Thursday, May 12, 2016

My Career as a Candy Striper, Part 1

I didn't look much like this in my candy striper uniform.

I was a candy striper for almost two hours once. I never blogged about it --  not because I was embarrassed or ashamed or wanted to hide this aspect of my past, but rather because I hadn't thought about it for years it until tonight. My medical school friend Wendy asked if I blocked the experience out. I don't think so. It's a lot more likely that the experience was not even a blip on the radar screen of my life. To be perfectly honest, i'm not entirely sure why I remembered tonight about having been a candy striper. 

I might have listed my stint on my medical school application under the heading of experience. I wouldn't have been outed as having padded my resume, as if one were going to embellish one's qualifications, most people would come up with something just a bit loftier than having worked as a candy striper. I could have simply listed the year [ 2006] in which I worked my solitary one-hundred-fourteen-minute (I'm guessing at the exact number of minutes) shift, and could have left it to the reader to determine precisely how many shifts I worked in that year. Positively no one other than Meredith, who would never betray me, could contradict anything I said on my resume or application about my candy striper gig. The building where the convalescent hospital was located is now a combination bail bond company and tattoo parlor.  Neither Joe the bail bondsman nor Artie the tattoo artist likely held onto the volunteer files. (On second thought, Artie may very well be hanging onto the files. My friend Meredith said he always looked at her funny and set off her pervometer in a big way whenever she was around him when he used to  collect the used grease from her grandmother's Greek restaurant. [No one ever knew what Artie did with the grease, by the way, once he collected it. I can't think of any sinister purpose for collecting grease from a restaurant, but if  there is a sinister purpose for recycled grease, it's probably what motivates Artie to cart away sludge from various eateries in the greater Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area.] Anyway, Artie might easily have hung onto the candy striper files to use as a ready-made phone list for obscene calls. Status of the files or of Artie notwithstanding, he probably isn't in close enough contact with the head honchos of the admissions panels of the medical schools at which I applied to have ratted me out as a candy striper imposter. The secret presumably died with most of the patients. (You are aware, I'm sure,  that no one ever actually convalesces at convalescent hospitals, I hope. it's a misnomer if ever there was one.) 

Moreover, I miraculously managed to gain admission to medical school even without boasting of my vast experience as an esteemed candy striper, so it's probably just as well that I didn't pad my resume. What if someone in human resources somewhere down the line in my career decided to give a polygraph to every employee in relation to claims made on resumes? It would be positively a shame to lose a position over having claimed to be a bona fide candy striper when, in reality, I poured pureed mystery meat paste down vegetative patients' throats (Doesn't this make a person look forward to growing old?) for just a portion of a single afternoon. It's just as well that the memory of this semi-event in my life has eluded my consciousness until now.

There's not a whole lot to tell since my candy-striping career lasted just under two hours, but i'll tell you all about it anyway since I have nothing else of importance to write this evening. A candy striper, if you're not familiar with the term, is a junior volunteer at a hospital or other residential medical facility. Our local hospital required that volunteers be at least sixteen years of age, but the convalescent hospital was so very desperate for free labor that they were willing to accept any volunteer who was old and/or sufficiently literate to fill out the application without assistance. they didn't even require background checks or references. We didn't even have to present ID (not that we were in possession of valid IDs in the first place), though our town was  small enough that the social director, who screened candy striper applicants, probably knew who we were when we first walked through the door of her office.  In retrospect, I'm appalled that just anyone odd the street was allowed to come into contact with such vulnerable patients. Meredith and I were not about to pilfer wedding rings from the senior citizens we tended -- and if we had been, the employees probably beat us to the really valuable stuff already, anyway -- but there have to be people who would have taken on the gig for that very purpose.

Our high school required forty hours of volunteer community service. (Really, how can it be volunteer community service if it's a requirement for graduation?) I wasn't concerned about coming up with the hours because anytime I played the piano for any person or function when I was not paid, I could round up to the next hour and claim the time. Meredith, however,  did not play the piano, and did not want to procrastinate and end up pressed for time and having to miss out on fun as a senior because she had neglected to complete her volunteer hours. So on a chilly November afternoon following the completion of our tennis season, Meredith asked me to accompany her to the local convalescent hospital to submit an application to serve as a candy striper.

Meredith and I were directed to the office of the facility's social director, who handed each of us clipboards to which application forms were attached. As I tried to explain to Violet Bixley, the social director, that  was just there to provide moral support to Meredith, she cut me off with "Now you do not need to be afraid of the aged, dear . . . They're just like you and me, only they're in a different stage of development."

I thought it would be easier just to fill out the form and then never to venture within 100 yards of the place again. The application was not a binding contract.
I even put down bogus contact information so that Violet would not reach my mother if she tried to call me at home. I could see my mother saying i had to go back because I had made a commitment.  I don't remember what address I wrote down, but I distinctly remember writing that my telephone number was 867-5309. Meredith look over at my application and saw the number, and could stop herself from giggling throughout the rest of the interview.

Since that time, I've been in numerous facilities for the elderly. Some are so well-maintained that the common areas have aromas similar to those of upscale restaurants. Others are so poorly maintained that the stench of urine and other body emissions nearly knocks you out before you even make it all the way through the front door of the place. Please understand that I'm making and objective observation in commenting on the smells found in convalescent homes. I'm certainly not poking fun at the patients. How a facility smells is of course not in any way the fault of those who receive care there. Any residential care facility would smell bad if it were not cleaned regularly and thoroughly whether because employees were lazy or because they were overworked by management who tried to pad the bottom line by under-staffing the place. Regardless, the reality is that some convalescent homes smell better than others do. The facility at which we were applying, unfortunately, was on the more odoriforous end of the spectrum.

I've always been sensitive to strong smells. I was one of the students in my cohort to barf on the first day of anatomy lab. I'm still somewhat squeamish where scents are concerned, but at that point in my life, I had no tolerance whatsoever. I tried in vain not to gag. Meredith handed me a scented tissue from her purse. As Meredith sat giggling in her chair in Violet Bixley's office, I held the purple scented tissue over my nose and mouth and tried in vain not to gag. We must have been quite a pair, although our lack of decorum was apparently not enough to dissuade Violet from accepting our applications. 

Violet look as over from head to toe, then excused herself. She came back two minutes or so later carrying two pink-and-white-striped jumpers and white blouses, one of which she handed to each of us. She pointed out a public restroom room where we could change into our candy striper uniforms. I was wearing jeans and tennis shoes that day.  For the record, I don't think anyone wears those pink-and-white-striped uniforms any longer except in fake kiddie porn shoots --  the look is right up there with "girls" wearing Catholic school uniforms -- and porno flicks. Google "candy striper" and see that it's the gospel truth if you don't believe me.

I thought we were just trying on the uniforms, but when we emerged from the restroom, Violet led us to a row of cubby-type shelving and told us to stow away our civilian clothing in any unused cubby. Violet grimaced as she looked down at my legs, which were covered from the knee down by  a giraffe from head to foot down the length of each knee-high stocking. She gave us each covered rubber bands for tying back our hair. "Even clean hair is very germy," she intoned, insinuating that the hair on our heads was anything but clean. It wasn't until I had the rubber band tripled around my hair that I realized my candy striping sentence was for real and that it was starting right then and there. I briefly considered making a run for it but lost the nerve.

I'll conclude the story tomorrow night.


  1. My sister was a candy striper when she was 16. She had the little red and white striped jumper, pleather shoes, and everything.

  2. This wasn't the time you wheeled the dead patient to the dinner table, was it?