Springfield’s health care system has grown by leaps and bounds over the past five decades. It employs thousands of workers across the greater Springfield area. It’s now the hub for medical treatment across the Ozarks. And one woman has been there to see how it’s all changed.
story by Sarah Elms / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published June 30, 2012
Cox South, one of CoxHealth’s four hospitals in Springfield, Mo., stands tall over the buildings that surround it, an icon of the Medical Mile. It’s known for its advanced medical care and Level II Trauma Center, but there’s much more to this hospital than X-rays and stitches.
Stationed in the depths of this 10-story health care hub are the departments that allow such a complex facility to function. They are not the offices of doctors, nurses or surgeons, but instead house those of communications, materials management, a print shop and a mailroom. They fly quietly under the radar, like a well-kept secret that helps the hospital run smoothly day-in and day-out.
Down two elevators, deep below Cox, there is an older woman seated at an office desk littered with papers. She is the former mailroom supervisor, now a mailroom clerk. She’s short, with curly light-brown hair. Today she’s wearing floral scrubs and purple-rimmed glasses. She’s always busy working, and she’s always smiling.
Her name is Margaret Rymer, and she’s 70 years old. Working in the mailroom for CoxHealth was Margaret’s first full-time job out of high school, and she hasn’t left since. Of the more than 9,000 people employed by the company, she still manages to stand out. Margaret is the second-longest tenured employee. For 52 years, the mailroom is where she’s spent most of her time. Working in conjunction with the ever-evolving field of health care, she’s witnessed a lot of changes in her career.
Health care is a major industry in Springfield, and it has continued to grow during Margaret’s tenure. It is home to the region’s most extensive and advanced hospitals, serving more than 900,000 people in a 25-county service area. People come from across southwest Missouri and northern Arkansas to receive medical treatment right here in the Ozarks.
According to the city, the health care industry employs 17 percent of Springfield’s total workforce, with a $4.5 billion annual economic impact. CoxHealth Systems is the second-largest employer in Springfield, right behind Mercy Health Systems, the city’s other major health care provider.
Margaret graduated from Willard High School in 1959 and, as she puts it, spent the subsequent months “just playing.” With the summer winding down, though, she started to look for work. A friend of hers worked in the CoxHealth mailroom — at the time it was in the North campus, and the South facility hadn’t yet been built — but was due to have a baby soon and would be leaving. She told Margaret to apply to replace her, and she got the job.
“I wanted a job, and then when I’d been here about six months, I thought, you really got to try and find you another job to use your shorthand and typing and all that stuff you took in high school,” Margaret says. “And so I got to looking for another job, but it didn’t pay any more than the job I had. So I thought, well, if you like the job there really isn’t any point of going anyplace else.”
In her job in the mailroom, Margaret does a little bit of everything. She sorts the daily mail, putting it in mailboxes or in carts organized by hospital building and wing. She also runs those carts filled with mail to their respective destinations, sometimes taking a van to deliver mail to Cox’s other buildings, North, Monett and Walnut Lawn. In the years when she was a supervisor, she created the schedule that determines who takes what mail where and what route they’ll take to drop it off. She was also in charge of hiring new staff members.
Over the years, Margaret has become a staple of the hospital. She knows just about everyone, and just about everyone knows her. She’s even featured in one of the company’s orientation videos shown to new employees.
Anyone who knows her will tell you Margaret is a walking database of anything and everything related to CoxHealth. She knows the hospital’s history. She knows where every department is in each of Cox’s buildings, and she can tell you who works in those departments, too. Her colleagues always seek her out to answer their questions before consulting building directories or the Internet.
Margaret’s close friend Priscilla Curbow has also worked at CoxHealth for most of her life. She’s going into her 43rd year in the communications department, and has known Margaret since day one. She says everyone in the mailroom runs to Margaret when they don’t know what to do.
“She takes her job seriously, she knows all the ins and outs, she knows how to operate all the mail machines, all the rules. It’s just amazing,” Priscilla says. “She’s an encyclopedia of knowledge.”
She also says Margaret has made a lot of friends at the hospital over the years, many of whom she’s remained close with. “She’s just good, down-home people. No pretense. What you see is what you get, and what you get is good.”
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(Above) Margaret Rymer sorts through a cart of mail prepped for distribution to the CoxHealth system. (At top) Margaret Rymer, 70, a mailroom clerk at CoxHealth, has been employed by the company for 52 years.
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When Margaret first started in the mailroom, postage was only four cents. As technology developed, however, methods for processing the mail and printing labels gradually shifted. Manual tasks became automated. Computers and the Internet became the standard. But for all of those advancements, Margaret never allowed herself to fall behind.
“When we first got our direct-image printer, it was computer drawn. You had your names on a disk and chose what you wanted to run,” she says. “I didn’t have any idea how to use a computer, so I thought, well, I’ll have my daughter come in at night just to explain terms to give me some idea.”
Another big adjustment came about with the HIPAA Privacy Rule. It stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, enacted in 1996 to ensure individual’s medical information remains private. “That’s made a lot of difference,” Margaret says. “I think probably the biggest way it affects us is that we do carry a lot of reports, and of course all of those reports have patient names in them.” Now, any document containing patient information has to be in a sealed envelope before it gets to the mailroom.
Margaret remembers one out-of-the-ordinary postal experience from back in the ’70s, when privacy laws weren’t as strict. There was a young boy who was on dialysis, and the doctors had to get a blood sample from Cox North to St. Louis by the end of the day for testing. The mailroom used to transport lab specimens and prescriptions, and it was Margaret’s responsibility to get the blood sample to the post office in time for an emergency flight out to St. Louis. “It was a pretty neat experience,” she says, smiling, as always. “I don’t know if that would happen now.”
Margaret’s world in the mailroom is a different place than it was when she started, but the medical side of things has changed just as much, if not more. “To tell you how dated I am, they still had a polio unit at North when I started to work,” she says.
The most significant shift Margaret says she’s seen is the smoking revolution. When she started at the hospital, people were allowed to smoke inside the hospital building in designated lounges. As medical professionals began to learn more about the effects of cigarettes, things drastically changed. Soon employees could only smoke if they had a private office in the building, and then they could only smoke if they went outside. Now, smoking is banned across the medical campus.
At lunch, Margaret and her fellow mailroom employees chat about health care a lot. Some ask if “Obamacare” is really so bad, others wonder aloud if it should really be nicknamed Obamacare. Margaret throws out a joke about contraceptives, “not that I need it,” she says. They all crack up.
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Still, what Margaret’s noticed most in her half-century at Cox is how the relationship dynamics among those who work there, across all levels of seniority and all departments, have changed. Margaret says she can remember a time when the hospital administrators knew everyone by name and were involved in everything that was going on. Now, she rarely sees them.
“There’s some people that are — they acknowledge you, you know, and some people thank you for the job you do,” Margaret says. “And then there’s a lot of people that probably have no idea who we are.” She laughs, but she adds that sometimes that can be a sore subject with the staff in the mailroom.
But when it comes to knowing the current higher-ups, Margaret has time on her side. She’s known Steve Edwards, the current president and CEO at CoxHealth, since he was fresh out of college working over at North.
Priscilla says when everything was just at one hospital, the North building, everybody knew everybody. The staff was smaller, and most communication was done in person or over the phone, not electronically. “This was one big happy family,” Priscilla says. “In some ways, it still is.”
Literally speaking, a few members of Margaret’s family work for CoxHealth as well. Her brother is a surgery technician at Myers Center, and her daughter, Jackie, is a purchasing specialist at Cox South.
Jackie says people always ask if she’ll stay with Cox as long as her mom has. She swears she won’t, but says Margaret will stay in the mailroom as long as she still feels like getting up and coming to work. Margaret’s older than almost all of her colleagues, and she’s older than most of the American workforce.
She’s an outlier in another respect: She’s never changed jobs. The generation born just after Margaret’s holds an average of 11.3 jobs from age 18 to 46, according to a July study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Jackie, who fits right into that baby boom generation, can’t believe how long her mom has been working in the same place.
“I think she’s crazy,” Jackie jokes. “I think she’s lost her mind. She needs to retire and get out of here.”
Maybe it’s because of the political season, maybe it’s because they work in a medical facility. Whatever it is, they are all very aware of what’s going on concerning health care.
“Everything in health care has gotten so expensive,” Margaret says. “And I’m sure a lot of people do without care that they need because they can’t afford it. And that’s a bad thing.”
Margaret knows a thing or two about medical bills herself. She suffered a heart attack in 2004, and was treated at the very hospital she works in. Now, though she’s had to make some adjustments in her life, she says she’s very healthy. “I was trying to do too much, more than I needed to be doing,” she says. “But it did surprise me, and it did make me think about a lot of things.”
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Jackie and Priscilla both say that when Margaret retires there will be a lot of people very sad to see her go.
“I think it will take more than one to replace her. A wealth of knowledge will no longer be there,” Priscilla says. “People won’t have it at their fingertips like she has had it at the snap of her finger.”
Jackie says most people probably don’t realize how much of a part Margaret plays in keeping everything in motion. “They’re going to be in a pretty big mess because there’s not anybody that has the knowledge of the mailroom and the people that are here,” she says. “And I don’t think that they realize all of that.”
For Margaret, time has flown by. And although she’s worked in the same place for more than 50 years, she hasn’t been doing the same thing. With all the changes over the years and the people she’s met, Margaret says it often doesn’t feel like she’s been doing the same job at all.
She isn’t quite ready to retire — honestly, she says, she can’t afford it — but when she does, she’s sure to find other things to keep her busy. Margaret’s hobby has always been watching stock car racing, something she would love to do more of during retirement. But for now, she’s happy right where she is.
“I think if you like the job and you’re making suitable wages, and everything, then there’s nothing wrong with staying,” Margaret says.
“But it’s been …” she pauses, puts her hand to her mouth to think. “I guess it’s been a fun job or I probably wouldn’t still be here,” she says finally, with a laugh. And Margaret plans to keep working, and keep smiling, for as long as she feels like she can.