Sunday, September 20, 2015

Terrific Terrazo Floors

Terrazo floors were common place in old hospitals, found in halls and heavy foot traffic areas like operating rooms. They were created by mixing small stones, usually of different sizes, in a dyed concrete mix. The mixture was then  poured into forms that were cross-hatched with metal dividers spaced a couple of feet apart.

After the concrete set, the floor was ground down with progressively finer discs on a big grinding machine that resembled a super heavy duty rotary floor polisher. The end result was a very beautiful floor surface that resisted stains such as betadine or blood and lasted practically forever.

As a youngster I had the opportunity to talk with workers installing a new terrazzo floor in an operating room. They were Italian (Terazzo means terrace in Italian) and they were a proud, hard working group of men. The process was very loud and dusty from the grinding down of the concrete stone matrix, but they actually seemed to enjoy their work. The end result was truly a work of art. I am sure the cost of doing this today would be astronomical and I suspect this is the reason terrazzo floors disappeared.

These are two beautiful examples of a terrazzo floor with a silver metal dividing strip down the middle. Our operating room had much darker terrazzo floors with a greater diversity in size of the stones and beautiful gold dividing strips.

In the foreground is a very nice illustration of a terrazzo floor in an older operating room. Notice  how the ceramic tiled walls and terrazzo floors combine to create a certain ambience.  Important things are going to be happening here. These are hallowed halls.

I have seen plain white flooring in contemporary operating rooms heavily stained a yucky yellow color from the prep. A dirty looking floor in the OR does not inspire confidence. Plain looking flooring looks like it belongs in an airport or school, certainly not in a sacred place like the tiled temple of an operating room.

Now for some foolishness. A typical scenario for a scrub nurse on call would be to awaken to a call in the middle of the night stating,"There has been a multi vehicle accident on Lake Shore Drive we need you in the operating room ASAP." I would jump up out of the call room and run to the scrub sink and begin my scrub and  about 10 minutes later I was ready for showtime with my mayo stand set up and my back table loaded for bear. I was chomping at the bit and ready for any thing. Let me at 'em.

Now for the fun part. Sometimes we had to wait up to an hour before the patient arrived in the OR. I really don't know all the reasons for the hold up, but suspect it had to do with stabilizing vital signs and establishing an airway or further diagnostic studies. Peritoneal taps to evaluate internal bleeding were common before CT scans became available. Sometimes the poor soul died in the ER before even making it to the OR.

Dr. Oddo, my favorite neurosurgeon, frequently reminded us that in our line of work it was important to have diversions and relax when you have the chance. He was a really affable, pleasant man  outside the OR with lots of good friendly advice. His diversion was a sailboat docked at Montrose Harbor where he spent much of his spare time.

One of the most important times to stay loose and relaxed was during that wait for the trauma patient to arrive. I would stand between my Mayo stand and back table, guarding their sterility, then begin meditating on the beautiful terrazzo floors. It was a lot cheaper than a sailboat. Once Dr. Oddo observed me deep in my meditative trance and said "How nice, Old Fool was praying." I didn't say anything to contradict him, but I was really exploring cosmic frontiers in the terrazzo floor.

These  floors could be like exploring the solar system if you studied them closely. You could easily identify the planets from the different sized stones imbedded in the floor. For more visual props, distant galaxies like anesthesia can contribute things like yellow tops from KCl multi dose vials to represent the sun. Does Mars have water that could support life? According to that pool of I.V. fluid that was just dripped onto the floor, it does.  Wow is that a meteor shower? Nope, just the lights being reflected through anesthesia's IV bottles.

Staring at the straight gold dividing lines and comparing them to random round stones always made me wonder why there are no straight lines in the natural world. Those straight metal dividers always reminded me of the big straight incisions and what a contrast they were to soft round organs and tissue. Were we doing the right thing here?  I also sometimes wondered if all those little stones in the floor were symbolic of the rocky recovery faced by some of the unfortunate victims of trauma. Life can change in the blink of an eye.

Wow things are getting out of hand here, it sounds like a catastrophic meteor shower out in the hall. Nope, it's the arrival of our patient attended by a band of frenzied care givers. As Dr. Oddo would say, "Let's hit it!"


  1. Very thoughtful. I never really pondered why or how those types of floors were used. Now I think back to the big old bank buildings and courthouses that I also connect terrazzo floors to. Keep bringing memories to us - I check your blog first thing to help my mind start the day off with a smile.

  2. great story of how it was then, for an OR nurse...finding beauty and meaning in ordinary time....thanks.

  3. Banks with guards and terrazzo floors sure made you feel like your money was secure. I used to bank at Belmont National in Chicago, all the deposit records were on paper cards that were in big cabinets with rollers. They were wheeled into the vault every night and heavily guarded during the day. Those were the days.

    Thanks for all the kind comments.

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  5. Indeed, beautifully written. Scrubbed in and set up for major trauma case in 10 minutes. Impressive.

    1. Most of the time I wound up waiting at my Mayo stand for an eternity for the patient to arrive. I still liked to hurry in to get revved up for the surgery.

  6. That old time photo of a nurse applying her cloth shoe covering is my all time favorite - a glimpse into heaven.