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Invisible

By: Dr. Sayed A. Tabatabai


She’s not sure when she became invisible. 

She nods and smiles to the people she walks past, but rarely gets a response. 

Sometimes she’ll say “hello” just to test the limits a little. Sometimes she’ll get a mumbled response. Sometimes they just look startled. 

She moves on.


Photo by Drew Beamer via Unsplash

Her workday began at 6:00AM. She is a food service worker. 

The kitchen is in the bowels of the hospital, a vast and complex operation that churns out hundreds of meals a day, designed to fit dozens of restrictions and allergies. 

She helps make the trays, then delivers them. 

It sounds simple enough, but the responsibility is awesome. 

When she was little, she once choked on a piece of carrot. She remembers how she felt, as her vision swam in front of her and the world grew dark. 

Her dad saved her with the Heimlich maneuver. 

She remembers.

Photo by Heather Gill via Unsplash


And so, she feels the weight of her responsibility. 

One meal of the wrong consistency to a patient on aspiration precautions could be deadly. 

One meal loaded in potassium to a dialysis patient. 

Or sodium and heart failure. 

She is always aware.

The trays are loaded onto a large cart. Teams of food service workers leave the kitchen, each pushing a cart, and fan out around the hospital. 

She pushes her cart down the numerous hallways, making her rounds. 

She sees more inpatients every day than most of the doctors.

She verifies each patient’s name, and matches it to the tray she then delivers. 

On to the next one. 

Next. Brisk. 

Photo by Adhy Savala via Unsplash


But she’s human, too. Kind, caring, empathic. 

She always pauses to say hello. 

She really doesn’t have time for conversation, but she makes time to say hi. 

Many of the patients are asleep, many of them don’t, or can’t, respond to her. 

But there are some who say hello, who seem grateful for a little bit of conversation. 

The pressure of her work is constant, but a little bit of conversation is the least she can do.

Doctors and nurses often talk in front of her like she isn’t there. 

She doesn’t have a medical background, so a lot of what she overhears is a confusing jumble. 

But as the years have gone by, she’s been able to learn which words bring tears more often than others.

She’s not sure when she became invisible.

 She nods and smiles to the people she walks past, but rarely gets a response. 

Sometimes she’ll say “hello” just to test the limits a little. Often she’ll get a mumbled response, or a cursory look. 

It hurts, sometimes. 

There’s an elderly patient in a room, who’s been there for a long while. 

She has gotten to know him, a few minutes at a time, over the days and weeks. 

Their brief conversations have ranged far and wide, spanning hopes and dreams. 

He reminds her of her grandfather. 

Photo by Angelina Litvin via Unsplash


He is always awake when she stops by. When she’s a little late, he needles her goodnaturedly. She laughs. 

He does something few people do. He asks her how her day is going and genuinely wants to know. 

As rough as her day may be, one person genuinely cares. 

She smiles.

One day she doesn’t have a tray with his name on it. Her heart sinks, and as she delivers the trays, she glances in his room. 

It’s empty.

 She suddenly feels a lump in her throat. 

Caring often exacts a terrible price, too high for some. 

She has always paid it willingly.

Trying not to let the concern in her voice show, she casually asks one of the nurses what happened to the elderly man. 

“He’s doing better. He transferred to a rehab last night. Oh, hey... you’re Anne right?” 

She nods, relief washing over her in great waves.

“Here, he left this for you.” The nurse hands her a note. 

Photo by Andrew Dunstan via Unsplash


She unfolds the small little slip of paper. 

His handwriting is spidery, but legible: “Thank you.” 

She smiles, folding the paper and putting it in her pocket, as she pushes her empty cart back to the elevator. 

Standing in the corner of the elevator, she smiles to herself as two doctors have an animated conversation, as if she isn’t there. 

The paper in her pocket brings a deep and unexpected happiness. 

She wasn’t sure when she became invisible. 

But today she cherishes being seen.


A note from the author:

The piece is based on stories recounted to me by the food service staff I spoke to, but is a fictionalization (aka “based on a true story”).

Thanks to the numerous food service workers I spoke to in multiple hospitals, their chefs, managers, and all the support staff. The word “hero” is used a lot these days, appropriately. This is for all the “invisible” everyday heroes. Thank you. We see you.



Edited for clarity by FOTFL staff.

"Shortage of protective equipment & mental health are the two biggest issues facing frontline workers.

Thank you for doing this."

-C.O., frontline physician

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