How Green Was My NIH

January 10, 2016

It's a warm, summer Sunday morning in Bethesda, Maryland. I feel the heat all the more in my jacket and tie. My parents and grandmother and 7-year-old I are walking from a parking lot the couple hundred feet -- Is it even that far? -- to the entrance of The National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, Building 10. We are on our way to Mass in the chapel on the 13th floor. The sun lightens the pink of Building 10's bricks, the green grass in the circle before the entrance and, on nearby knolls, the leaves of pine and deciduous trees that comprise the wood between Building 10 and West Cedar Lane.

There is not a soul in sight, no movement. We are a like a Star Trek crew that has just beamed down to a planet where all the inhabitants have vanished. The only sound is the insect sawing that rises to a crescendo and then dies off. Outside the main entrance there are lily ponds and goldfish. In the lobby, sunny because it is glass-walled on three sides, is an exhibit about the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem where Jesus cured a man on the Sabbath.

This is NIH in 1968. You can drive through an ungated entrance, park right outside the biggest building on campus in a lot that has spaces to spare. There is room for goldfish and a reminder of Christ in a U.S. Government installation.

Nearly 50 years on, I laugh at the idea of our driving to that easily-had, convenient parking space that is so inconceivable in the 21st century. We lived a distance of two suburban blocks from Building 10: one block down Locust Avenue, the second block down and up West Drive through the woods of NIH's serene campus. The Clinical Center, with the three large windows of its top-floor chapel, loomed over our backyard. We could have walked, but walking anywhere in those days just wasn't done. Everything seemed miles away.

With Nana's supervision, of course, I got the forceps or whatever was requested by the surgeon upstairs, placed it in the capsule, shoved the latter into the receptacle and watched it get sucked away.

Not only was the Clinical Center's chapel our preferred place of worship, my maternal grandmother, who lived with us, worked in its basement-level Central Sterile Supply from 1958 to 1971. Her shift was from 2 to 11 p.m.

Again, because two blocks was way too far to walk, especially at night, even though the path was lighted, my Dad would drive over at 11 p.m. to pick up Nana. I would often still be awake, listening to Felix Grant on WMAL, when she came home and checked in on me.

On Friday nights I would go with Dad to collect Nana and then we would drive up Rockville Pike to Burger Chef. This was located where the McDonald's is now at the corner of Marinelli Rd. and Rockville Pike across from the White Flint Metro Station. There was no Marinelli Rd., no Metro, just Burger Chef, a neon and light-bulb illuminated beacon of white, blue, and orange surrounded by trees, overgrown vacant lots and crickets.

When my parents were away on the occasional Friday, my grandmother would wait for me to walk home from school and then take me to work with her. These were the only times I walked to and from NIH as a child.

The Littlest Government Worker

Central Sterile Supply was located on a basement level of Building 10. In CSS' precincts, reusable supplies such as hemostats, scalpels and glass syringes were burned clean of contaminents in huge ovens called autoclaves. It was a fascinating place for this 7-9-year-old with its maze of aisles lined by shelves and storage cabinets and equipment such as hand drills for boring through skulls into brains. Most of the staff were African Americans and pasted up in a few places were photos of Rev. Walter Fauntroy, Washington, DC's first and long-time delegate to the U.S. Congress.

I helped out. Dirty supplies -- I have no idea what they were contaminated with -- were placed on racks with wheels that rode on rails and sat atop a cart. One pushed the cart up to and docked it with the autoclave which had corresponding rails. Then one rolled the rack into the autoclave, sealed the door shut and turned on the heat. This was heavy work and probably caused the heart attack that forced my grandmother to retire from NIH in 1971. She was 67 then, but having labored since she was an early teen, she would have stayed at her job indefinitely.

When the supplies were sterilized, they were restocked. I remember placing rubber caps on hundreds of glass syringes. I think plastic, disposable hypodermics were not in use yet. I also slapped sterilized stickers on things. I took leftover stickers home and slapped them on things at home. I'm sure that among my possessions there remains to this day something with a May 1969 sterilization sticker on it.

As I ascended Medical Center's long escalator, back then having no canopy and open to the sky, a huge, heavy tree branch blew across the opening. The escalator brought me up into sideways blowing rain that seemed six inches deep on the sidewalk.

NIH in those days still used an old-fashioned pneumatic tube system which I thought was extremely cool. A capsule bearing a paper order arrived in Central Sterile Supply. With Nana's supervision, of course, I got the forceps or whatever was requested by the surgeon upstairs, placed it in the capsule, shoved the latter into the receptacle and watched it get sucked away. Capsules traveled to a central location somewhere in the basement where employees read their addresses and inserted them into the appropriate destination tubes.

At dinner time we went to the cafeteria. I ate only hamburgers then. Relatives commented on it, thinking I was in some grave danger of malnutrition. We would get a hamburger sealed in plastic from a vending machine, take it back to the dimly lit, shadowy locker/break room. I miss dimly-lit, shadowy rooms of the '60s. They were relaxing. There we heated the hamburger in what was a primitive microwave oven. 1969 me thought these hamburgers in plastic were delicious. 2015 me thinks they're disgusting.

The last adventure of the evening would be the two-block walk home in the dark. Outside the main entrance at 11 p.m. idled a DC Transit GM Fishbowl bus ready to take the evening shift as far as Ivy City, a Northeast Washington neighborhood near D.C.'s railroad yards. In the age of the subway, no bus from NIH even crosses the District line. Down the sidewalk along West Drive we would walk and up Locust Ave. to our house.

In the late 1960s, The NIH chapel was my parents' preferred place of worship and we forewent our parish about half of Sundays to go to Mass there. I suspect it was because NIH Masses were shorter. NIH chaplains didn't dally when most of the attendants were falling over from chemotherapy and leaking brain-holes etc. The chaplains were Jesuits, a Fr. Armand Guicheteau from Georgetown University -- whom my grandmother liked -- and later, Fr. Eugene Linehan. More on Linehan below.

What ended our Sundays at NIH's chapel was the advent of Saturday night vigil Mass. NIH did not offer it because on Saturdays, the chapel was transformed by the rotation of a turnstile into a synagogue.

On NIH's vast parking lots, many of which are now covered by buildings and the currently fashionable landscaping of overgrown grass and weeds (butterfly sanctuary), I learned how to parallel park in preparation for my driver's license exam. My Dad told me, "The State of Maryland may give you a license, but you're not driving until I give you a license." We attached boards to broomsticks so that they would stand upright as markers and I spent many a spring of '77 hour maneuvering the old Chrysler New Yorker between them from the right or the left.


Building 10 dominates the NIH campus around 1960. The Capital Beltway was a few years in the future when this photo was taken.

By the late 1970s my parents, Mom as a member of the parish Ladies of Charity and Dad, a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, had begun visiting the sick at NIH. The patients who were in the Clinical Center because they had strange diseases to be studied, were mostly from out of town, even from other countries. Building 10 was the home of the original "bubble boy," a kid with a severe blood deficiency who had to live in a sterile environment on the Clinical Center's 13th floor.


NIH's Building 10, the Clinical Center, in the 1960s. Back then, visitors could park in the lots either side of the main entrance. The entire area in front of the building as it is shown here has been filled with additions.

The Catholic chaplain at NIH in the late 1970s and for almost 30 years afterward was Eugene Linehan, S.J. who lived in the Jesuit community at Georgetown Prep where I went to high school. Linehan was a very upbeat fellow, good for the patients, but like many Jesuits, he was contemptuous and deconstructive of his faith. Linehan's modus dissolutionis consisted in giving the impression that he wished he was Jewish. He praised the Jews to the extent that it seemed he thought that the founding the church by Christ was an aberration, a departure from a good-enough thing.

Although we now had to park farther away from Building 10's main entrance, probably a distance that was half that to the house, we started to going to Mass at NIH again now and then. It was in that chapel that I, at about 17, first read as a lector.

To graduate from Georgetown Prep, I had to do a Christian sevice project. I decided to follow in my parents' footsteps and visit the sick at NIH, only in my case, sick teens. Fr. Linehan was overjoyed and had me stand up on the altar while he told everyone at Mass that this fine young man from Georgetown Prep, Neal Conway, was going to be visiting the sick young people.

It didn't work out very well. For one thing, sick teens don't want to be visited by strangers. I recall one just lying in her bed, chewing gum and staring while I tried to connect with her. Another's mother complained to me how she wasn't getting any answers from the medical staff. The chaplain's secretary was not glad to have that passed on to her.

The frustration mounted and eventually spilled over when I walked into the psycho ward wherein the door locked behind me. There I came face to face with a neanderthal-looking fellow who appeared to be missing much of a brain. He was being walked on a leash by an orderly. As it happened the nurse in charge turned out to be the mother of a Prep classmate of mine. She let me out. I finished my service project at Mitch Snyder's Community For Creative Non-Violence soup kitchen.

In 1983, the Clinical Center saw the first of several enlargements and transformations that took place over the next 25 years. A huge glass box of an addition was grafted onto the brick 1953 building. Gone beneath the glass box's footprint were the sunny lobby, the lily ponds and the goldfish.

Three Memories

Metro's Red Line through Bethesda opened in 1984. Having graduated from Catholic University and entered the workforce, I crossed NIH's campus every weekday to get to and from the subway. Three memories from those years stand out:

1. C. Everett Koop. President Ronald Reagan's distinctively bearded surgeon general lived in a modest NIH residence at the corner of Cedar Lane and West Dr., half a block from our house. Boy, did he give me a dirty look one cold morning when he saw me walking by, smoking a pipe.

2. Monkeys. As to be expected of a research facility in those days, NIH had many lab monkeys. On my way to/from the Metro, I used to walk by empty monkey cages that had been rolled outside one of the buildings. In fact, once when I was extremely sick of working at the law firm, I mulled over an NIH listing for the job -- GS-3, I think -- of cleaning the monkey cages. Then things got more bearable at the law firm. Sometimes looking for another job makes one approeciate the crummy job one has.

Someone told me that the lab workers used to uncage the monkeys and let them frolic in the labs and that once, a simian escaped and was at large on the campus. God knows what diseases it had; it was feared that it might attack a pedestrian. Anti-vivisectionists started hectoring NIH about doing experiments on primates. One night I was drawn to the front-bathroom window by a mysterious distant roar. When I slid up the sash I could hear, coming across the evening air, "Let them go! Let them go! Let the monkeys go!" I guess that NIH feared that this chanting night after night would lead to a storming of the Baboon Bastille. The monkeys were all evacuated to Fort Detrick near Frederick, MD.

3. The June 14, 1989 Microburst. I knew something extraordinary was going on when the lights in the Bethesda Metro Station flickered as the train I was riding passed through. What was occurring 100 feet above was the most severe thunderstorm Bethesda had seen in probably a century. As I ascended Medical Center's long escalator, back then having no canopy and open to the sky, a huge, heavy tree branch blew across the opening. The escalator brought me up into sideways blowing rain that seemed six inches deep on the sidewalk. My Dad had come to pick me up that day. I was soaked when I got in the car. Fallen boughs blocked Locust Ave. at Cedar Lane and we had to pick our way through other streets to get to the house. I realized that many of the huge old trees that had come down in the few minutes of microburst mayhem probably fell half a second after my Dad drove under them to pick me up.

It seemed as if the weather was out to get us that summer and for a couple years afterward. A few weeks following the June 14 microburst, lightning struck our house while we were eating dinner in the kitchen and set the dining room curtains on fire. My Dad just ran into the dining room, grabbed the curtains and smothered the blaze.

The grafted glass box was nothing compared to the additions to Building 10 that chomped into the campus greenery in the 1990s and 2000s. The clinical center, named after a couple of Democrat Senators is now about 5 times the size it was on those serene summer Sundays in 1968.

The Ph.D. studying my Dad was a nice, pretty Catholic from Langhorne, Pennsylvania. I became attracted to her and asked her for a date. End of study. Case closed.

My last significant visits to the campus occurred in 1994. After my Mom died, it became apparent that my Dad was suffering from dementia. It turned out that he was one of those people with strange diseases that interest NIH. Because he had a rare symptom of dementia, NIH's Institute of Neurological Disorders & Stroke (NINDS) wanted to study him. I signed up for it hoping that Dad would get free treatment or custodial care. No such luck. It was all for the sake of Cognitive Neuroscience and I hope my Dad's case contributed something. On Wednesdays for several months (I had quit my job to become a full-time caregiver) we went to Building 10.

Once Dad was given an IQ test. What bullshit that is! Among the people in photos he was asked to identify were Paul Whiteman, the '20s band leader, and Richard Nixon. Dad knew who Nixon was and I, a 78 rpm record collector, knew who Paul Whiteman was. How does knowing who a president and a bandleader that many have simply never heard of measure intelligence?

The Ph.D. studying my Dad was a nice, pretty Catholic from Langhorne, Pennsylvania. I became attracted to her and asked her for a date. End of study. Case closed.

On September 11, 2001, the days of shortcutting across NIH's campus, using the restrooms in its buildings and generally not being there unless one is a registered visitor with an I.D. check and stated purpose came to an end. Within a couple years, an iron fence was planted around the entire perimeter of the campus.

I've been back to Building 10 a couple times in recent years, accompanying a friend who was an employee. Now visitors must pass through the magnetometer and hand their driver's licenses over to be scanned for the I.D. badge they must wear, to gain admittance to a campus where parking for the daily visitor is probably non-existent.

How many people from local churches, I wonder, bother to leap over all those hurdles to visit the sick?


Taken in 2011: what remains of Building 10's original lobby with its aluminum, art-deco elevator doors, stairway sign and decommissioned payphone carrels.

For Further Reading

About Neal J. Conway