In these days of the CAT-scanner X-ray machine that can show your brain one slice at a time, organ transplants, artificial joints, etc., it is difficult to realize that the invention that is most important - indeed, virtually indispensable -- to the smooth running of the modern metropolitan
hospital is the simple Nurse-Dispersal Button System, sometimes referred to colorfully as "the cowbell."
[quoteright]This invention, which staggers the imagination with its straightforward simplicity, consists basically of only two parts. One part comprises a four-foot long electric cord, one end of which is attached to an electrically equipped cabinet next to the patient's bed or else plugged into a small socket on the wall. The other end of the cord (the free end) carries a cylindrical plastic enlargement, with a bright red button. The other part of the Nurse-Dispersal Button System consists of a small white light mounted on the ceiling just outside the patient's room.
The functioning of the Nurse-Dispersal Button System is as simple as its construction. Thus if a patient has an attack of severe chest pains, wants a drink of water, or suffers some similar emergency, he simply presses the red button. This act energizes the white light outside his door, causing it to emit a rather weak, somewhat flickering light, and a weak "ding" (hence the term "cowbell").
The sight of this flickering light and the sound of the weak "ding" is immediately recognized by all nurses, nurses-aides, secretaries, cleaning-women, and all other hospital employees male and female, as a signal that the patient in that particular room is suffering from one of the few-remaining smallpox cases still extant in the world. Or it may be taken to indicate that the patient involved has recently survived a nuclear power-plant meltdown and is not to be approached without a one-foot thick lead shield and a Geiger counter.
Accordingly, all such personnel within a 50-foot radius of the indicated room promptly disappear. Hence the title, "Nurse-Dispersal Button System."
There are certain times when the NDBS operates even more effectively than at others. One such time, for example, is the period between one-half hour before and one-half hour after a change of shifts of nurses. Thus if the shift changes at 3 pm, the System will function without fail from 2:30 to 3 pm, since the outgoing or "lame duck" shift of nurses will courteously wait and allow their successors to deal with the catastrophe.
Likewise, an illuminated ND light will fulfill its purpose perfectly from 3 to 3:30 pm, since during this time all nurses, including incoming and outgoing, are closeted in a private conference room in a strange semi-catatonic state, known as being "on report." This means that they are busily engaged in (1) exchanging the latest hospital gossip, (2) exchanging stories of their current personal, domestic, and emotional problems (e.g. "Harry didn't come home again last night..."), (3) having coffee and/or cigarettes, and (4) occasionally talking about something that happened in the hospital that day.
Sometimes during such "executive sessions," as well as during the nurses' lunch hour or coffee break, an elderly cleaning woman or high-school volunteer will be appointed to act as a "Designated Silencer." This person roams the hallways and upon spotting a lighted ND light, he or she enters the patient's room, turns off the ND light, and says, "Your nurse will be right in." If you believe this, you will believe that the Russians are pulling out of Poland, and you will believe that doctors and nurses don't fool around.
If the Designated Silencer says, "What do you want?" and then says, "I'll tell your nurse," you might be tempted to believe. But no matter how big or how small your problem may be, you can be sure that when your nurse finally does show up, she will swear on her caduseus that she has not heard word-one from the DS.
Thus the modern, efficient hospital carries on its thousands of critical functions for its thousands of critical patients, quietly, its heroes and heroines going bravely unheralded, all due in large part to the faithful, dependable functioning of that simple, time-honored invention: the Nurse-Dispersal Button System.
Robert T. Casey lives and works in Connecticut. His poems and articles have appeared in the Mensa Bulletin and Country Club Golfer, among other places.
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