"Parkview Adventist Medical Center, this is Dorothy, may I help you?" the receptionist asks into a telephone for the fifth time in one minute. Despite the endless repetition, her voice remains jovial and sing-songy.

In the reception area, every time Dorothy speaks, something seems amiss. Her joyous tone does not fit in with its decidedly morose and mirthless surroundings. All of one's senses perceive the happy sound of her voice as violently clashing with the vibe of Parkview's main reception area.

Visually, it is dim. The grim reddish carpet seems to be a black hole, absorbing all industrial fluorescent lights. The dark, menacing storm clouds that float by outside appear impotent when compared with the powerful darkness inside.

Aurally, the low-key activity of a normal weekday afternoon cannot mask the omnipresent hum of the lights. A printer whines as it spits out page after page of patient information.

Olfactorily, the scent of "hospital" is unmistakable; that potent, unique mix of antiseptic and morbidity, of fear and doubt hangs in the air.

A glass cabinet nearby claims to contain "FRESH-CUT FLOWERS," but one could not tell from a sniff of the air or from a glance in its direction. The objects inside the case appear to be plant life of some kind, but only fit their full description if "fresh" is defined as anything dating from the Nixon era or before.

Like most hospitals, the ceiling at Parkview is made of tiled gypsum boards. Intermittent banks of fluorescent lights interrupt the rows of ceiling tiles.

At hospitals, people are often prone and waiting. Thus they notice the ceiling as they wait for a doctor, or for a diagnosis, or for a nurse, or for life-changing news, or for an X-ray technician. Spending time at any hospital means waiting.

The Imaging Center at Parkview Adventist Medical Center is a place of joy?at least compared to the rest of the hospital. Although this may be a dubious achievement award, the Imaging Center's small waiting room, with its walls painted a misty rose, is a relief to enter.

Sitting in the surprisingly comfortable chairs, one faces the reception desk behind which sit two young white women. One has wavy long brown hair. The other has short hair that seems unnaturally black and stiff, barely moving when she does.

The two chat amiably about the procedures for filing various forms?one kind for MRIs, another for mammograms.

A large painting, framed in faux silver, hangs on the wall behind them. It depicts a barren winter landscape. Framed by two naked birch trees in the foreground, a partially frozen river icily flows down the painting. It meanders through a snow-covered meadow, between two mountains and then off into infinity.

An incredibly tan, middle-aged Caucasian woman walks behind the reception desk. She has obviously been far away from any landscape like the one shown in the painting. Unlike her coworkers, her hair is in tight cornrows.

"Hello!" She greets the two receptionists with a wide grin. "I made it back from Portland in 20 minutes."

"How you doin', girlfriend?" the woman with the unnaturally dark hair asks in an attempt at a southern inner-city accent. She receives no verbal response, just the same big smile.

In a back room, unseen, a deep male voice greets the female receptionist who is likely still smiling. "Hiya."

A beat.

"Why, may I ask, and I don't mean to be rude, did you get your hair done in that way?" the base voice rumbles.

"Yah mon," the smiling woman responds gaily, in a terrible attempt at a Caribbean accent. "I got me hair done 'cause I was in Jamaica," she answers, sounding more like a speech-impaired schoolgirl from Ireland than the psychic Ms. Cleo.

He doesn't respond and an uncomfortable silence follows.

"I was in Montego Bay," the woman says, cutting her losses, dropping any attempt at changing her voice.

"'Tego Bay? Wow!' the man exclaims with real enthusiasm.

The enthusiasm he exhibits is not at all unique to those who work in the Center.

It is a testament to some shared quality that rests in the staff of the Parkview Adventist Medical Center that they can all be so positive in such a depressing place.