“What is your proudest moment?”
The superlative is what stops this question in place, freezing it to hang just out of easy reach. The most proud I have ever felt is a complicated notion, covered over with the growth and burls of half a lifetime, notwithstanding the whittler’s deftness and precision in shaving and shaping a story that is certainly full and, at the very least, could fill the empty moments in a conversation between two new souls just getting to know each other.
Tales rise, like bits of driftwood that bob up to the surface of a lake. Old yarns that old men are accustomed to telling when a particular wind or color of the sky finds its former self in the story from years past. The air tonight was the trigger for a mind primed for recollection. Cold, clear. My mind already wandering old trails, counting blessings and looking back at the roads that led to here.
Five years ago, and I received a phone call. Are you going to be at the construction site tomorrow? early? Yeah, tomorrow is when it arrives. How about the day after? Tomorrow works? Okay, I’ll let the team know you’ll be there. Starts at 6:00.
This was my project. I did not design it all. In fact, I led a team that grew to eleven structural engineers at one point. But this was my building, and it was unlike any I had designed before. This hospital was enormous, designed and built in half the customary time for a project this complex, this special. My seal on every plan sheet, my hours of analytical modeling, my red scratch marks on blueprints, and for the last year, my boots in the baking summer heat and the frozen mud.
I remember the first series of discussions. The MRI that was going to be purchased and located on second floor was now twice as large as originally designed for. Twice as heavy. On a project this large, the largest of its kind, design and construction lasts years. By the time expensive medical equipment is actually purchased, everything about it has changed. New model, new requirements. Now nearly 26,000 lbs. Even the roof hatch originally planned for dropping the equipment into the building was now too small.
The questions were valid: Can we drop it in? Can we move it nearly 200 feet, through narrow halls across concrete floors and steel, to its final location? All the new support equipment, where can we put it?
Over several months and a dozen meetings, I drove down to the site, where Colonels, physicists, and medical equipment reps met with me to discuss this particular issue. Often, I was the sole member of the design team. At times, I conferred with a small teams, and others times I was speaking to no less than 50 people. I had grown familiar with every key member of the teams, through conversations that ranged from just less than furious to genuine cooperation and collaboration. Conference rooms were filled to standing room only: dust covered superintendents, suited equipment reps, steel workers, crane operators, managers and accountants, and an engineer. A good one, who spoke in a voice that sounded like trust, like work, like confidence in the skill that brought him to the head of this table. His was just one voice, surrounded by experts in each endeavor required to make this happen – this one huge little thing.
On this morning, the drive down was accompanied by my favorite podcasts. On the many trips, I had finally caught up on two seasons of science, brain scans, oddities, history, love and redemption. I had an individual office in the design team trailer, and I pulled into the empty space directly in front of it. I had staked it out early in the project, and while I never kept it locked, the stacks of papers and calculation pads, safety goggles and my hard hat kept it reserved. It was my studio, where I transformed my years of study, training, and practice into a mammoth sculpture of steel and concrete. That was never all of it. The books and formulae only get you so far. Every day, a new unseen challenge due to a change or out of tolerance condition. Creativity and adaptation was the name of the game.
This day, they were waiting for me. Even with all the planning, this culmination of smaller events was only going to happen when I was there. The flatbed trailer was backed up to the western edge of the building. The crane was on its way from its previous laydown position, a half-mile circuit from the opposite side of the building. I entered the building and previewed the route the equipment would take. About two-hundred feet from the opening in the lower roof, with one left turn, one right, and a final left. Hanging bulbs lit the way – construction lighting. The walls were built, but unfinished. The floor was grey concrete, vinyl flooring not yet installed, so as to avoid damage. I had been over this path actually and virtually a hundred times. At one point, I had even traced the building on vellum and dragged a small rectangular cutout over the trace, marking each wheel load location along the path. Virtual tools were exact, but this scale model was something I could hold, feel. A handful of the steel beams and girders beneath this level needed to be reinforced due to the new loads. I knew the head of the welding crew by name, and today we swapped faith in each other’s expertise.
Near the hatch, the cold air blew in and down the hall. I was sweating in my thick lined safety-yellow jacket. As I looked upward, I could see the orange sky turning to cool blue. The hatch was designed too small. The MRI would need to be stripped of its sleek, sterile cream colored skin in order to fit through.
“You’re here!” rang out in a drawl that was peppered with a hint of sarcasm and ribbing. An ambitious, diligent young man, he worked for the Corps as an inspector and field engineer. Fresh and full of fight, this “kid” had once made a contractor’s superintendent so angry that he lit the inspection report on fire and tossed it in the trash can.
“When are they rigging it up?” I replied.
“They drop it about an hour from now,” he said. I grimaced. He laughed.
The hour turned to two, and I spent the morning walking the area, inside and out. Technically, construction was not my job. I was the designer, not the contractor. But this was my work, at one time. Every beam, bolt, rebar, surgery boom, concrete block, and concrete bulkhead was designed by me, drawn by me or at my direction. This peculiar feeling of pride and ownership in work that would be invisible by the time the ribbon was cut, when doctors would be reading charts, babies would be rushed to NICU, and men and women would be fitted for new prostheses – this was a feeling that mattered.
The magnet, inch by inch, was slowly lowered through the hatch, two inches of clearance on each side. It had been stripped, and looked raw, mean and cold. It wasn’t the crisp diagnostic tool. It was machinery and wires, valves and piping, steel and iron. An enormous barrel, but without its trappings, it looked like an anatomical model, a medical school skeleton meant to illustrate the network of nerves and veins cast like a web across the frame. Heavy strapping, stretching under tension, silently and willfully kept it level as the penetration slowly gave birth to the massive block. This was someone else’s skill and intelligence at work. The rigging crew had spent hours planning this operation, and I was simply a witness to the process.
Earlier, I had quickly counted the number of high load casters stacked to the side, and had noticed something that appeared amiss. There were only three. All my assumptions and calculations had spread the weight over four points of support. A fourth one would be used, surely. It was what we discussed. But as the unit got closer to the floor and the wheeled feet were set to receive it, I realized that a fourth was not planned. I spoke:
“Hey! There’s supposed to be four.”
“Nope. Can’t turn it on four. Need a pivot. Only three.”
Everything stopped. 13 Tons. 2 feet off the floor.
My mind shifted. Recall. Safety factors. Yes. Reinforcement in place. Yes. Calculations. Volumes of them. Months with these numbers, more than that with these crews, all available at the tip of my mind. If everyone did their job…yes..I had seen the work. Contingencies were made for variables. Adapt. This will work. How? Let’s figure it.
Still, hanging in front of me was multiple millions of dollars of equipment. The crane’s humming vibrating through the sling. Assembly crews waiting for my assessment. At least 30 eyes on me, triple that out of my view.
I bent at the knees, elbows on my thighs. I looked at the supports, the spacing under the magnet. Simple division under uniform conditions. At most, 50 percent more on any one. Within design. Continuous slab, reinforced for this condition. Where is the girder? Under me right …about…here. Beams, good.
I gave the go ahead by nodding to the rigging crew. Not ideal. Safe. But not ideal.
The superintendent asked me again if I was ready. I responded that I’d be walking right next to the magnet the whole way. He needed no further assurance.
For the next hour, a slow procession of hard hats moved the MRI magnet through the simple maze into its place. Photos at every turn, every angle. The curiosity on the site was growing, as were the crowds. In nearly every photo I later saw, there I was, right there, reflective stripes on my back and sleeves glowing from the camera flash. Once the unit was set, the group gave a muted applause, the kind that says “onto the next challenge.” The crowd dissipated quickly.
That afternoon, I climbed to the highest level roof and stood next to the blinking red light that alerts aircraft to the existence of my building. Of course, I shared this project with thousands of others. But looking out, standing atop my work, I knew the truth of the moment. This was my art. This was me.
Postscript: Designing a $1B hospital was an experience that afforded many opportunities for firsts, not just for my personal and professional growth, but for the industry in general. I take enormous pride in all of those moments, like the one recalled here, and all the subsequent professional opportunities that arose from that experience: my second $1B hospital, many less expensive but more complex projects, business and practice management, and opportunities to lead very large teams of every imaginable discipline whose member’s individual and aggregate expertise amaze me daily. I’d like to be always striving toward the next challenge, the next level, the very acme of living, however uncomfortable the road may be. Truth is, I have been. But, the longer the trail, the easier it is to get tangled in the briars along the side. It is wise for me to focus on the horizon as well as the view right before me, to reflect on the personal moments that are small, but carry so much weight, where my life of designing and building things could legitimately be called my contribution, my ART.