Skip to main content
Keeper of the Keys

You are listening to Clinical:

Keeper of the Keys

Dec 21, 2020

Armed with an arsenal of cleaners, a regiment of protocols, and a wealth of knowledge about microscopic enemies, the technicians at Environmental Services are tasked with ensuring the safety of each person that enters the healthcare facilities at University of Utah Health. These professionals are some of the hardest working individuals in healthcare as they are tasked with the fundamental, never-ending duty of sterilization and cleanliness required in medicine. Yet their efforts are some of the least understood in the hospital.

Stephen Dark presents the rich - yet seldom shared - stories of these lifesaving specialists and shines a light on the often unsung contributions these caretakers make to the hospital ecosystem.

Episode Transcript

Mitch: From University of Utah Health and The Scope Presents, this is Clinical.

Here at Clinical, we strive to bring you the stories of the people that make a hospital a hospital. Not just the talented doctors and nurses, which we definitely have, but also the compelling lives and efforts of the often unsung workers that make up the complex ecosystem of healthcare.

Over the next few episodes, we'll be taking a look at a group of professionals that have been on the frontline against dangerous unseen pathogens well before the COVID-19 pandemic. Armed with an arsenal of cleaners and a regiment of protocols and a wealth of knowledge about microscopic enemies, it's the technicians and custodians of Environmental Services that ensure the safety of the facilities for every single person that enters those doors.

At a time when the world seems to rush ever faster by, we wanted to get to know the people who we see in the hospital keeping it spotless and germ-free without ever knowing their names or the often arduous journeys that brought them here.

Presented by Clinical and written and reported by Stephen Dark, this is "Keeper of the Keys."

Stephen: It's 5:00 p.m. in the north stairwell in University Hospital, and Jacobo Lucero is hard at work. As doctors and nurses go up and down the stairs past signs inquiring, "Did you get your steps in today?" Lucero digs into corners of the steps with his broom.

In his gray tunic and black pants uniform of Environmental Services, the 60-year-old keeps mostly to himself as he cleans the 6 stairwells and 10 visitor lifts assigned to him.

The Guatemalan native is a shy, quiet man with a soft, melodious voice that draws you in as he describes work he's done for more than a decade. He's taking English classes, but prefers to speak in Spanish.

Interpreter: I've been cleaning the staircase for 13 years.

Stephen: How many?

Interpreter: Thirteen years cleaning only the staircase. It's funny, isn't it? Time just passed by. I like cleaning because I didn't have to force myself to study English.

Stephen: Doors slam and American voices echo down the stairwell. Lucero wields his broom and mop exchanging only the odd word in English with those who take the time to say hello.

Interpreter: They all go passing by. Do I say hello to anyone in particular? No. After so many years, that doesn't happen. There are a few that I say hello to with two or three little words, but nothing else.

Stephen: Outside of his friends in EVS, no one knows his name, where he came from, how he got here. But like so many of the 235 people who work as Environmental Services Technicians at University of Utah Health, the journey that brought him to the beehive state was far from easy.

Lucero was born to farm laborers in Asuncion Mita, a sleepy little rural town in Guatemala, on the border with El Salvador. His parents moved him and his six siblings to the capital when he was 4.

Man: Good evening. A UN debate was dramatically interrupted Friday afternoon with the emergency announcement that 5,000 Indians in a Guatemalan village were about to be murdered by government troops.

Man: [foreign language 00:04:23 to 00:04:36].

Stephen: In the early 1980s, Guatemala was in the end stages of a 36-year civil war that saw over 200,000 killed and 45,000 disappeared, the vast majority indigenous Mayan civilians. The United Nations attributed 90% of the atrocities committed during the war to the military dictatorship, which was determined to stamp out dissent among the rural poor. Lucero was 23 when two of his older siblings vanished.

Interpreter: I don't know what to say because they were kidnapping everybody. There were so many disappeared. My brother was at the university, and my sister had graduated from beauty school and was already cutting hair.

Stephen: And what happened to them?

Interpreter: We never saw them again.

Stephen: Lucero had a little store. And together with his sister, they adopted the siblings' orphaned children. He and his sister, he says, did the best they could for their niece and nephew. His sister immigrated to the United States and settled in California and told Lucero to come and join her. He traveled from Guatemala through Mexico to cross the border into the United States. It's a trip that over 30 years on he still can't bring himself to talk about.

Interpreter: Extremely difficult. For me, it was very difficult.

Stephen: In what way? If you want to talk about it. You don't have to talk about it.

Interpreter: I don't want to talk about it.

Stephen: Roughly one-third of EVS staff are refugees who came to United States seeking asylum, shelter, food, and the opportunity for a new life. Some came here from childhoods of trauma. Others fled violence, genocide, civil war. Some came from Eastern Europe, others from Asia and African nations. Many also have come from South America, most crossing the border with Mexico without papers at some point in their past. They can only work at the hospital or neighborhood clinics if they have since secured work permits, green cards, or citizenship.

In total, Environmental Services boasts employees from 30 different nations, making it the most diverse department in the healthcare system. What they all have in common is finding a stepping-stone, an opportunity at EVS to build a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

Alisha Barker is the charge nurse in the medical ICU. The MICU takes the sickest of the sick, and during the pandemic became the COVID-19 unit. EVS plays a fundamental role at the MICU, Barker explains.

Alisha: They are on the frontline. They're handling a lot of . . . they're emptying the trash, whereas I can't tell you . . . I throw all kinds of gross stuff in those garbages or the linens. It's incredible. I mean, I have just a great sense of respect for the EVS personnel. I mean, they make our jobs possible.

I'm so grateful when if we have a very sick patient, and we're doing all kinds of things in the room, and we're filling up the trash cans, and opening packages, and frantically working and your garbage can gets full and then you start to have to throw things on the floor, most of the time they're very aware of which rooms are busy and they will come and get the trash for you. Just that simple task is huge to making our job easier.

Stephen: While to some staff and visitors EVS technicians are invisible, for others, there are opportunities to forge relationships, discover commonalities, even if language isn't one of them. Barker found common ground with one EVS employee from Ethiopia, Simret Hagos.

Alisha: She's from Africa, and we talk about kids. We show each other . . . she shows me pictures. I show her pictures of ours. So we have that connection.

Stephen: Hagos' nickname is Mimi, one that her dad gave her. The 35-year-old was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. When she was 19, family and friends brought her over to the United States. She came to the U.S. to help her family back home and to get to grips with the English language.

Mimi: Just to learn the language, and to get a job, and to work, and to help my family.

Stephen: Her father passed away. She supports her mother, she says, and her siblings in Ethiopia. That role has necessitated getting a second job as a cashier at a big-box store.

Mimi: My mom, she no work no more. I'm the one helping her. But my sister . . . I have a younger sister and younger brother. They live in my country. They go to the university, and I'm the one who helps them.

Stephen: She started working for EVS in 2008 in the hospital emergency department. She did nighttime shifts, which proved challenging.

Mimi: So when I came in the night, I have to clean every OR detail, like the ceiling, the walls, the trash, the table, everything, sweep them up.

Stephen: A lot of blood.

Mimi: A lot of blood I have to clean. I just don't touch the instrument, but I have to clean everything. I think I have three ORs every night I come in.

There is a lot of blood, especially I remember room 16 or 14. It's a big room because that room is for heart surgery. It takes a long time. So when they finish, they have a lot of blood we have to clean. So it takes you a long time than in other ORs.

Stephen: She reserves a deep passion for the staff at the Medical ICU from which she was reassigned over a year ago.

Mimi: Oh, I really miss . . . I can't even . . . I don't know. Working in MICU is really good. That's like my second home. I really love MICU. I don't know how to say thanks to them, the doctors, the nurses, the manager, the nurse manager, and the physical therapy, the pharmacy, the CNA, the hack. Everybody loved me crazy and I love them crazy.

Stephen: The Roman god Janus was the keeper of the keys, a two-faced deity who marks beginnings, endings, and doorways. The word janitor finds its roots in Janus, someone who guards entrances and, metaphorically, keeps the keys to the kingdom. A custodian performs a similar duty guarding, cleaning, and protecting access points, record, stores, and individuals.

At University Hospital, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mimi and her fellow keepers of the keys found themselves thrust onto the frontline with critical care nursing staff and providers, medical specialists who have vast tracks of knowledge to draw upon when it comes to understanding the virus they face. But for EVS stuff, some rely on more abstract notions to keep them safe.

Mimi: It's not new training. But when COVID came in, I have to be careful. The training is the same.

Stephen: Were you concerned or worried about it?

Mimi: I worried too much because I say, "I'm the one cleaning COVID room in ED." I'm really scared when I clean the room. But I leave it to God.

Stephen: Over time, she's got used to it a little.

Mimi: Yeah. When I clean those rooms, I'm stressed. Stressful, because I'm thinking, "Oh, while I'm cleaning, I know I'll be careful, but you don't know sometimes what's going to happen." So maybe I'm going to have these COVID, but right now no. But when they start, I was so scared, but right now it's okay.

Stephen: They are essential workers without whom the very fundamentals of hospital care simply could not continue. They weren't always seen this way, however.

Man: Despite the temporary imposition of martial law, the Shah's new government appears determined to press ahead with liberal reform.

Man: University students demonstrating in Tehran shouting, "Death to the Shah," pledged allegiance to the Islamic movement of the ayatollahs.

Man: The number of killed in Tehran since the beginning of the month is probably well over 100. But people in this crowd were saying and believing 7,000 have been killed. Emotions over the . . .

Stephen: 1979, the Shah of Iran had fled abroad, leaving his supporters to their fate as a brutal coup swept away the former regime. For University of Utah foreign student [Abbas 00:15:22] Bakhsheshy, overnight he had been severed from his past and his country. Over 11,000 kilometers away in Salt Lake City, Utah, he felt alone in the world. Shy, timid, and extremely introverted, he nevertheless had to find work if he was to eat. That first job was washing pots and pans at a kitchen in University Hospital.

Abbas: If you think that dishwashing is as noble as it is, it's not something that anyone wishes to pursue as a career. Dishwashing is actually a promotion to pot washing.

So I remember that the very first day that I was washing pots and pans and my skin was red and my fingernails were so soft, I really decided that this is not the life for me. I had a difficult time. I was shy, bashful, timid. So I was really incredibly devastated. I didn't know how to go about living in this country and I missed my parents.

Stephen: His colleagues in the kitchen saw how hard he was struggling, one in particular.

Abbas: More than anything else, I remember the very gentleman who taught me how to wash pots and pans. His name was Kurt, that had so much patience, and so much love and care. He was telling me how important it is to fill out this massive metal sink, put certain amount of chemicals in there, make sure that the temperature is the right temperature, and make sure to let all these pots and pans be soaked before you actually get in there and try to clean them. I still remember to this day that he told me, "If you do the job right the first time, you do not have to redo it."

Stephen: They taught him a lesson that stayed with him all his life.

Abbas: It's the pride and satisfaction that you take in achieving those series of goals that happened to be your responsibility.

Stephen: Not only did he learn valuable life lessons in the kitchen, Bakhsheshy also found a support system among his colleagues.

Abbas: Those were truly genuinely my heroes because they're the ones that supported me. They stood by me. They tried to coach and mentor me so that I did not end up doing something drastic, such as ending my life.

Stephen: For the next four years, he worked his way up the ladder with the help of his new friends.

Abbas: So because of the kindness, empathy, compassion, and love of these individuals, I was promoted from pot washer to the dishwasher, to working on tray line when you put food together and send to patient. Then I became team leader. I became assistant supervisor, supervisor, manager, assistant director, associate director.

Stephen: Until finally, in 1983, he took over the newly named Environmental Services. The department had struggled with high staff turnover for years.

Abbas: The perception came from the fact that these are the lowest paid individuals, the perception that these are not important people. They're a dime a dozen. They're expendable. They come and go.

Stephen: Bakhsheshy knew he needed to change the culture at EVS and how employees felt about their work. To do that, he used the lessons he'd learned in the kitchen.

Abbas: At that time, it was like a revolving door. People would come and people would go. It's not a glorious job. People don't want to stick with it unless you develop some sort of pride in what they do. You give them meaning associated with that contribution. You give them the feeling that you are as important as a physician, as a hospital administrator. Once they find meaning associated with their contribution, they become inspired. They become motivated.

Stephen: Since the majority of his employees did not graduate high school, he sought to educate them in air quality, hygiene, safety, cleaning supplies. In essence: why when it came to removing germs and bacteria, that job mattered so much. And then to further support his own staff, he set up a coaching and mentoring team to provide additional training on the job. He hammered home, "If you get the job right the first time, then you don't get called back."

Abbas: So, if you do the job right in the first place, you do not have to receive a call from a nurse manager or from a supervisor to say, "This room was not vacuumed properly," or, "These equipment are not cleaned properly, so come and redo it."

Stephen: Which brings us to 10 coins. Every morning, Bakhsheshy would put 10 quarters in his left trouser pocket. Those coins were there to remind him, as he walked around the hospital, to look for 10 employees living up to the hopes he had had for all his staff.

Abbas: And the moment I will see one of the employees doing something nice for another employee, or a patient looking confused trying to find a particular location and this custodian put the vacuum aside and says, "Sir/Ma'am, can I help you? Which department are you looking for?" and then he or she would take that visitor or that patient to the right floor, to the right room, after that I would go and tell him, "Thank you very much for going out of your way to help patients and visitors."

Stephen: And he would move a coin to his other pocket, one coin for each act of generosity, kindness, thoughtfulness, and caring. And each night, he put the coins on the table and he'd sit down in his office and write 10 thank you letters to the loved ones of the employees that he had seen do a good deed that day.

Abbas: But then I also wanted their wife, husband, children, and others to know that his wife or her husband is such a wonderful contributor to the overall wellbeing of . . . and I will say, "Thank you for supporting him. Thank you," because I felt that the moment they go home, they could be hero in the eyes of their wife, husband, children, others. As a matter of fact, employees would tell me that this is much more significant than anything else that we have done for them.

Stephen: By 1990, employee turnover had shrunk.

Abbas: Our turnover dropped dramatically. I believe, in less than four years, our turnover from somewhere between 60% to 70% dropped to about 10% to 15%. And that 10% to 15% were mostly associated with being promoted to different position within the same institution, outside of the department. So it was really significant.

Stephen: And they were no longer invisible. The evidence for that is on a wall adorned with citations and awards in Bakhsheshy's office in the David Eccles School of Business. The dapper professor, folded handkerchief peeking out of his jacket lapel pocket, singles out one photograph as one of his most meaningful achievements: 200 people from 30 different races smile up at the camera that April 1990 afternoon, the white borders of the image covered in signatures of his former employees. That was the day Environmental Services was named best department in University of Utah Health Sciences Center for "its loyal and dedicated service."

Among those upturned faces on Bakhsheshy's wall is Connie Becerril. Then a supervisor, 30 years on, Becerril is about to retire after almost half a century in Environmental Services. It's a department that different disciplines of which still fascinates her, as it did when she began.

Connie: You weren't just in radiology, you weren't just in maternity, and you weren't just in an intensive care unit. You became an integral part and a requirement to know everyone's purpose within the hospital. So that's what intrigued me and I stayed with it.

Stephen: Ask her why she stayed so long in one profession, one department, and she says that it's because of the people she's worked with. They matter to her as they matter to the hospital, which is why she gets upset when she hears people using the word housekeeping to describe her employees.

Connie: So we have continued to evolve. Matter of fact, no one in my organization is permitted to use the word housekeeping. They know that very well in front of me. If they do, they owe me a dollar. If anybody uses the word housekeeping, they are to pay a dollar. It goes into a fund for the custodians.

Stephen: There's so much more than that, she says.

Connie: A housekeeper may be someone that you hire to come to your home to help you do the dishes, and clean the dirty bathroom, and vacuum a carpet. They do much more than that in Environmental Services. They go hand in hand with our medical team. The medical team may be eliminating bacteria/organisms that live internally, and our Environmental Services staff eliminate those bacteria and infections that are in the environment. They manage the environment. If we don't do well, then our physicians and our nursing staff aren't able to do their best either.

Stephen: She sees her department much as Bakhsheshy did: as a stepping-stone for those who want to advance, as well as a place to build new lives. Some, she knows, were highly educated, white-collar workers in their home countries, but the United States government doesn't always recognize their educational credentials. Others found the work a stepping-stone into medicine.

Connie: I've actually had people who have come in and are now nurses. I have one gentleman that went on to be a doctor.

Stephen: Becerril has worked hard to modernize her department. Four years ago, she secured funding for eight ultraviolet cleaning robots to help support her staff, a squadron of machines she calls her R2-D2s.

Connie: The robot can actually . . . the UV light, it breaks down any residual. It is probably the final piece when you're cleaning and turning over a discharge room.

Stephen: Imagine a tall cylindrical robot that spins out purple beams hazardous to life. It's locked away inside a patient room, zapping proteins and bugs after an EVS employee has finished cleaning it post-discharge of the patient.

Connie: So the robots were our last piece of defense to ensure that we were not exposing the environment to harsh chemicals, something that could cause other people to be sick. And it has been championed by all of our medical pathologists throughout the country and outside of our country, and so . . .

Stephen: For all the hardware she's managed to secure to bring EVS into the 21st century, it's her people that she's proudest of, like Lynette Nelson. Nelson grew up in Gary, Indiana, and came to Utah when she was 21 to find work. Seventeen years ago, Becerril hired Nelson to join her staff of frontline workers. One patient was so moved by Nelson's attentive, caring manner, a family donated money to the university in her name.

Lynette: The donation was I took care of a patient, a mom patient in the family. I guess they really liked me. And then Connie said, "Lynette, you got a donation from that family." So, yeah, I felt pretty proud, but I'm not a bragger or nothing. I don't know. It wasn't talked . . .

Stephen: Becerril identifies something crucial in that story when it comes to understanding the impact EVS has on the hospital.

Connie: She made such an impression on them, was such a kind soul. She's just a sweet girl. She was very genuine. She would do whatever it took to make them happy. And she took time out of her day to talk to the patient.

I think that's what many people don't understand, is that the patient in, I would say, a very, very high percentage has more of a connection with the person that's cleaning their room than they do with the care provider. They see that person every day. That person speaks to them every day. They sometimes tell them things that they would not tell their nurse.

Stephen: If Nelson epitomizes the idea of how employees in EVS fulfill Bakhsheshy's philosophy of always trying to do more, then Jacobo Lucero is, in many ways, the nightly living embodiment of that gift.

More often than not, when employees of University Hospital use the stairwell in the late afternoon or evening, they'll hear a voice that belongs more in a church or a cathedral than in such a utilitarian space as a stairwell.

Jacobo: [singing]

Stephen: For many nurses and other carers in the hospital, Lucero provides a moment of respite, even solace, during difficult times. He offers them spiritual care in his own anonymous church as he sweeps and mops the floor. Charge nurse Alisha Barker finds Lucero's voice almost bewitching.

Alisha: It's just an escape and it's calming. And he just has a beautiful voice. I've tried to make eye contact with him and to be friendly with him. You walk by and he's very closed off. And he'll stop singing and you walk by and you're like, "No, keep going. Hi. I can't tell you how much I love your singing and how much it helps me."

Stephen: Lucero has never had a singing class. He laughs at the idea. In Guatemala, he sang popular songs by Latin American artists for his own amusement. In Utah, he found a church on North Temple that he liked, and it was there he sang for the congregation with a guitarist from Honduras. He sings, he says, to relax. He finds peace in his singing. That's because he's singing to someone else.

Interpreter: To sing, for me, is to communicate with God. For me, one has to worship God all the time. Even if I'm sad and I'm with someone, I still have to praise God because that is my responsibility as a good Christian. Thus, "What's it worth?" the Lord says. That you have to praise him all the time, in time of illness, in time of poverty, in time of prosperity. And singing is a way to praise him.

Stephen: Praising God through his singing, he says, brings him a sense of freedom.

Interpreter: And when one sings where the spirit of God is, there is freedom. If someone can't sing, it's because he isn't free. The enemy doesn't want him to sing. The devil has him tied up so he can't sing.

Stephen: So you're expressing . . .

Interpreter: The freedom that God gives me.

Stephen: In the months since the pandemic has taken an ever-tighter grip of the University Hospital and its critical care staff, his songs of compassion and love have created their own oasis in this otherwise nondescript stairwell.

If Lucero sings to his God, he's also singing for God's people. In this echoing chamber of steps connecting one lifesaving floor to another, he treats wounded hearts, offering no more than the precious, priceless gift of his melodic balm.

Jacobo: [singing]

Mitch: Next time on Clinical, we revisit the self-described maverick, Jessica Rivera, and share her journey to becoming a director of the many teams at the University of Utah Health clinics and explore not only Environmental Services' response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also how the managers are balancing not only being caretakers for the hospital, but how they care for the workers that they're responsible for. Join us next time for A Bushel and a Peck.

Clinical is part of The Scope Presents network and brought to you by University of Utah Health. If you liked what you heard, please be sure to subscribe and share with your friends. And if you haven't yet, why not give us a rating on Stitcher or Apple Podcasts?

And to all of our doctors, nurses, admins, interpreters, operators, technicians, and all the other hospital employees out there, we know you're listening. Do you have a story that you would like to share with us? A message to the workers that you've heard about today? Feel free to reach out to our listener line by calling 1-601-55SCOPE. Again, that's 1-601-55SCOPE. Or email us at

Clinical is produced by me, Mitch Sears, and Stephen Dark. A very special thanks to Francisco Soto and Interpreter Services for providing translation and voice acting for this episode.

Music by Bottega Baltazar, Vortex, Giants & Pilgrims, Ian Post, Muted Artist, Nadav Coehn, and Ziv Moran. Audio news clips from PBS NewsHour, C-SPAN, and the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

And of course, a heartfelt thanks to the men and women who have shared their stories with all of us and work to this very day to keep each and every one of us safe.