My ''Lunch with Cliff'' experiences usually find me sitting down to a quiet meal with an individual or a couple. They are often dedicated to something in their lives.
This week's lunch was different, a whirlwind of 25 people dashing in and out of a noisy staff lounge.
Quickly grabbing something to eat, they shared a fast laugh or a few words before dashing off again. Yet, amid the hubbub, I found the same common threads of joy and devotion.
I was having a hospital staff lunch with the nurses and doctors of Mercy Hospital's outpatient surgery center in Fairfield. They asked me to share a midday meal to meet this close-knit staff.
Current-events student that I am, I went knowing this is a time of downsized morale and cost-cutting paranoia in hospitals. Not so, I can report, with this group.
Being around them is enough to give you a good case of job envy. As do many in the medical profession, these folks care a great deal about their patients. They also care a great deal about each other.
''This is hard work,'' admitted nurse Houston Marcum, pausing for a rare sit-down lunch. Most of the time it's a bite of bagel on the run.
''But to many of us, it's not work or a job. It's a vocation. Helping sick people is what we were called to do.''
Sitting at a table with three other nurses and one doctor, Beth Zimmerman reflected on work as she dug into her fruit salad.
She had just come from post-op. The last of her groggy patients had come to, and nurse Beth had asked her standard set of questions.
First: How are you?
Then the big one:
Who's taking you home?
Beth always holds her breath after asking that one.
''I don't know how many times I've heard someone say: 'I don't have any people to take care of me.' ''
She makes sure she asks the second question early in the recovery process. ''That way, I have a good two or three hours to find someone to take care of them.''
In her line of work, Beth realizes there are no crowds in the waiting room. When she looks around the recovery room, she sees ''too many patients with no family or friends.''
She said this, and an unaccustomed quiet fell over the room. The sad truth of what she said made people look down at the table. Marsha Higgins broke the silence. The center's nurse manager realized how lucky she is to have friends at work.
''We are like family here,'' she said. ''This is such a small place - and we work so close to each other - no one can stay mad or avoid anyone for five minutes.'' Plus, with competition being so fierce in the hospital business, ''we have to work together. Or we will be out of work.''
Dr. Glenn Suntay, the center's medical director, sat slumped in a chair and mulled Beth's words. He thought about being sick and having no one to help. ''That's why you can't help but take these people's troubles home,'' he whispered.
''When they leave,'' added Sandy Smith, the nurse in charge of preparing patients for surgery, ''they take part of your heart with them.''
Houston Marcum knows that patients can also give as good as they get.
Earlier this year, the burly nurse was preparing a 92-year-old man for ''one of those scope tests that don't go down the throat but up the other end.''
To take the patient's mind off the test, Houston started chatting. The topic turned to marriage.
Houston was contemplating it. The patient told him to go for it. He took the plunge 71 years ago and was still married to the same woman.
''I love her more today than the day we were married,'' the old man said. ''I couldn't imagine my life being any better with anyone else.''
Houston took his patient's advice. He got married six months ago.
Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.