Saturday, July 19, 2008


I always assumed she would die sitting at an old IBM selectric typwriter, fingers frozen in mid-air, having been stopped while she was frantically typing. There would be a cigarette danging from her mouth and a drink at her side and a stack of completed dictation tapes next to her. It would be 3 a.m. because she hadn't stopped working since she got up in the morning.

But apparently not.

I sent off an e-birthcay card to my old boss, Ann Holke, this month. I'm not sure how old she would have been, but somewhere in her mid-70s. I received a response from her husband Don that she died of respiratory arrest in March and apologizing for not letting me know beforehand.

I met Ann back in 1986. She ran The Typing Company, a little typing service located in the back of Orange Court here in Davis. I had just lost my job at The Secretariat and was looking for work. Eventually I made up with my Secretariat boss, who confessed to a co-worker that firing me was the worst mistake she ever made, but she fired me because she felt I was not charging her biggest client enough money for work I did for him on weekends and was losing her money. I left that job and took the client with me to The Typing Company because he neeed to pay a business for tax purposes, so I couldn't do it privately out of my own home (well I did do it out of my own home, but The Typing Company charged him and took a percentage of the fee).

Ann welcomed me (and the business I was bringing her) with open arms and I joined the 3-person staff in the cramped office. There was myself, Ann, her husband Don, and another woman whose name I can't remember, all crammed into this tiny room about half the size of the office I had left.

Ann was a workaholic. She was the first to arrive, and by the time she got to the office she had already put in a couple of hours typing in an underground room for a pathology lab. When I left at the end of the day, she would still be at her typewriter, fingers flying over the keyboard.

Shortly after I joined the staff, larger quarters opened up in the complex and we moved upstairs over Kentucky Fried Chicken and London Fish and Chips. Your cholesterol could get a boost just from sniffing the air that wafted up from beneath us! We all had lovely complexions from the grease in the air.

One day she handed me a cassette tape and a medical dictionary and told me it was time I learned how to do medical transcription. "You can call yourself a medical transcriptionist when you can spell 'cholecystectomy' without having to look it up," she joked.

In my years at The Secretariat, I had taken on the project of transcribing dozens of veterinary tapes from a conference for a Japanese veterinarian. None of us knew medical dictation but he didn't care how badly we spelled things. Just do the best we could, I was told. It took forever and I worked with a medical dictionary, but I cringe now to think of what an abominable job I must have done.

Under Ann's passive tutelage, I eventually learned how to type the dictation of Dr. D'A, an orthopedic doctor, who dictated very clearly. Orthopedists don't often do cholecystectomies (removal of the gallbladder), so I still wasn't a "medical transcriptionist," by that definition, but I was feeling pretty cocky about my new skills.

Once I had D'A under my belt, she gave me a new doctor to transcribe and, to my chagrin, I discovered that each medical specialty had its own lingo and that if you were perfect on orthopedics, you had to start all over again for cardiology, or pathology, or whatever subspecialty you were working on. To say nothing of the vagaries of various physicians. D'A was clear as a bell, but most physicians are not and deciphering mumbled dictation, dictation from foreign doctors, or doctors whose rapid-fire dictation left you breathless was yet another skill to learn.

Ann never became impatient. She answered all questions, encouraged looking things up and dragged me along to the point where she could send me out to work in doctors' offices to fill in for ailing or vacationing in-house transcriptionist. At one point I think I worked for just about every medical office in Davis, and I took over those early morning basement sessions in the pathology lab that she used to do.

[aside: Pathology can be deadly dull or amazingly entertaining. Ann always liked to talk about her favorite dictation. Anything removed from the body must be sent to the pathology lab for inspection, whether an organ or a foreign body. This one fellow had a doorknob removed from his rectum, which was weird enough, except that in the pathology report, it indicated that the guy wanted to be sure to get the doorknob back after the examination because "it was his favorite one."]

Ann invented the word "driven." She lived hard, loved lots, drank heavily, smoked incessantly. She had the raspy voice of the whorehouse madam of wild west movies, who lived on booze and cigarettes. And how she loved her food -- big slabs of meat and potatoes, covered with rich gravy. Yet the cigarettes kept her thin.

And she worked. My god she worked. She was the only person I knew who could literally work up a sweat typing. She worked harder than any of us and her daily output was astonishing. And it is because of her that I know how to spell "camaraderie" correctly.

She and Don moved to Washington State many years ago. I can't remember exactly, but I think she moved for the cleaner air, and she loved the area around Port Angeles, where they settled. Of course she got a job working in the local hospital and from the spotty reports I received it sounded as if she was working as hard as ever, both in the hospital and typing jobs at home. I had reports of her having a heart attack a couple of years ago which slowed her down, but never completely stopped her from working.

I don't know that Ann could ever have "retired." Working was in her blood and she would always do it as much as she was physically able.

Ann and I were never close friends. We didn't have that kind of relationship, but she left me one gift that I really treasure -- she introduced me to my friend Diane, who flew to California one week to work at The Typing Company during finals week, when we were so busy. (Diane did the medical dictation so the rest of us could concentrate on typing students' term papers--her experience with Dr. D'A is a whole 'nother story!). That introduction has been the gift that keeps on giving, since Diane and I remain close friends to this day.

I don't know if there is any work to be done in Heaven, but if there is, you can be sure that it has been done much more efficiently and in a much faster time since Ann's arrival.

1 comment:

Harriet V said...

I'm sorry you lost your friend, and even sorrier that you didn't know about it. (Been there, done that!)

Medical transcription always teaches you. I have a very large medical vocabulary (learned to spell cholecystectomy when I had one!), but I ran into trouble doing psychology transcription. The dictator mumbled a word I didn't know, I had to look it up. That's when I learned about bipolar disease and realized what was the matter with my daughter...