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Voices / Viewpoint

Unsung heroes

The housekeepers, maintenance personnel, and food-service workers are the invisible foundation of our institutional health care systems

Richard Davis, a retired registered nurse and health-care professional and tireless advocate for access to health care, serves as Guilford’s health officer.


All those who are treating COVID-19 patients are risking their lives. Doctors, nurses, respiratory, physical and occupational therapists, pharmacists, lab techs, social workers, and a host of other professionals are on the front lines of an unprecedented health care battle, and they are making do with dwindling resources.

It’s as close to a worst-case scenario as there can be.

There is also another group of health care workers who never get enough recognition or pay. They are the invisible foundation of our institutional health care systems: the housekeepers, maintenance personnel, and food-service workers, who make sure that the patient-care environment is safe, supportive, and clean for the sick — as well as for the other health care workers who make a lot more money than they do.

* * *

During my years of hospital nursing, I was always in awe of the self-sacrificing work of the people called upon to clean patient rooms after a discharge or a death. If floors were covered in vomit, blood, or any other kind of foul human waste, the housekeeping people were summoned to make things clean and ready.

We considered the housekeeping people assigned to our floor on every shift to be among our most valued co-workers. We had time to talk and learn about our respective lives. We tracked one another’s significant milestones in life, and we felt that we had a unique bond that was solid and meaningful.

Even after I drifted away from hospital nursing, I would often see many of the housekeeping people. We would catch up in line at the supermarket. Some moved on, but most remained loyal to their institution as the years passed. I think that what kept most of them satisfied and engaged was the daily interaction that they had with patients.

It is a little-known fact, but nurses often rely on housekeeping people for information about the problems that hospitalized patients are having. Some patients tend to share more of their very personal feelings with the people who clean their room than they do with doctors and nurses — and any nurses worth their salt know that.

At times when we could just not figure out why Mrs. Smith was not getting better or why she was having such a host of symptoms that made no sense, we would consult with the people who had been cleaning her room for such clues.

* * *

Now these valuable health care workers are also risking their lives to do the same jobs under more dangerous circumstances. They are rising to the occasion, and they are some of the most heroic of the heroes among us.

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that they are among the most exposed to COVID-19 in the institutions caring for patients with the disease.

There are many heroes in this new battle, and we need to take the time to recognize all of them.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #556 (Wednesday, April 8, 2020). This story appeared on page B3.

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