Nurses might be talking up a storm outside a room. Doctors are paged. Intravenous alarms sound. Food carts rattle. Fingers pounding a computer keyboard echo like tiny jackhammers.
Jonathon Sharkey, 47, said he has learned one thing about veterans hospitals through numerous operations for bad knees.
Health care is noisy.
But Tampa Bay's two veterans hospitals, the Bay Pines and James A. Haley medical centers, are testing devices that measure the decibel level on inpatient wards. Placed at nursing stations and looking like a red light signal, the device flashes red when the noise exceeds levels set by the hospital.
The device — so far, just three are installed, though more may follow — is called a "Yacker Tracker." And it can't come soon enough for Sharkey, an Army veteran and Tampa resident.
"If you're sick or recovering from surgery, the thing you need more than anything is sleep," said Sharkey, who has been treated at both Haley in Tampa and Bay Pines in Seminole. "But it can be as loud as a war zone. And it's annoying."
Department of Veterans Affairs officials say studies have repeatedly documented that noise can delay healing. One study noted a correlation between the increased use of painkillers and noisier hospital wards.
"We're trying to become more patient-centered," said Kim Manganiello, a Bay Pines nurse manager. "Noise is disruptive to the healing process. Patients come in here sick. They're in an environment they're not used to. That stress has an impact."
VA officials say the agency is becoming more aware of the effects of noise on healing, as are hospitals around the nation.
Noise control is an old issue. In Florence Nightingale's 1859 book, Notes on Nursing, she wrote, "Unnecessary noise is the most cruel abuse of care which can be inflicted" on the sick.
The Yacker Tracker is part of a wider noise abatement campaign at VA hospitals around the state and region. That effort ranges from things as simple as reminding doctors, nurses and visitors to keep their voices down; dimming the lights at night; and replacing the wheels on carts so they don't rattle or squeak.
Signs around the hospitals politely remind visitors and staff, "Quiet please. Patients healing."
At Haley, a Yacker Tracker sits atop a counter at the nurses station in the critical cardiac care ward. Nurses say it took some getting used to.
Hospital officials decided to set it so the red light flashed at 80 decibels or above, which is about as loud as a vacuum cleaner or garbage disposal. Once the sound waves reach the patient, the decibel level is considerably lower.
"We got kind of concerned about it because we didn't know what to expect," said Haley nurse Jonathan Schamaun.
But the Yacker Tracker has changed behavior among staff and visitors, nurses say. The device is a constant reminder that noise is important.
"Conversations can be louder than people realize," said Haley nurse manager Terry Heckley.
Nurse Lisa Guillen said she is from New York and is used to being a loud talker. No more.
"I would set it off just walking by and talking," she said. "But now, outside the hospital, my friends say I don't speak as loud as I once did."
Heckley notes, however, that Haley is still a hospital, and sometimes it's going to be loud. "If somebody has, God forbid, a cardiac arrest, that's something you treat immediately," she said.
Harold Youmans spent several days at Haley last month for neck surgery linked to his service in Vietnam. He repeatedly complained about noise.
The problems, he said, included loud TVs in four-patient rooms and visitors who talked too loud.
"The noise was tremendous," said Youmans of Riverview.
Faith Belcher, a spokeswoman for Bay Pines, said VA hospitals are working on educating visitors and combating the sort of issues raised by Youmans.
"Roommate noise still remains the biggest source of disruption for patients," Belcher said, noting Bay Pines is moving toward all private or semiprivate rooms.
Youmans is home now. He said the TV is seldom on. He isn't listening to the radio. And he can now hear himself think.
"Sleep is part of healing," he said. "I'm getting it now."
Reach William R. Levesque at [email protected]
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: A Feb. 6 story about Tampa Bay's veterans hospitals trying to reduce noise to help patients heal contained an incorrect spelling of Jonathon Sharkey's name.