The Leaky Roof

In this dry Southwestern part of the United States, there are only two seasons:  fire season and rainy season.  Fire season will end in another month, hopefully without further casualties or homes lost. The rainy season will start, such as it is.  Here we average 9 inches of rain a year, and we are perpetually unprepared.  The roads, slick with oil from a summer of busy vacationers’ rental cars, become virtual “Slip ‘N Slide” games for unsuspecting drivers who, not used to navigating in “weather”, hit their brakes hard and the famous freeway pile ups begin.

My small radiation therapy department was designed to give patients a sense of quietude and peace.  From the laminate flooring which absorbs sound, to the Japanese vases on the hall tables, to the landscape photographs which line the walls, each element was chosen to calm the anxious spirit of the newly diagnosed cancer patient.  Most of the department’s day to day functions take place on the second floor of the building, where offices and exam rooms and our consultation area are simple, functional and comfortable.   To get treatment however, the patients must descend down a floor to the “vault”, since the shielding of a linear accelerator cannot be retrofitted easily to an existing space.  Even the elevator down is “Zen”, wood paneled and carpeted, moving slowly and unjarringly to the lower level where the patient receives the radiation.  When the patients exit the elevator, they enter a sun filled anteroom, then walk down a ramp into a large well lit room with a state of the art linear accelerator.  The walls of the anteroom and the ramp are furnished with spectacular photographs of Bryce National Park, taken by a well known landscape photographer, who also happens to be a radiation oncologist, who is still working as such despite his beloved avocation of landscape photography because he is still paying the legal bills of his daughter, who famously refused to dry clean a certain blue dress, lest she be called a liar by those who sought to protect a President.

Our “vault” was an “add-on” to the building in 2008.  As such, there is a junction between the vault structure and the building itself.  Shortly after we opened in October of 2008, we realized that the roof was leaking precisely at that junction.  By November, mornings after a big rainstorm, we would exit the elevator into a large puddle.  By January, the puddle had become a river, flowing down the ramp towards $2.5 million worth of equipment.  This was not good.  We complained, and the builders of the “vault” did their best to seal the leak, to no avail.  The university got involved—after all, it was THEIR building.  A lawsuit ensued.  Meanwhile, we solved the problem by stationing a large gray rubber garbage can directly outside the elevator, lined with sheets of plastic which ascend to the ceiling and disappear behind the ceiling tiles.  Now, when it rains, the garbage can fills up.  It is the duty of the maintenance man to empty the garbage can every morning during our season of rain.

Somehow, our garbage can and plastic sheeting do not fit with the “esthetic” of our very Zen-like department.  But like anything else in a landscape viewed daily, they have become mundane, ordinary and invisible to our therapists, and even our patients once they’ve had those first few treatments, when the whole process is new and very frightening.  Four rainy seasons have come and gone, and at last report, the litigation has been “continued” until next spring.  Meanwhile, I fantasize that my department is an anchored antediluvian world where wickedness will soon be washed away by the great flood of floods.  I imagine myself as Noah, and reluctantly consider an ark (while replaying in my mind the great Bill Cosby routine where God asks a recalcitrant Noah, “NOAH….How long can YOU tread water?”).  If the waters breach the top of that garbage can, millions of dollars of equipment will be ruined, and our department will close until the damage is repaired and a new linac installed and commissioned.

How many University bureaucrats does it take to fix a leaky roof?  You tell me!

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