Brighten up a hospital? It's more than a question of paint. In fact, it may be impossible, given the fears and doubts and pains and deaths that shroud a hospital every day.
But each Monday at Georgetown University Hospital,Anna Carey steps into the gloom. She doesn't work any presto-chango miracles. She has no medical training. All she does is put on a pink dress and push the gift cart through the hospital, smiling most of the while.
In the five hours that it takes her to cover the building, Anna Carey makes at most $60 in sales. She is on her feet constantly, or more than most 67-year-olds might prefer. She has to confront patients who are wired into grisly machines, disfigured, dying or all of the above.
But to say she loves it is like saying Liz Taylor loves husbands.
"I've got the time. I should do something," Mrs Carey said. "I like the cart because I like the personal contact. You know, some people get so startled when you say 'Good morning.'
That's not all Anna Carey says. By her own admission, she is a "hopeless talker." That doesn't mean she does it badly; she just does it a lot.
But it's not empty chitchat. She spares patients a discussion of the weather, because she knows they won't be out in whatever it is, "I put on kind of a frivolous front," Mrs Carey says, "but it's just a way of being nice. All I try to do is make them feel better, you know?"
It is hard not to know after spending a day with Mrs Carey on her rounds.
They begin at around 9 a.m., when Mrs. Carey restocks her light purple cart. The contents are small, handy, cheap and diverting. "It's the kitchen sink - magazines, cosmetics, candy, slippers, stamps. The reading is all current and the candy and cookies are "fresh every day," Mrs Carey says.
The prices, relative to the outside world, are a steal. A packet of six cookies goes for 15 cents. A crossword booklet cost 30 cents. The most expensive item is $1.99 can of room deodorant spray.
All the recipents are turned over to the ladies' board of the hospital, equipment or supplies. "We're not trying to be high-pressure salesmen," said Mrs Carey, who isn't one herself. "But the only thing that's free is the greeting."
Just about the only things Mrs Carey doesn't carry are cigarettes and skin magazines. Bad for the blood pressure; you know how it is. "We take care of your morals and your health," Mrs Carey told one customer, who had just asked for a copy of Playboy. "The rest is up to you."
Mrs Carey could do a booming business just by standing in one of the hospital's teeming hallways. Passing staff are at least half her customers. "She has food," explained Blair Berendsohn, a nurse. "We're glad to see her, too."
Mrs Carey has been Georgetown's Monday morning good-cheer-on-wheels for 10 years. She was an all-purpose, or "open," volunteer, for five years before that. "But it wasn't as ful-filling. Besides, you'd be here every day. I've got things to do at home."
Mrs Carey became a volunteer "after my last daughter (she has three) left home." She has never worked for a salary since marrying, and she said she did not consider doing so at the time she became one of the hospital's 300 adult volunteers.
"I come from that older generation thing," she said. "If you went to work after you got married, you weren't doing so well."
Nor is she reluctant to accept when men offer to open doors for her and for what she calls "my two-ton truck."
"I say "Thanks'" Mrs Carey said. "I'm not a women's libber."
She is also not unnoticed. "I bought some things from her the first day I was here, some toothpaste and things," said Daniel Strosnider, a patient. "She's an extraordinary lady. I don't know how she sees so much agony and still keeps a smile on her face."
One reason, Mrs Carey thinks, is that she knows how much of a pleasure and a convenience her arrival is for patients. The thoroughness of her stock helps, too. "One man last week asked for dental floss," Mrs carey recalled. "He had a gleam in his eye, kind of like he had me, you know? He almost died when we had it."
The one part of her job Mrs Carey does not like is having to a guinea pig. Part of service, Carey style, is to spray deodorants and colognes on her hand so the bedridden can have an exploratory whiff. "I come home smelling like everything in the cart," she says.
She also come home a bit sobred, she admits. "Age is terrible, you know that?" she asked, after we had left the room of an obviously dying woman. But then she immediately perked back up. "But that's the challenge. You've got to be diplomatic. You've got to do everything you can do."
One thing Mrs Carey does not do, somewhat remarkably, is ample her own caloric goodies. "No candy," she says. "If it was a piece of cake, I'd be interested.
With that, she ducks into just one more room to see if the patient wants anything. "Good morning," says Anna Carey, for perhaps the 200th time that day. "Would you like anything from the gift wagon this morning? I've got the morning paper, if you like."
Prosaic maybe, but you seldom see such enthusiasm over a tube of toothpaste anywhere else.
"I once had a patient, a lady, who was Spanish. She saw my tag (it reads "Mrs Carey, Volunteer"), and she asked me what itmeant. I said it means I don't get paid.
"But that doesn't really matter," said Mrs Carey, "I just thank God every day I can do this work and am not on my back."