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The Smiles Are Part of the Reward

ON THE JOB

November 24, 1997|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The visitors to Room 602 need some advice: Should they rent "Bull Durham" or "Raging Bull" from the video library to entertain their loved one?

Another visitor needs a wheelchair, pronto, to take a patient home.

A man needs directions to the blood donor center.

In the middle of all this pandemonium, the telephone rings about every 30 seconds.

One caller expresses thanks for the help she got in correcting a bill. Others need directions, a cab or parking information.

From his 8-by-12-foot station directly inside the entrance of USC University Hospital in East Los Angeles, Jose Arias Jr., hospital concierge, handles it all with friendly, charming efficiency on this particular Friday afternoon.

In his five years on this job, Arias, 75, has seen and heard it all--or nearly all. If he hasn't, there's a good chance his supervisor and fellow concierge, Lucinda Swanson, 33, has. She started here six years ago, shortly after the hospital's opening. She staffs the concierge desk in the early morning hours, before Arias comes in.

When Arias and Swanson are off duty, three part-timers take over so that the station is staffed from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. seven days a week. Few hospitals provide concierge services. And a staff of several is rarer still. But at USC University Hospital, known for its neurosurgery, organ transplants and complicated orthopedic surgeries, the service is deemed vital, says hospital spokeswoman Catherine Spicer.

"Patients coming here are [often] dealing with serious illness," she says. Many are from out of state or overseas. "They have a lot on their minds. They need to have their anxiety eased."

Or as Arias quips: "You've heard of five-star hotels? This is a five-star hospital."

Hospital concierge work, Arias and Swanson agree, is probably not a booming career field in this era of cost-cutting and managed care. But it is a plum job, they say, for the select few with the right mix of experience and people skills. The trick is finding a hospital that values the position. Salaries vary greatly, but annual pay of $30,000 and up is common.

There is no formal schooling or certification. The best preparation? Work first as a hotel or corporate concierge. Hotel concierges are skilled at making arrangements for restaurants, amusement parks and other guest connections. Office concierges are savvy about arranging meetings, luncheons, dinners and other events. Fluency in several languages is helpful. So is a soothing manner to deal with often stressed and angry patients and loved ones.

On a typical day, Arias and Swanson estimate, their team fields up to 300 requests, in person or by phone. They serve not only patients but also family and friends of patients, and a hospital staff of 1,500. To help handle the workload, they draw on the hospital volunteer corps of 265.

In a single shift, the concierge might line up hotel reservations, receive flowers and other gifts for patients, book space in the facility's "Rest-Easy" rooms for visitors, change or book airline tickets and suggest a restaurant for departing patients and loved ones.

Arias recalls an unusual incident: "We had a patient who wasn't doing too well and wanted to get married before his surgery. I got the priest. I had to stand by as a witness." Plants from around the hospital were appropriated for decorations and the ceremony went off without a hitch.

Busy hospital staffers often turn to the concierges for assistance, especially with entertainment.

Swanson saved the neck of one doctor who had forgotten his wedding anniversary until the day before. On short notice, she snagged for him choice tickets to "Phantom of the Opera."

Arias remembers helping a woman trying to take her oxygen-dependent husband home to Texas. Flying was out of the question.

"What about Amtrak?" Arias suggested. In her stressed-out state, the woman hadn't considered the train. Arias made all the arrangements: renting a car to get the oxygen tanks and the couple to the train station, and calling ahead to make sure that the couple could purchase supplemental oxygen at stops en route, just in case.

On a recent afternoon, Arias and Swanson delivered gifts to the room of Mallory Wofford, 11, who has Moebius syndrome, a birth defect in which the facial muscles are paralyzed. She was recovering from surgery to restore her smile. Now she smiled shyly at her loot.

Such smiles--and the heartfelt thank-you notes--keep them going, the concierges say. Arias retrieves a note from the wife of a firefighter admitted weeks earlier and who was now looking forward to returning to work. He skips proudly to the end: "I will always remember you and your kindness."

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