Phyllis Carter, when reached by phone, does not sound like a lady in a dungeon. Instead, she sounds sweet and nice, and so for a minute I hesitate to even bring it up, even though it’s the whole reason I am calling.
“Uh, do you know that people call you ‘the lady in the dungeon’?” I finally say, timidly. “Had you ever heard that?”
And she made a sound that was part laugh, part sigh, all patience. Oh, sure. She’s heard that before.
Phyllis Carter does not work in a fearsome medieval castle. Instead, she is the queen of UNMC’s and Nebraska Medicine’s white coats. Getting them in and out, making sure they are cleaned and then back to their owners. For decades, she did the embroidery, the names on these coats. It was a point of pride.
Officially, she’s a sewing associate, linen distribution, for Nebraska Medicine.
But because her seamstress’ office is underneath the Durham Outpatient Center (or is it officially under Clarkson or University towers? In an underground maze, who can keep track?), in the bowels of our modern, med center castles; and because it seems like she’s worked here forever (27 years), she has taken on almost mythical status.
An email somebody sent me about her even included a description of her workspace in a spooky font: the dungeon.
But she is a good sport, when told we wanted to write a fun story about her. Sure, she said. Come on over. Meet the lady in the dungeon.
Only, the place where she works is in no way a dungeon.
Well, except for one thing. When you knock, the door opens by itself! With no one there! Like in a horror movie!
But the space, if a little cramped, is bright. Almost cheery. You don’t find many dungeons with an adorable photo of the dungeon master’s great granddaughter, Lilly, who is such a cutie her bedroom is decorated in a frogs and lily pads theme.
And that – lilies! – came up because I was asking Phyllis advice about flowers and gardening, the way many of her visitors do.
Meanwhile, there are white coats everywhere. Hey, there’s dean of medicine Brad Britigan’s! Some people send theirs in once a week for cleaning, she said, some once a month, some, every six months.
Don’t worry, she said. The six-monthers aren’t physicians who see patients. “Usually the labs don’t bring theirs in that often,” Phyllis said.
For years, she did the embroidery, too. “One July,” she said, “I did 200 coats.” Her supervisor had decided to keep track.
The sewing machines are still there, but they aren’t used anymore.
This day was a little more stressful than most. There had been a computer glitch, so Phyllis was personally catching up on making sure linens got where they needed to go.
Every year, people ask if she is ready to retire, and every year she says she will see. But she likes her job, likes the people she works with. She often swaps stories about growing up on a farm with co-workers young enough to be her sons.
The linen crisis is averted. The interview about working in a dungeon is done. Time for lunch. Maybe soup. Phyllis Carter, “the lady in the dungeon,” is as nice as she seems. She leaves her office, the “dungeon” that isn’t one, heading above-ground, looking for soup.