Innerviews: At 86, she's heart of hospital information desk
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Can I help you, honey?"
She's a fixture at CAMC General Hospital. She's there in the lobby from 6 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., in her customary spot behind the round information desk, answering questions and dispensing passes to patient rooms.
That's Frances Dickson, the one who calls everybody honey. She has snow-white hair and wears dangling hoop earrings and a spiffy white shirt with a bold security patch and a gleaming silver badge.
At 86, she still enjoys every minute of the job she has loved from the day she started 49 years ago.
If you want to see someone upstairs, she's a softie. Heartbreak of her own fills her with compassion for people visiting loved ones in the hospital.
"I grew up in North Charleston on Chandler Drive. My dad worked at True Temper. My mom worked there a number of years. I have two sisters.
"I went to Woodrow Wilson and Stonewall. I never gave a thought to what I wanted to be. After high school, I went to work at Holsum Bakery. I was a cake icer. I made $13 a week.
"I got married when I was 19. My husband was in the Navy. We lived in New Orleans for about a year. I loved New Orleans. I worked on Bourbon Street at Kress, a big department store, at the candy counter.
"We lived in Algiers [part of New Orleans]. My husband was stationed there. I had to ride a ferry every day to get to work. The war was going on, so New Orleans was filled with military people. When he went overseas, I came home and went back to the bakery.
"I've been here for 49 years. My daughter's mother-in-law worked here and she called and told me they were starting their own security department.
"People from different departments went into the new security department. They'd hired everybody they were going to hire and needed one more. I was the only outsider.
"I didn't know a thing in this world about it. I worked with someone for a couple of weeks then went on my own.
"I think there was one other woman. Then it got down to where I was the only one. I'm the only woman in security at this hospital. It's great. Those guys are just like my kids, even though they're grown men. You could never be treated any better than I am.
"When I started, none of this addition was out there. Elmwood Avenue ran through the front of the hospital. The nursing school was across the street. You came up the steps, and at the elevators, they had a chair, and I sat in that chair. They kept the double doors locked until time to visit. They were very strict then.
"I give passes to go to the floors. If people come in with children, we call the floor to see if it's OK. Of all the time I've been here, I've probably had problems maybe a couple of times. A drunk might wander in, but they don't argue with me. Honey, a kind word goes a long way.
"It's not bad now to get in. I've always tried to get people in. If you come in at 6 a.m. and tell me you have a patient upstairs and you need to visit, I call the charge nurse and send you up, doll. I wouldn't keep you from them. I know what that is. Been there. My heart goes out to them.
"You've got somebody here who is dying or somebody hurt bad, I know what that is. I lost a grandson. Chad was killed in a car accident about seven years ago. He was 17. You don't get over that. I was on the desk that day. He died in the ER. Losing a child is the worst thing in the world.
"My husband has been dead 20-some years. He had a heart attack. It was very sudden. I was home the day my husband died. So I know what these people are going through.
"I work four days and off one, come back and work three and off two. It's a 40-hour week, but not like a normal five days.
"I work from 6 to 2:30, honey. I've always worked that shift. We're always busy. There's always something going on.
"I get a lot of questions. Where can I take a shower? Is there a good place to eat? Do you know of any hotels around here?
"Honey, let me tell you, wherever I go, even on vacation, somebody recognizes me. I can't remember names, but I never forget their faces.
"I've only ever been in the hospital to have my children. I have four, two sons, two daughters.
"When I'm home, I wash and iron and clean house and go to the grocery store. My life is my job. I've never wanted to do anything other than work.
"I take a couple of weeks off a year and go to the beach or somewhere. I've never been across country. I've never flown. And I have no desire to. I like my car.
"I live on Woodward Drive in North Charleston. North Charleston is home. I live out of the city limits. Lots of times, I'm about the first one out of there.
"In bad weather, if I can get that road by myself from the top of the hill on down, I'm fine. It's that person creeping in front of you or riding your back that's the problem. There have been very few days that the weather kept me home. That's because I love my job.
"I don't know what I would retire for. I don't see any reason for me to go home and sit down. Honey, if my health stays and I can still see to drive, I will stay with them. If they have a retirement age, they haven't told me yet."Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.