It’s the middle of the night and Isaac Irby’s day is just beginning.
At 71, he rises between 2 and 3 a.m. on weekdays to get ready for work. He usually has a bowl of cereal, and spends some time reading his Bible before heading out to his job at Lower Bucks Hospital.
His shift starts at 6 a.m., but Irby, of Middletown, likes to arrive by 5, to check out the equipment and supplies he will need for the day. Before the pandemic, many may not noticed him or his fellow employees in “environmental services,” more commonly known as housekeeping, at the Bristol Township hospital.
Irby and his colleagues are among the “hidden heroes” of the pandemic.
During the last year, hospital housekeeping workers have performed their dangerous jobs diligently, ensuring that front-line medical workers have the supplies they need, that medical debris is removed and disposed of safely, and that the rooms where patients are cared for are sanitized.
For more than 21 years, Irby has worked at Lower Bucks Hospital, performing a variety of jobs in support of the medical staff there. He now works as a floor technician, making sure “‘all the floors in the hospital are nice and clean and shiny.”
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick paid a visit to thank Irby — called “Ike” by his friends — for his years of dedicated service, and, in doing so, to honor all the housekeeping workers at area hospitals who, like the medical staff, have put their own lives on the line to ensure facilities are safe places during the pandemic.
“We’re here to honor Ike. Everybody in the hospital absolutely loves him,” Fitzpatrick said. “So many of our health care workers have been honored but a lot of them have not been honored enough … People that do the work behind the scenes, that sometimes doesn’t go as noticed.”
Fitzpatrick said Irby was noticed by his peers for his “positive attitude … It’s important we honor all our health care workers. They’re a team.”
A visibly moved Irby thanked the congressman for the American flag and certificate.
Fitzpatrick told Irby his name was also being written in the Congressional Record and then Fitzpatrick gave him an invitation to come tour the Capitol in Washington when the pandemic eases to see his name recorded there.
“It’s a big deal,” he said.
Irby represents the thousands of hospital housekeeping staff members around the nation on the front lines of the pandemic. Their commitment to safety has been a labor of love as they work these vital jobs behind the scenes, officials said.
Last year, when COVID struck and the hospital started caring for infected patients, Irby said his job became a little more involved, as he had to meticulously go over the rooms where COVID patients stayed after they left the hospital, not only cleaning the floors but spraying them with a disinfectant after other members of the environmental services staff had done their jobs wiping down all the equipment.
“We go in and sanitize everything,” he said. “You go in with all the PPE (personal protective equipment) on. It’s a big change from the regular cleaning.”
Not only the doctors and nurses but all the environmental staff working in the COVID rooms are dressed in “space suits like NASA,” he explained.
Irby, on his second career, is still going strong.
Perhaps his previous job as a brick mason for U.S. Steel helped him keep in shape, and running the floor maintenance machine helps him exercise. He notes that he eats light meals, likes seafood, and goes for regular medical checkups.
His wife, Denise, who formerly worked in housekeeping, recommended him for a job at the hospital as a transport worker after he retired from U.S. Steel. Then he worked as a messenger in the pharmacy department, taking prescriptions up to the floors, before taking over the floor-cleaning duties.
“It’s really great, a great place to work,” he said.
On weekends, he worships at the Christian Life Center in Bensalem, his hometown where he graduated from Bensalem High School. He has two children and seven grandchildren.
Irby told the congressman he was not afraid of being sickened by COVID.
“I didn’t have any fear, didn’t have any underlying (health) issues,” he said. Plus, he follows the Bible’s advice.
“Stay positive. All you have to do is love one another,” he said, and be sure to “love yourself … My life is great. I wouldn’t change it.”
“You’re an incredibly humble man,” Fitzpatrick told him. “I can see why everybody likes you.”
Nurse Carol Halner gave Irby a hug after he received his commendation. “It is family,” she said of the hospital team. “I greet Isaac. He greets me,” she said.
“It is quite apparent he is a fixture and ray of light to all employees and patients at the hospital — now, especially during the pandemic, more than ever.”