Michael Alexander reads people. As the Clinical
Center’s hospitality services coordinator, he greets folks in the lobby of the Hatfield Bldg., but there’s much more to the job than that.
“You can read certain
people when they come in. You watch patients and families getting off the shuttle,” says Alexander. “A lot of people, their towns aren’t as big as NIH. You can look in their eyes and see that they feel intimidated
or uncertain. We try to reassure them that if there’s anything
they need, our staff is glad to help.”
Alexander and his hospitality team staff three strategic sites in the Clinical Center: main entrance, B1 level and near diagnostic services. They also assist at the West Drive patient entrance “to get them started off on the good foot.”
A crucial part of the job is weaving lines of communication:
“We involve parking, transportation,
nurses; we don’t hesitate to reach out...We deal with a lot of different personalities,” he says, which requires tact.
“I never ask patients why they’re here, what their disease is,” he explains. “You can’t get too close, but they can’t be ignored either.”
Staff too have questions. The Bethesda campus is wide; the Clinical Center is intricate.
Mike Alexander says of his job, “When I go home, I’m gratified. I’m happy. I don’t want to work anywhere else.”
“We even get Bethesda Naval medical
people,” Alexander says, “because their hospital is [also called] Bldg. 10...We have Special Forces guys, Rangers, who are lost; they get to the [NIH] gate and say they’re going to Bldg. 10 for an 8 o’clock appointment...
and now they’re completely frazzled. You gotta comfort them.” Alexander keeps a list of National Naval Medical Center clinic phone numbers, then shepherds folks onto shuttles, if needed.
Work has its lighter moments: “I was so glad about meeting [the late journalist]
Ed Bradley,” here at NIH to cover
“Patients and families can be facing tough situations;
we’re sensitive to that,” Alexander says. “This is also a place of hope. This is a mirror for us. We go down the same road one day; if not us, then someone we love. When I go home, I’m gratified. I’m happy. I don’t want to work anywhere
Many patient care facilities use volunteers as greeters, but NIH is different. While the social work department’s Volunteer Service Program does provide backup, hospitality services has dedicated resources for five full-time employees.
Developed by the patient advisory group and CC director Dr. John Gallin, it began in 1999, when Alexander transferred from personnel
to be program coordinator.
When the office moved to the Clinical Research Center in 2004, “they brought us on tours,” he says. “I’ve probably been lost more than anyone.”
The CRC has about 241 beds, “but the bulk of work is outpatients, or healthy volunteers; that’s what makes the place so busy.”
If patients and families need help navigating the building, Alexander or a coworker accompanies
them and leaves a business card; for help returning, they are welcome to call. If they need to check email, he offers the key to the CC’s Business Center, “a godsend—they can work from there.” For short-term child care, valet parking or any routine question on where to eat or shop, Alexander has answers.
“I’ve been asked: How many acres in this place? What’s the population of Bethesda? What kind of tree is over by Bldg. 35? I had to call buildings
and grounds for that one.”
Says Alexander, “We’re as much a part of the healing
process as doctors, nurses, technicians.”
Things he doesn’t mention: How his office received the 2000 NIH Director’s Award. Alexander
was honored for customer service excellence
in 2002. And then there’s his Jesse Ferguson
Customer Service Award in 2006.
“I really want this to be about my staff,” Alexander says, “because without them, I couldn’t be me.” Letitia Johnson, Elsa Mendoza, Eddie Pettway, Anthony Staton and Crystal Thomas are his team; he also works closely with Celeste Perry of Priority Transport Services.
“You can imagine how many times people miss their buses,” he says. “Celeste can get one to turn around and get them to the airport...Small things are so important.”
A Washingtonian, Alexander entered NIH’s Stay-in-School program in 1979 while studying at Montgomery College; he worked as an elevator
operator, as well as in phlebotomy and sterile
central supply. Eventually he was hired full time in personnel.
He left once, to work at Interpol: “For 9 months. Not my cup of tea. After my daughter
was born, I came back to NIH.” That was in 1989, and he’s been here ever since.
“His memory is amazing,” coworker Mendoza says, out of earshot. “Mike is like a book for me, with everything in it about this place.”
He credits his grandmother for his values: “She instilled a lot of things and empathy was one of them,” he says. “She would always want me to do good.”
What keeps him going? “The patients. We’re as much a part of the healing process as doctors,
nurses, technicians; this is patients’ first impression, and if they say, ‘They make us feel comfortable’—well, in order to get better, you have to have that attitude.”
And the inspiration is mutual: “What we do—it has a profound effect on you. I don’t care what kind of background you come from or what you do, it makes you understand what’s really important.”