Chapter 0 – In the E.R.

Chapter 0: Interested

“Don’t think only about your own affairs,

but be interested in others, too.”   Philippians 2:4, NLT 

Chris Strider stripped soiled linens off the gurney and stole another glance at the young mother. The doctor was telling her that her baby needed to take antibiotics for a particularly bad ear infection. The more the doctor said, the more uncomfortable the woman seemed.

“He can go deaf if you don’t give him this medicine,” the doctor finished brusquely. He handed her a prescription. The mother’s eyes grew wide and flicked to her two daughters, neither more than six years old.

Chris eyed the girls, sitting quietly together on a chair. Too quietly. Kids that age were normally active and curious. Unless they were sick or scared … or chronically hungry.

He finished cleaning up the results of the baby’s bout of vomiting and waited for the doctor to step out before approaching the subdued mother. “Mrs. Garcia, you can get Tito ready to go home now. The nurse will be in to give you the discharge instructions. I’ll get some supplies together and take care of the prescription for you.” He held out his hand as if this were normal procedure, and the mother handed the paper over with a confused look.

As Chris strode down the hallway to the hospital’s pharmacy, he passed a community bulletin board and caught a glimpse of a light blue flier with a distinctive purple crest. He forced himself to look away. His life path was clear. He had no time for detours.

Arriving at the pharmacy, Chris handed over the prescription and waited for it to be filled. Luckily, the antibiotic was a common, generic medication that didn’t cost too much. Still, the bill came to $29.95, even with his employee’s discount. He hesitated when he looked in his wallet to find exactly $30. Since yesterday was his last day of school, he’d already used up his meal card.

Oh, well. He was too tired to eat breakfast anyway.

He paid the bill and returned to the emergency room, where he stopped off at the break room. From the supplies kept for patient needs, he loaded most of the remaining milk, pudding, bread, and fruit into a sack.

Mrs. Bennington, the charge nurse, came in and poured a cup of coffee. As she took a sip, she watched Chris over the rim of her mug. He reached into the freezer for a couple of popsicles. “Food service will throw out the perishables this morning anyway.”

“Mm-hmm.” She swiped a strand of gray hair away from her ebony face and looked pointedly at the bag with the prescription. He broke into a guilty smile.

She chuckled. “You’ll run Damour’s race soon, you will. You just don’t know it yet.” She chuckled again and left the room. Chris stared after her, a sudden heaviness in his gut.

The nurse was just finishing up with Mrs. Garcia when Chris entered the small exam room. When he gave each of the girls a popsicle, their faces lit up. But Mrs. Garcia’s contorted into sheer confusion as he handed her the sacks.

“Just some supplies the doctor wanted you to have,” he said lightly. But it didn’t seem he had fooled her. Looking as if she might burst into tears, she thanked him over and over in Spanish. He didn’t actually understand much Spanish, but people often misinterpreted his dark coloring and assumed he did.

Chris left the cubicle, intending to clock out. But he redirected his steps when he recognized a young girl’s wail. Apparently April’s pain medicine was wearing off again.

As he approached her bedside, the sobbing four-year-old held a hand out to him. He adjusted the sheet so it wouldn’t rub the raw and blistered flesh of her chest and took her hand. Bending over, he whispered in her ear. He’d learned it didn’t matter what he said as long as he whispered.

Sure enough, the little girl quieted just as Mrs. Bennington rushed in with more pain medicine. The medicine took effect quickly, and the young patient’s tight grip on Chris’s hand relaxed.

Her mother released a relieved sigh. “Thanks so much for your help, Chris. You really have a way with kids.”

“I’m glad I was able to help.” An unexpected yawn escaped him.

Mrs. Withers laughed. “Long night?”

“Excuse me. Yeah, long week, actually. Finals week.”

“You’re in college too?”

“Not any more. Graduation’s tonight.”

Mrs. Bennington piped up. “He’s too modest to tell you, but he’s graduating summa cum laude and starts medical school at Harvard next fall on a full scholarship.”

“Aw, come on, Mrs. B. Is there anyone you haven’t told?” Chris started cleaning up a tray of medical paraphernalia.

She put a finger to her chin in mock concentration. “Now that you mention it, I don’t think I told the man with the gouty foot. I’ll take care of that right now.” She winked and left the room.

Chris shook his head, grinning. “She’s something. And the best nurse you could ask for, by the way. She’ll make sure they take good care of April.”

He turned to leave, but noticed Mr. Withers, who was sitting with six-year-old Eric on his lap, get up to help move April. When his father put him down, the boy climbed up onto the chair and pulled his knees to his chest. He looked up at Chris with eyes now red and puffy from crying. He was the one who had wielded the pot of scalding coffee that ended the children’s attempt to surprise their mom with a birthday breakfast. Now he would have to marinate in his guilt all by himself for a while, since both parents would be caught up in the commotion of getting April moved to the burn unit.

As Eric’s pitiful eyes met his, Chris knew he couldn’t leave the boy to wrestle with his guilt alone. He stifled another yawn and squatted beside Eric’s chair. “How are you doing, buddy? I bet you’re hungry, huh?”

Eric sniffled. “Yeah, I guess.”

Chris patted the boy’s strawberry blond head. “Well, let’s see what we can do about that.” He approached Mr. Withers and offered to watch Eric until April was settled in the burn unit. The harried father gratefully accepted the offer. He murmured a few words to Eric, who got up and slipped his hand into Chris’s.

As they proceeded toward the break room, they passed a guy with a new cast on his leg. He was clumsily, and unsuccessfully, juggling his cast, crutches, and the two glass doors that led outside. “Here,” Chris called, “Let us get the door for you.” He lifted Eric up to hit the wall plate that opened the doors.

Watching him hobble through the doors, Eric asked, “How’d he break his leg?”

“He’s on the track team at school,” Chris answered. “Runs the hurdles. You know, where they jump over those little gate-things?”

Eric nodded.

“His coach told him he was landing wrong, so he learned to do it right and got a lot better. But then he decided he wanted to try it the old way again because he thought he could go faster. He ended up breaking his leg instead.”

“That musta’ hurt a lot.”

“Yeah. Mistakes can hurt.”

“Yeah,” Eric said, his eyes downcast.

When they got to the break room, Chris let Eric punch his timecard, then wet a washcloth to wipe the boy’s tear-streaked face. He deliberately avoided looking at the bulletin board above the sink as he ran cool water. He didn’t want to see that announcement about Damour’s race again.

He got Eric washed up and settled him at the table with a banana, milk, and graham crackers. Mrs. Bennington, the charge nurse, flashed him an approving smile as she entered.

“Mrs. B, do you remember when I first started working here?” Chris nodded slightly toward Eric before sitting beside him. “That really big mistake I made?”

You made a mistake?” Eric exclaimed, blowing out some cracker crumbs with his surprise.

Mrs. Bennington nodded solemnly. “He handed me the wrong bottle of medicine. Coulda’ killed that man.”

“You killed him?” Eric exclaimed.

“No, no,” Chris said hurriedly. “Mrs. B caught the mistake before she gave the man the medicine. But I still felt really bad about it.”

“That’s right,” Mrs. B said. “He was talking ’bout quitting. Instead, he decided to learn from his mistake. He slowed down, got more careful ’bout things, and became the best orderly we’ve ever had in this ER.”

“Wow,” Chris said, surprised. “Thanks, Mrs. B. That means a lot coming from you.”

“Well, it’s true.” She focused on Eric. “That’s what comes of learning from mistakes, you know. You get better at your job. ’Cause everyone makes mistakes.”

“Everyone?” Eric asked.

“Yup, everyone,” she said with an emphatic nod. “I’ve made my share, too. And every doctor you see ’round here, they’ve made mistakes too.”

Mrs. Bennington left and Eric fell silent, absorbed with poking a packaged cracker into subjection. Chris simply let the silence ride.

Finally Eric said softly, “I made a mistake today.”

“Yeah? I’ll bet it wasn’t as bad as mine,” Chris said. “You didn’t almost kill someone, did you?”

“No, but …” He hesitated. “Mommy told me never to touch the coffee maker. I thought I could get it okay if I got a chair and climbed up on the counter. But …” He started crying again.  “It was really hot, and, and April was there, and …”

Chris put his arm around Eric’s shoulders and the boy buried his face in Chris’s scrub top as he cried. When his sobs had settled into sniffles, Chris said, “That’s a hard mistake. And you can’t quit your job as April’s big brother, can you?”

Eric shook his head against Chris’s chest.

“I know it’s hard to see April hurt by your mistake,” Chris said soothingly. “But it was an accident. You didn’t mean to hurt her. That doesn’t make you a bad person. Or a bad brother. In fact, maybe you learned something to help you be a better big brother.”

Eric sat up and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “I been thinking I shoulda’ minded Mommy.”

“Mm-hmm. That’s an important lesson. If you learn that one, it’ll keep you from making lots of big mistakes.” Chris handed Eric a tissue and he blew his nose.

As Eric finished his milk, Chris said offhandedly, “April’s going to be in the hospital for a while. Do you know anyone who can bring her stuff, like her favorite books or toys, and help her with things that will be hard for her when she goes home?”

Eric looked up at him with the gleam of newfound purpose in his eyes. “I can do those things! And, and I’ll take care of Muffin for her, too! That’s her guinea pig.”

Chris tousled Eric’s hair. “Hey, that’s a great idea! What a good big brother you are!”

When Eric finished eating, Chris, noticing the dark circles under his eyes, moved to the black vinyl loveseat along one wall, and settled back with an unfeigned yawn. “How would you like to hear a story about my great-grandfather? He was a runner from a group of people called the Rarámuri.”

“The what?”

“Some Native—um, Indians, who live in Mexico.”

Eric’s eyes widened. “Are you an Indian?”

Chris shrugged. “I’m part Indian, but I’ve never lived with them. I do know some stories, though. What to hear one?”

“Yeah!” Eric climbed onto the loveseat next to Chris.

“Okay. I’ll tell you about the day my great-grandfather left his village to go on a very long run …”

Chris had nine nephews and plenty of experience putting them to sleep. Telling his story in a deliberate monotone, he soon had Eric’s head bobbing. He gently lowered the boy’s head to a pillow as he continued the story. Soon Eric was fast asleep, curled up beside Chris on the couch. Shortly thereafter, Chris’s head fell to his chest in slumber.

It was over an hour later that Chris awoke with a start (and a sore neck) to see Mario, one of the other orderlies, standing in the doorway with Mr. Withers behind him. “So you gonna give that kid back to his parents or what?” Mario was asking.

Chris frowned as he tried to orient to where he was. “Oh, Mr. Withers,” he said after a long moment. “I’m sorry. I was telling Eric some stories. I guess we both fell asleep.”

Mr. Withers grinned. “I guess that means you got him settled down. That in itself is quite a feat.” He gently scooped Eric up, resettling his head on his shoulder. The boy barely stirred. “The nurse told me you worked all night and stayed on your own time to help us out. Thank you. We really do appreciate it.”

“No problem,” Chris said. “Glad to help.”

After Mr. Withers left, Chris got up to clear the remnants of Eric’s meal from the table. When he washed his hands at the sink, he forgot to avoid looking at the bulletin board and his eyes came to rest on exactly the announcement he’d wanted to avoid:

Announcing

THE DAMOUR FOOTRACE

6,000-mile loop around the USA

All finishers become heirs to the Damour fortune

Start Date: July 18

1-800-D-DAMOUR

©iStock.com/stefanschurr

©iStock.com/stefanschurr

Before Chris knew it, he was daydreaming again, wandering through state parks, historical monuments, and national landmarks. He could smell the wildflowers as he ran through golden fields, feel the breeze playing in his hair as he stood atop snow-covered mountains, and hear the birdsongs as he toured redwood forests. Though only a dream, it was breathtaking.

Chris loved these little trips into never-never land, but he just couldn’t run that race. Not now. He would run it some other time. There were more important things to do now. Going to Harvard med school on a full scholarship was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He couldn’t pass it up to go gallivanting off after … what?

That was the thing. His main reason for wanting to run the race was simply the call of adventure. It’s true there were tangible rewards. Being an heir to the world’s largest fortune would sure be nice. And he’d heard stories of the trophies, which included jewels, gold, and the word “priceless.” But to risk his whole future?

“You still here?” Mrs. B’s voice brought Chris back to the break room. “You shoulda’ left two hours ago.”

Chris turned toward her. “I’m heading out now. Just got sidetracked.”

She smiled knowingly. “You’re a softie, Chris. And the kids, they know. Never mind the way you tower over ’em, there’s not a one that can’t read the kindness in those sweet eyes and quick smile of yours. You’re gonna be a great doctor.”

Feeling himself flush, Chris bent to sweep some imaginary crumbs from the table.

“But I tell you what, we’re really gonna miss you ’round here.” She stepped toward him and gave him a fond hug.

“Hey, Mrs. B,” interrupted Mario as he rounded the corner. “How ’bout savin’ some of that action for me?”

She spun to face him, hands on hips. “Mario, the day you graduate from college summa cum laude and go off to Harvard medical school on a full scholarship is the day you get some of this action!”

Mario chuckled. “So you through?” he asked Chris.

“Yup.”

“Cool, man. Congratulations,” Mario extended his fist. “But you better watch out. I hear they only got smart people out there at Harvard. Don’t know if you’ll fit in.”

“I’m wearing a disguise,” Chris confided, butting Mario’s fist with his own.

Mrs. B. gave Chris one last hug. “Now don’t you forget us, baby.”

“Never, Mrs. B. How could I forget the woman who taught me how to empty a bedpan?”

* * *

            A dense cloud of cigarette smoke accosted Chris when he pushed open the door to the men’s lounge. He peered through the smoke, coughing involuntarily. Who would be smoking in here? It was illegal, after all.

He was surprised to find that the polluter was Dr. Sandersen, a man who usually exuded success: expensive clothes, meticulous grooming, a driven manner. Now sitting cross-legged on the brown sofa with stubble and dirty scrubs, his sandy hair laying too flat on one side and sticking up on the other, he almost didn’t look like the same man. He was staring at an infomercial on TV, a cigarette in one hand and a full ashtray in the other.

Chris smoothly recovered from his surprise and offered a cheery, “Hi, Dr. Sandersen. How are you this morning?”

“Oh, I’m just great, Chris,” Dr. Sandersen replied sarcastically. “Never better.”

 Okay, this is weird.

Chris uneasily opened his locker and began changing into worn jeans and a t-shirt. But the silence seemed even weirder, and he felt a need to fill it.

He turned around as he zipped up his jeans. “I haven’t seen you for a while, but I wanted to thank you again for that recommendation you wrote. Harvard accepted me.”

“My condolences,” the doctor said, still staring at the TV.

“No, I said they accepted me.”

“I heard you.”

 Strange. Maybe he’s just really interested in whatever they’re selling on TV and not paying attention, Chris thought. In fact, maybe I’m interrupting him.

He listened to the TV: “But if you order now, you’ll get not one Skinny-Minnie Girdle, but two! Just think, two of these technologically advanced marvels for only …”

No. I really doubt he cares about a girdle. So what’s going on?

Chris leaned back against the lockers in confusion. He’d always liked Dr. Sandersen. Most people did. He was a good doctor with a friendly bedside manner. He’d even won a trophy for “Doctor of the Year” once. And he was successful—had a beach house inMalibu, drove a Porsche, always escorted elegant women to the hospital parties. Chris had never seen this side of him, and he didn’t know what to make of it.

Dr. Sandersen picked up the remote and turned the TV off, throwing the room into silence. He uncrossed his legs and leaned forward to fix Chris in his icy blue stare. “Chris, look at me. What do you see?”

“Well,” Chris said carefully, “I see a successful and well-respected surgeon. And, from all reports, an excellent one too.”

Dr. Sandersen shook his head. “No you don’t. That’s what you see out there, in public. But here?” He shrugged. “This is the real me: lonely … tired … disillusioned. A man addicted to a deadly poison”—he lifted his cigarette as if in salute—“because it offers a little comfort in an otherwise miserable life.”

“Miserable?” Chris exclaimed. “How can you say that? You’ve got everything I ever dreamed of!”

“Is that right?” Dr. Sandersen grunted and stared at the full ashtray in his hand. “At the ripe old age of thirty-six, I’ve been married and divorced twice. I’ve got high blood pressure and an ulcer. I’ve got no time for hobbies. I’ve got no time for family. And friends?” He shrugged. “I don’t even know if I have any friends. They’re really just professional acquaintances.”

He sighed before looking back to Chris. “Is that the life you’ve dreamed of?”

Chris looked down, not wanting to respond.

“I didn’t think so,” Dr. Sandersen said with a snort. “Listen. I like you, Chris. So I’m going to tell you the truth before it’s too late: medicine’s a voracious monster. Just look at me. Yeah, I’m a good surgeon, but that’s all. Somehow, sometime—and I don’t even know how or when it happened—every other part of the person I wanted to be was devoured by the surgeon. The husband, father, friend, even the runner’s gone. All taken away—robbed! Swallowed up by that insatiable beast called medicine.”

Dr. Sandersen’s pager beeped and he read the message silently. “They’re ready for me in the OR.” He stood and trudged toward the cabinet housing clean scrubs. He changed into a fresh top before turning again to Chris. “Congratulations, if that’s what you want. But beware: medicine will consume you too if you’re not careful. And you won’t even realize it’s happened.”

He wet his hands under the faucet and ran them through his hair, smoothing it back with a comb from his back pocket as he walked toward the door. With his hand on the doorknob, he turned back to add, “You’ll just wake up one day and wonder where the rest of you went.” Then he squared his shoulders, opened the door, and left. Before the door closed, Chris heard him call a seemingly cheerful, “Good morning, Mrs. B,” as he walked down the hall.

Surely Dr. Sandersen was exaggerating, Chris tried to tell himself. He was probably just tired.

Is he? asked a voice in his head. Or is he a picture of you in fifteen years?

The thought seemed too heavy. Chris had spent most of his twenty-two years working toward becoming a physician. His whole family had sacrificed to help him get through college. After all that, was it possible he was making a big mistake?

He went back to his dorm room and took that nap. But he didn’t sleep well. The discouraged figure on the sofa kept haunting his dreams. And at some point—Chris didn’t know just how or when it happened—he became that figure on the sofa.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Della Loredo
    Jun 14, 2012 @ 08:19:51

    Jazzmin – I’m glad you liked this. To tell the truth, it’s still one of my favorites. It was one of the first chapters I wrote for this book, but its main purpose was simply to help me get to know Chris. Including it in the book made the introduction — everything before the race itself — too long and drawn out. So I finally bit the bullet and cut it.

    Like

    Reply

  2. Jazzmin
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 10:16:47

    Why was this not included??

    Like

    Reply

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