THE TEXAS MEDICAL CENTER – If I drive down Fannin and take a right at whatever street it is, then avoid a Metro train that is headed straight at me, I can, no, I can’t. Have you ever tried to visit anyone at the Texas Medical Center, known as the TMC to those who have just dialed 911? It is the largest medical center in the world, and is probably in the Guinness World Records as “the worst place to drive.” Here is a parking garage that seems to be near my goal, so I drive in, circle up eight floors past “Reserved for doctors,” “Reserved for nurses,” “Reserved for friends and neighbors of doctors and nurses.” Finally finding a door, I emerge into a hospital hallway and wander around until I spot a nurses’ station. “Hi, I need to get to Room 555 in the Gangrene Tower.” One nurse, eyes rolling, says, “You are in the East-South Wing of the Multi-Malpractice Tower. Take the blue elevator to the second floor, go right two hallways and left at the visitors’ desk. You want to go to the green building — as in gangrene.”
I do that within a half hour, and find a visitors’ desk. A lady – I am not kidding – hails a four-seat golf cart like those in large airport terminals, which whisks me through foot traffic, scattering doctors, patients and personal injury lawyers. Through glassed-in walkways over Fannin and Main, large doors open with a button-code, to my building. At this point you may be asking why the TMC is so big and so hard to get around. I think it’s because there was no master plan. Every time some oil baron gave another hundred million, the med center grew and is still growing. The TMC began in 1945 in part with funds endowed by the M.D. Anderson Foundation. Do you know what the M.D. stands for? No, not Medical Doctor. A Houstonian, Monroe Dunaway Anderson, who with a partner, formed the world’s biggest cotton company. They dropped the periods after M and D. The original 118-acre plot now covers 2.1-square-miles. Not to get bogged down in statistics, but:
Annual surgeries — 180,000 plus
ER visits per year — 750,000
Total patient beds — 9,200
Developed square feet — 50 million
Total heart surgeries –13,600 plus
Construction projects underway — $3 billion
Total employees — 106,000 plus
Business district in the U.S. — 8th largest
Parking spots – 27, but there may be more hidden.
A few items of conversation to use as your surgeon looks for a clean knife: In this hospital, at least, there is a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer mounted on the wall outside every patient’s door, with yet another bottle mounted on the room’s wall. The TMC has its own orchestra. They could have called themselves the Ear Drums or the Harp Transplants, but the Texas Medical Center Orchestra is one of the few orchestras in the world that originated from health professions. The TMC Library includes the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission which recorded the after-effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Ah, at last, here I am in room 555 and enter – followed by a nurse or technician, swathed in green pajamas. She greets the patient, then takes his blood pressure, eye contact, DNA and temperature. Before departing, the nurse or whatever, touches a lighted panel on the wall, I guess to attest that she has actually made the visit. I converse with my friend for a few minutes until a techie enters to take a blood sample, room temperature and wind velocity. Then she taps the lighted panel. This goes on during my entire visit.
It is now the next day and I am driving down Main, take a right just before I am smashed to jelly by an oncoming train, and get to the correct building, but I still don’t know where to go, even though I dropped bread crumbs last time. “Down this hall and take the purple elevator to the Festering Wounds Floor,” says the lady at the visitors’ desk. It’s in the next time zone. I eventually make it to the right room, only to see three attendants hovering over the patient. “It’s time for a duo-zontic defibulator,” one explains. The patient’s lunch arrives promptly at noon, but because of the foot traffic, he gets to eat at 3:15. Actually, no longer do hospitals feed patients what is on the schedule for that meal, but they have menus and varied choices at that – a wide selection of toast and Jell-O. On the other hand, this hospital has a neat cafeteria with islands for Asian, pizza, barbeque, etc. I didn’t see any patients there.
More factoids to mull over while Life Flight strafes the uninsured. Over 25,000 babies are delivered at the TMC each year, more than one baby every 20 minutes. TMC receives an average of 3,300 patients a day, and over 8-million annual patient visits including over 18,000 international patients. This last item raises an interesting fact: Some of these foreign patients slip in here quietly. The sheik, sultan or generalissimo doesn’t want his health problems to get back to his cousin who would stage a coup in the Exalted Leader’s absence. (There is a chapel for Muslims.) Years ago I visited the top floor of one of these hospitals that was secured. It had a wine bar and outside of some rooms were two big plug-uglies in overcoats. It was August. TMC has the world’s largest children’s hospital (Texas Children’s Hospital), as well as the world’s largest cancer hospital (MD Anderson Cancer Center). There are a lot of “world’s largest” around here.
Once I asked the head of the TMC what his biggest problem was, how he ran herd on all these various, and sometimes competing, schools, funds in the billions of dollars, research, egos and bedpans? He shot back, in a split-second: “Parking. Everyone wants more parking.”
Ashby is well at firstname.lastname@example.org