk and microscope.
She pointed towards the desk right behind the one Eleanor was still standing by, and motioned me to sit down. So, I did. As soon as I sat down, Eleanor moved closer to me and said in a very pleasant voice. “We were wondering what we were going to call you. I am relieved you have a short name for us. Your microscope will need adjusting to your small frame.” She continued.
She turned off the light on her microscope, closed the slide tray she was using, and took my hand in hers. “I am the Cytotechnologist here. It is time for my coffee break, so I will take you to the Clinical laboratory and Blood Bank on the fourth floor. The Lab Manager Felicia has her office there, and you need to get your lab coat, etc. Let us go.”
As she unlocked her desk drawer and picked up her purse, I looked around and took stock of the room that was to be my home away from home for the next four years. I wondered who else would be using the space.
It was a good thing I did not know about ‘jet lag.’ Maybe I was too young and naïve to think beyond life as anything other than the open book before me, where at that point in time I was meant to learn and absorb all I needed in order to become an excellent Pathologist.
Looking back, the mentors, even the bossy ones, the fellow struggling residents, the dedicated technologists, the lovely ladies in the kitchen and the wise physician friends on the staff at that hospital, all helped form my character and confidence that has sustained me all these years. This was my first adopted family home.