Cleaning Rooms Like Michaelangelo Painted
One in an ongoing series
The patient was beyond difficult. She demanded that her hospital room be cleaned beyond what was reasonable or necessary, that every surface be vigorously scrubbed every inch, every day. The housekeeper assigned to her room at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia wasn’t up to such a monumental task.
But the patient’s obsession with cleanliness was part of an emotional syndrome that qualified her for support under federal disability law. She had to be accommodated. The nurses knew what they had to do: ask Beverly Howell. Howell is an environmental services worker who is so agreeable and dedicated to her work that they knew she’d say yes.
She did. Cleaning the patient’s room took her an hour–45 minutes more than usual–an example of Howell’s work ethic that was cited when she received a “Keeper of the Dream” award during the hospital’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day festivities.
Howell knows that some people think her job is so low in status that she’s unworthy of attention or respect. When she cleans hospital rooms, some patients don’t bother to acknowledge her, or talk to her.
It doesn’t bother her because many patients and staff do recognize her value. It doesn’t bother her because she loves her work–loves engaging the patients who are responsive and feels gratified that she makes the environment safer by eliminating the germs that accrue in a sick room.
“I’m a people person and you get to meet a lot of people,” she says.
And it doesn’t bother her because she knows by heart the Martin Luther King, Jr. dictum about doing the very best job you can, no matter how it’s stratified in society. She recites his words: “If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michaelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry.”
That’s the way she cleans hospital rooms. And she does it with so much cheeriness that patients sometimes ask for her phone number when they’re discharged so they can keep in touch.
Howell radiates warmth and positivity and possesses an infectious joyfulness about life. It’s more remarkable given the fact that she’s endured one of the worst things that could happen to a parent: She lost a son to cancer when he was 19 years old.
“I was devastated,” she says. “I pulled the covers over my head and went to sleep for seven months. I got up to eat a little and go to the bathroom and went back to sleep.” Howell says she eventually rallied because she had a younger son who needed her. “I saw that I had to get up and raise that child, even though I was heartbroken.” Eventually, she regained her upbeat and engaging composure.
Howell previously worked as a bookkeeping clerk in a publishing company, then switched to hospital housekeeping because the pay was better. And, she says, the desk job was unfulfilling. She finds her job at Einstein–cleaning 16 patient rooms, the nurses’ station, the locker room, biohazard room and staff bathroom every day–fulfilling.
“The cleaning part gives me satisfaction here,” she said, tapping her head. “And the people part gives me satisfaction here,” she says, tapping her heart.