The staircase of Steve Biko Academic Hospital (SBAH) – spanning 9 stories, and utterly stomach-lurching to anyone who dares to look down – is an entire world of its own. Turning from the long hospital corridor into the World of the Stairs is akin to jumping from a warm and comfy train straight onto the platform of a bustling train-station. You can encounter ANYTHING, from preoccupied med students scurrying up and down from one ward to the next, to patients who have given up waiting for the elevator, to brand-new bright-eyed interns, to the most aged and senior Profs. Some people make eye-contact and greet you warmly, but most usually make what constitutes approximately ¼ eye contact, mumble something inaudible and scurry past as if their life depends on it. Some trip down the stairs. Some trip up the stairs. Like me, a couple of times. Only I was holding coffee, so I tripped AND threw coffee all over the platform.
The funny thing about the staircase is that it is a conduit between 2 different worlds. In the hospital corridors there is a definite sense of hierarchy between any people that pass. You can sniff out a junior med student from a mile away, as can you sniff out the arrogant stench of some SICs and Consultants. In the staircase, however, it’s fair game.
If you were to elbow a professor in the staircase of SBAH as you pass, he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Everyone suddenly becomes equal – similar to how it would be to see a Prof at the Spar. It’s a strange no-man’s land in which we all huff and puff together, trying not to pass out as we climb the 6th flight of stairs in a row. We suffer together as we try stick to the ‘keep left’ rule, gazes only towards our final destinations – be it level 4’s casualty or the poor sods heading towards level 8 or 9. This daily traversing of the stairwells transports one into a world of complete equality for a few seconds, catching our breaths in unison for a moment before being thrust back into the World of Corridors where your staircase comrade suddenly becomes the Internal Medicine Consultant, and the fellow student you were chatting to becomes the 3rd year ‘baby’ med student who probably still struggles with drips.
Sometimes I arrest this process briefly and stand on the platform looking down – reveling at the sheer drop, and pondering all the levels that are housing sick people like a giant monster engulfing its prey: hundreds of patients and Doctors alike. For a few seconds the day stands still, and in a brief moment of equanimity I’m able to forget about the lab strike, broken blood-gas machine and sometimes-snarky senior Doctors. I’m able to be just a 5th year medical student who is happy to be a medical student for no other reason than that it’s cool to own a stethoscope.
Those few seconds are precious. And then I step back out into the hospital corridor and I hit into a final year student, who ricochets into a large, unhappy-looking ward matron. Glares are exchanged, and I’m back in the World of Corridors, where everything is taken far too seriously.
After a day of this taking-anything-and-everything-far-too-seriously business, I encounter the entrance to the World of the Stairs once more as I head to level 8 towards where I parked. I’m transported back into the place where I am just a 5th year med student wearing a cool blue stethoscope, and for a moment once more I’m equal to the Prof walking behind me.