Candy Striper This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

February 2, 2012
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The oppressive Mississippi heat hit like a wave with all its humidity, scorching pavements, and swarms of mosquitoes – I knew summer had come. It was my first day on the job as a “candy striper” at the county hospital. I had no idea what my duties would entail, but it was the perfect opportunity to gain more community service hours, most importantly, in air conditioning.

I first met with the hospital coordinator, Mrs. Lindsay, who carried a prim appearance with her gray pantsuit and chocolate hair tucked neatly into a bun. Tapping a pen on her clipboard, she briskly described my assigned floors of the hospital: “Second floor: general patients, usually temporary. Third floor: elderly people. Fourth floor: pregnant women.” She handed me a starched apron with red and white stripes and a plastic nametag that simply labeled me as “candy striper.” Each floor contained a storage room with a water cooler and refrigerator stocked with cans of apple, orange, and grape juice; rice pudding; and vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice-cream. My job was easy enough: Go to each floor, knock on all the doors, and ask whether each patient would like a refreshment or magazine to read. By the time I had finished my first floor, I was convinced that I was of little or no help to the patients. With such menial tasks to perform, I could not possibly be making a difference in anyone’s day. Regardless, I trudged on, determined to finish the job.

By the time I reached the third floor, I was confident in my abilities to pour a cup of iced water and retrieve a magazine. After knocking three times on Room 308, I cupped my ear next to the thick wooden door and heard the beep, beep of a heart monitor. With reluctance, I creaked open the door and peeked into the room. A man in his seventies or eighties lay on the bed, turned away from me on his side, staring blankly out the window at a construction site nearby. I managed to stutter out, “Hi, sir. Would you like a beverage or magazine?” No response. Timidly, I spoke again, “Alright, well, I’ll just come back later if you want.” At last, the old man replied in a gruff manner, “That won’t be necessary. I don’t need anything. Please leave.” Intimidated, I wheeled the cart out of the room, leaving skid marks in the process, and closed the door with a sigh of relief.

As the weeks progressed, I felt more comfortable with my job and its steady routine. There was the occasional mishap: spilling a cup of water or mixing up a patient’s order. But I always made sure not to make the same mistake more than once. However, I always dreaded when the time came to knock on the door of Room 308. The old man made it evident that my presence bothered him. I asked him the same question every time, and he would always retort with the same response.

While other patients on the third floor had grandchildren, sons, or daughters to bring colorful balloons and flowers, I noticed the old man never had any visitors. His room was devoid of color and untouched by even a single “Get Well” card. I later asked a nurse about him. She murmured, “That’s Mr. Johnny. Been here about a month now. Poor thing. Doesn’t have any living family members or even friends, from what I understand. His wife died a few years ago, and they never had any children. He just sits there, most days, lookin’ out the window.” Saddened, I now understood his bitterness; how utterly alone the world is for someone without family and friends! Over the next few days, I began to study Mr. Johnny closely. He had a jagged scar running down his left leg, and his arms were covered with brown liver-spots. Tensed green veins popped out of his arms, as if he had tried to grip onto something heavy for far too long. The remnants of smiles and laughs shared many years ago now appeared in his face as wrinkles, resembling a bulldog. His hair, or what was left of it, fluffed out in gray whimsical curlicues. His square jaw, crooked nose, and rusty-brown eyes combined to form a compilation of mismatched parts.
On one occasion, feeling bold, I decided to steer away from our usual conversation. “Mr. Johnny, how are you feeling today?” He turned around to give me a mean stare and quipped, “I’m fine.” I had been expecting this response, of course. I casually said, “I think it’s strange that I’ve been knocking on your door for the past two weeks, and we still know nothing of each other.” Mr. Johnny seemed to sense my determination in pulling more than just the usual snippet of words from him. He responded with a grunt, “Well, I guess you can start with telling me what variety of juices you’re providing today.” I felt a slight sense of triumph at soliciting a slight friendly sentence from him. To my surprise, our conversation turned into light bantering. After that, we began to slowly ease into a surprising friendship.

I began to look forward to our ten-minute chats about trivial topics such as the weather and sports. Then, one day, the nurse informed me that Mr. Johnny had been moved to a different hospital due to his worsening health, “I know y’all were real close friends. If it makes you feel any better, I know that he loved talkin’ with ya, hon. In fact, he told me to tell you thanks for everything.” All I could do was smile and nod, affected by the loss of my newfound friend and worried about his condition. I reflected on what the nurse had told me, comforted that Mr. Johnny had enjoyed our chats as much as I did. However small, they had mattered all the same.

At that very moment, I realized that I could make a difference regardless of wherever I was or what I was doing. Mr. Johnny helped me understand that the smallest tasks potentially carry the greatest impact. Although I had often undermined my position as a “candy striper,” I realized that my role carried no less importance than the neurosurgeon or the nurse, figuratively speaking. I knew that whatever I happened to “carry” in life, I would push on through no matter what. With that thought in mind, I donned my candy-cane apron, clipped my nametag to the front, and started to load my cart with juice and water.

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