Tupelo hospital laundry requires determined effort

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TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — When the work day's done in Tupelo, her family's laundry isn't the first thing on Judy Murphy's mind.

"Uh, no," she said.

That's not a surprise. Dealing with piles of dirty laundry probably isn't anybody's idea of a good time.

Murphy is North Mississippi Medical Center's director of laundry and linen services. Her 26-person staff is responsible for handling some 30,000 pounds of laundry a day.

"People are depending on the work we do," she said. "It's not like you can go home at the end of the day and not be done."

The numbers involved are mind-boggling. The hospital laundry has 165 to 170 different types of items, and serves more than 145 customers. The result is more than 6 million pounds of dirty things turned into clean things over the course of a year.

The hospital laundry uses its own version of a color-safe bleach.

"It's hydrogen peroxide. In the domestic market, it's a 0.05 or 0.10 percent concentration," Murphy said. "We use 30 percent. We were 33 percent but we had to go to 30 percent because of government regulations. It is literally bomb-making material."

Why such a powerful chemical?

The answer starts with the laundry's customer base. The biggest customer by far is North Mississippi Medical Center, but the laundry also provides clean linens, scrubs and other items to hospitals and clinics throughout Northeast Mississippi.

"My goal is to make sure what gets on the patient's bed is what they call hygienically clean," Murphy said. "It's clean, period."

And this laundry starts out more than dirty. Again, remember the customer base.

"We have to treat everything like it's potentially infectious," Murphy said, "because we don't know what's in the bags when they arrive."

A team — dressed in safety gear, including masks, thick gloves and shoe covers — sorts soiled scrubs from sheets, under-pads from baby gowns, napkins from mops.

"You have to separate it. You don't want to use the harsh chemicals on the baby linens. They have very sensitive skins," Murphy said. "You don't want to use the baby formula on under-pads. They won't get clean."

Occasionally there's something extra in the laundry bag.

"My people have found electrodes and fetal monitors, and needles," Murphy said. "We've trained our customers on what to do, so it's happening less and less. I've had one needle stick one of my people since 2008. That's awesome."

Thick plastic gloves aren't always the right equipment for the job at a hospital laundry.

"When something does fall out, you have to pick it up," Murphy said. "Don't pick it up with hands. You pick it up with tongs."

In the early 20th century, nurses handled the laundry in barrel washers that were no different than those available for home use.

It could be said that a nurse still handles the laundry, but in addition to being a registered nurse, Murphy has advanced training in getting the grime out.

"I'm a registered laundry and linen manager. It's like a master's degree," she said. "It's just like having a master's degree in laundry. I don't know how else to put it."

She and several members of her staff make regular trips to a school in Richmond, Kentucky, run by the Association of Linen Management.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, ever, ever," Murphy said. "And I know infection control. I know chemistry."

She trains people at other laundry operations, and also teaches what she knows to her customers, as well as her employees.

"If you know why you do it and not just what to do, it makes it more important to you," she said.

Question: Why does the laundry spike the pH level only to drop it quickly?

Answer: Infection control.

Question: Why does the laundry apply a fabric softener that also fights microbes?

Answer: Infection control.

Question: Why does the laundry use ozone?

Answer: Infection control, efficiency and green technology.

The ozone cleans and disinfects, and it works well with the two massive tunnel washers on site, while also having a positive influence on the environment.

"The byproduct of ozone is pure water," Murphy said. "The cleaners we use end up helping with the wastewater."

In years past, the laundry operation required 37 to 45 people. Technology means fewer employees can handle more work.

Imagine doing laundry at home and pulling out a set of sheets that had gotten twisted together in the washer and dryer.

Now, imagine bins filled with hundreds of twisted sheets. That's a quality-of-life issue, and there's a machine to address it.

"The machine will fluff and untangle the sheets," Murphy said. "It's a safety and ergonomic thing for me. I fought to get it for about three years. If I took it out of here now, ladies would leave."

Machines can fold sheets, but they can't fold baby clothes, and there's no machine that can fill the hundreds of carts that are shipped to the laundry's many customers.

"I cannot emphasize enough how very fortunate I am to have such a great staff," Murphy said.

Employees use hand-held computers to keep track of customer needs then fill carts with sheets, under-pads, scrubs and whatever else is needed.

"It's not just what you need for 24 hours. It's what you need for one and a half times that," Murphy said. "You never know when a patient is going to get sick and need new sheets."

When trucks pick up carts filled with fresh, clean laundry to disperse around the region, that's not a signal to rest.

This is laundry, and laundry is constant, like an unwavering monster from a horror movie that refuses to quit.

In that respect, at least, the hospital laundry service is no different from anybody else with an overflowing hamper.

"You never get it done," Murphy said, shaking her head.

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Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com

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