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The people who clean up after you

One of the things I disliked the most about going to school in Washington, DC, was the almost instant question asked by almost everyone I met the first time I met them: What do you do?

It was a loaded question and one whose answer is based on game theory. You see, if what you did was not good enough, that person would not give you the time of day anymore. If your answer was good enough, then you got their attention. It was a way for them to measure you up, to see if you were worth their time.

Now, if you know me, you know that I like to sometimes play games with dumb people who “size up the competition” for no reason. So, more often than not, my answer to them would be something along the lines of me being an “apple picker,” a “janitor,” or even a run-of-the-mill landscaper. They would look at me funny, expecting me to immediately laugh and tell them what I really did, but I wouldn’t. I’d hold a straight face and see what they did next. Often times, their conversations didn’t include me, even if I was sitting right across the table from them. After all, what does an apple picker know about public health policy, anyway?

When I worked at the hospital as a lab tech, I had a physician wonder if a coagulase-negative Staph infection could be MRSA (an antibiotic-resistant bacteria). I told him that the coagulase test was what we used in the lab to differentiate between Staph aureus (the “SA” in MRSA) and other Staphylococcal bacteria, so the coagulase-negative was likely not MRSA. He stopped writing whatever he was writing into a chart and raised his head to look at me. “Is that right, lab boy?” I nodded at him that yes, it was right. I’d done it a thousand times. “You go back to the lab and bring me something in writing to that effect because I’m an MD with twelve years of experience and you’re a lab boy with, what, a few months out of college?”

Twelve years and the man still didn’t know that coagulase-negative Staph were the non-aureus Staph? (He emphasized the word “boy,” by the way.) I ended up going back to the lab and getting distracted on something else. I totally forgot to go back upstairs with the microbiology book. I do hope that he properly treated the patient.

A few weeks ago, a young woman sitting next to me at the coffee shop at the school of public health complained to a friend that the “janitor lady from, like, some other country” had shut down the bathroom to clean it. She further complained that she had to walk to the other side of the building to go pee. Then she finished off her little rant by asking, “Why can’t those people just work in the middle of the night when no one is here and not when we’re here trying to save millions at a time?”

To get her joke about “millions at a time” you have to understand Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s motto of saving lives “millions at a time.” I wish that she was joking in insinuating that a woman who probably makes a few bucks an hour cleaning up after the brightest minds in public health in the world should instead work in the middle of the night because holding up one bathroom of the four or five per floor is too much for some students to fathom. The person who cleans up after us should be more considerate, right?

If there is one thing that my parents taught me was to be very, very respectful of the career choices of others. Not everyone got the chance to go to school and be successful. Heck, not everyone got the chance to learn to read. Furthermore, the greatest cities in the world would come to a screeching halt if it wasn’t for the men and women who go to work every day to serve others, to clean up trash, or to process waste or keep sewers flowing. And neither I nor anyone is above anyone else on account of a college degree or even a well-paying job. The janitor lady is as important in the grand scheme of things as the dean of the school as far as I am concerned. That place doesn’t run without one or the other.

My father is a car mechanic. He’s dabbled in other mechanically-oriented work, but, at heart, he fixes cars. He has told me how he can see an engine’s parts all running in unison and how one part depends on all the others to keep the engine running. Now, you tell me, which part of a car engine is indispensable? Which one can you take out without throwing off the whole system?

Sadly, there are people in the world who think that the farmer is less than the lawyer, or that the billionaire singer/artist is more than the starving one who only sings at that one coffee shop at the corner of Washington and Main. There are people who treat others like crap because those others did not or could not attend a good school and earn a degree. They treat people who serve them as their personal slaves when they should be thanking their lucky stars that someone got up that morning and willingly showed up to clean up after them… Because, let me tell you, some of these snobs would use the wrong end of a toilet wand if housekeeping disappeared.

If you ever catch me being a snob, you have my permission to slap me. Slap me as hard as I wish I could slap some of the jerks who dare put themselves above others for no good reason.

(Featured image via “Nina Jean” on Flickr.)

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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