Teamwork keys UMMC laundry’s spotless record of service
By Bruce Coleman
The morning after winds from Hurricane Katrina had sliced through the Jackson metropolitan area, first-year laundry worker Theresa Williams wasn’t sure when – or if – she should report to work at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
The storm had damaged houses and property and had knocked out power throughout the tri-county area, so Williams decided to call before attempting to report to work.
“I knew the hospital would have light, but I didn’t know if the laundry would,” Williams recalled. “When I called, they told me to come on in, but to take my time because there were trees down all over the road.
“Once I made it to work, everything ran normal. It was just like every-day routine.”
Not only was it business as usual at the Medical Center’s laundry facility, but during the next several days, UMMC played host to laundry workers from numerous other medical institutions throughout the state.
“That was a tough time,” said Roger Freeman, director of laundry and linen services, who lived out of his office in UMMC’s laundry plant for 10 days following Katrina. “At one point, we were the only operational laundry in Jackson. We had other hospital systems bring their laundry in and we would help them do it here.
“My employees at home had no water, had no power, but still got here and provided linen. The employees were dedicated enough that they came here every day and still provided what the hospital needed.”
It was an extraordinary example of a work ethic the Medical Center’s laundry personnel demonstrate every day. In a streamlined operation that would make the most ardent efficiency expert proud, laundry workers collect all of the Medical Center’s soiled linen; bring it back to the main laundry facility; sort, wash, sterilize and in most cases hand-fold it; then return it to the hospitals, clinics and schools from whence it came.
On average, Freeman said his staff of 34 cleans approximately 15,000 pounds of linen every day and delivers it to each of the four campus hospitals, all of the ancillary clinics within the hospital system, the Jackson Medical Mall, the University Physicians Pavilion, the Grants Ferry location, the Select Hospital, the Face and Skin Center and the hospital in Lexington. From the time the laundry was located in what is now the physical facilities building through the 22 years in its current location, UMMC’s laundry staff has never failed to deliver an order. They’ve never shifted any of their responsibilities to any other department, either – no matter the environment.
“The plant is fully air-conditioned, but when you have six large dryers running all day long at 320 degrees each, some days it can feel like a sauna back there,” Freeman said. “There just isn’t enough air-conditioning to cool the place.”
Therefore, UMMC laundry staff begin their day at 5 a.m. – well before sunup – and stay on task until 1:30 p.m. – or later, if the job isn’t finished.
“Some days we have to work over to make sure everything is caught up and the linen is getting out on time,” said Williams, now a six-year veteran of the UMMC laundry. “We try to keep everyone on task so we can get the job done, get the day over with so we can start all over again the next day.”
That sense of teamwork is critical, according to Barbara Arrington, a UMMC laundry worker for the last five years.“You have to have teamwork in order to get your job completed,” Arrington said. “It’s not a one-man job here. It can get challenging when you’re short of help, you have to pull together.
“In a hospital, you deal with all different kinds of linens, not just sheets and towels. It’s not difficult work, but it’s consistent work.”
Though laundry work may seem a bit monotonous to the uninitiated, the majority of UMMC’s laundry workers understand their role in helping to provide the best possible health care to their fellow Mississippians.
“They look at it like, if their own mother were up at the hospital, they’d want to make sure she had clean linen,” Freeman said. “These are the hardest-working employees at this hospital. They’re very loyal, very dedicated and they will stay to get the job done.”
Perhaps due to their early work hours or perhaps because they are cloistered so far away from most buildings at UMMC, laundry staff may go unnoticed by many on campus. But the fruits of their work are readily apparent to those who work on the front lines of health care.
“If there’s no linen in the hospital, there’s not going to be any patients,” Freeman said. “So they understand their role is very important here.”
Although they may toil in relative anonymity, UMMC’s laundry workers have no greater advocate outside of their department than the head of the Medical Center himself. Dr. James Keeton, vice chancellor for health affairs, knows firsthand the difficulties of maintaining a proper linen service after having “pulled washers” as a young man in his father’s laundry.
“I have a personal interest in laundry and I have a great respect for anybody who does this kind of work,” Keeton said.
“The laundry we have here compared to what I worked in is about as high-tech as you can get.
“There’s no measure of how much I appreciate the people who toil in that world.”
Arrington has a more subtle take on her relative lack of notoriety. She likens her profession to that of a baseball umpire: you know they’re doing a great job when you don’t even notice they’re there.
“But with us (in the laundry), you’re always safe,” she said.