It’s a relatively slow afternoon at UCI Medical Center when the familiar face outside the information booth on Medical Center Drive does his thing.
“Where’s the emergency room?” a visitor in a van asks Ernesto Cruz, the traffic control guru who works the main hospital entrance off The City Drive South, in Orange.
“It’s going to be on your left right over there,” says Cruz, wearing a yellow traffic vest over his uniform of a crisp white dress shirt and matching gloves, a red tie and blue pants.
His egg-colored face mask can’t hide the kindness and infectious bonhomie for which Cruz is known among UCI Health staffers and frequent visitors to the hospital and its specialty treatment centers.
Officially, Cruz, 56, gets paid by an outside parking services vendor to keep traffic flowing smoothly in the two lanes that lead into the heart of the medical campus.
Unofficially, he earns his salary by spreading cheer – a gift that has become even more appreciated as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on.
“I’m always in a good mood,” he says. “I’m always happy. Life is too short to be wasted being unhappy. Especially being right here by the [UCI Health Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center], I need to lift people’s spirits.”
Cruz has been the traffic controller and de facto greeter at UCI Medical Center since March 2019. Prior to that, he drove a patient shuttle for eight years. His nickname back then? “The Happy Shuttle Driver.”
Separated for years from his wife and with three adult children and a 5-year-old granddaughter, all of whom live in Idaho, Cruz says he maintains his chipper outlook through prayer, taking walks, watching TV, listening to heavy metal, and cooking delicious Mexican meals such as chile relleno and pozole, a traditional soup.
“You know, I pray a lot,” he says. “I like to pray for the cancer patients. I’ve had people tell me, ‘You know, Ernesto, I know you’ve prayed for me because I’m still here a year later. Keep praying. I’m healing. Your prayers are doing good.’”
Before his jobs at UCI Medical Center, Cruz worked in transportation at another Orange County hospital. He lives alone on the border of Costa Mesa and Santa Ana and visits his children and granddaughter a couple times a year.
Lately, he says, he’s been avoiding watching news on TV.
“I like cowboy movies and stuff,” Cruz says. “Right now, the news makes me crazy. It was giving me headaches. I was like, ‘No more, no more!’ I’m trying to watch something different, like ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”
A shuttle bus arrives, and he waves it through.
“When it’s busy,” Cruz says, “oh, my gosh, cars are backed up all the way to [The City Drive South], and I have to stay in control of everything.”
Traffic usually jams in the lane closest to the curb, which is reserved for vehicles heading to one of the medical campus’s three valet stations: in front of the cancer center, the H.H. Chao Comprehensive Digestive Disease Center and UC Irvine Douglas Hospital.
Cruz keeps an eye on a pedestrian walking through the crosswalk just past the information booth.
“Goodbye, Ernesto!” the hospital employee calls out.
“Goodbye!” responds Cruz, whose shift is 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
‘A little city of its own’
UCI police trained Cruz for four hours in traffic control. His partner, Yvonne Serrano, who works inside the information booth providing maps and answering questions, also underwent training because she steps in for Cruz when he’s on his lunch break.
“This is a little city of its own, and Ernesto knows this city,” says Serrano, who’s also a student at Santa Ana College. “He’s a pleasure to work with. He’s a very sweet man who genuinely cares for the patients and the people who work here.”
A few years ago, Cruz’s position didn’t exist. A traffic controller was needed, he explains, because certain drivers weren’t behaving during peak visiting hours. Some, he says, would cut into the valet line at the last minute ahead of folks who had been patiently waiting for 10 to 15 minutes.
“There was a lot of screaming and yelling and bad words sometimes,” Cruz says.
No longer. By genially keeping cars moving, The Happy Traffic Controller keeps people calm with a smile on his face – even when it’s covered by a mask.
A motorist pulls up. He’s here for a CT scan. Cruz directs him to valet parking.
“Have a good day, sir,” he tells the man.
Soon his shift will be over.
“Patients will tell me, ‘You make me feel good, Ernesto. You make my day,’” Cruz says. “That makes me feel good too.”