4 months ago
I awoke with a start to find her sitting on my bed. She wasn’t looking at me. “Who the f@#k are you?” was my initial reaction. I didn’t recognize the woman, and she wasn’t wearing scrubs. She was staring at the wall over my head....
doctor, short, story, hospital, goodbye
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I had been a doctor at St. Francis hospital for five years when I first saw her. Don’t worry about exactly where or when; I eventually came to realize just how much time and space are nothing more than our failed attempts to encapsulate the things that live inside.
This was the first time I saw her. It wasn’t the last.
I had relished the forty-minute nap my schedule allowed before the marathon operation that would take most of the morning.
So of course, I thought I was dreaming at first.
I awoke with a start to find her sitting on my bed. She wasn’t looking at me.
“Who the **** are you?” was my initial reaction. I didn’t recognize the woman, and she wasn’t wearing scrubs. She was staring at the wall over my head.
“It doesn’t really matter who I am, now does it, Ann?” she pondered in a gravelly voice, still looking above me. “What really matters is who you are.”
“Get the **** off my bed,” I demanded sleepily.
She didn’t react. “You’re trying to imbalance the scales, you know. Can you tell me what the scariest part about that is?”
I didn’t react. Something was off about her. I didn’t feel any weight pressing down on the flimsy mattress where she sat, and my voice echoed around the room like I was the only one there.
“The scariest part is that you can make a difference.” Here she turned to look directly into my eyes, and I was flooded with a sense of vertigo. “But you’ll have to live with the scales that you make crooked. You’ll go into the operating room and grasp a soul incarnate between your fingers; what is done can never be undone. Are you willing?”
I was more awake now, and angry. “I wouldn’t be here if I was unwilling.”
She nodded, then reached out and grabbed my forearm forcefully, pressing her thumb down into my flesh. I started to wrestle it free, and realized that I was in the room completely alone.
A surgeon cannot risk damage to her arms. They are sacred in a way that most people are unable to grasp. I stared down in horror at what she had left.
My hand was pain-free with full range of motion.
The x-shaped scar that had not been there before did not affect its mobility.
I had decided to become a surgeon because I thought I could change the world.
It turns out that I was right. I wish I had understood that in the beginning.
I wish I had understood what St. Francis hospital truly was.
I wish that was the last time the woman visited me.
I wish that I wasn’t responsible for the outcome of that morning’s surgery.
I watched them from a short distance. They didn’t notice me at all.
The man squeezed his wife’s hand tightly, smiling down at her, sadness etched into his face. She smiled back from the gurney, weakness and weariness carved into hers. They were in their fifties, but their collective countenances betrayed the pain of the very old.
“I’ve never loved anyone more,” he offered sadly. He stroked her waxy cheek delicately, like he might break it.
“Hey. I’m wouldn’t be going into this operating room if I’d given up,” she responded meekly, running her fingers through his graying beard.
He breathed in a trembling breath. “I know. I know. I’m hoping too.” He blinked away a tear. “But we have to be realistic as well. They said a ten percent chance of sucs…” he trailed off, his eyes now streaming openly. “We have to be ready – I have to be ready to accept this as goodb-”
“Don’t say it,” she interrupted, clamping her fingers down on his lips. “Just don’t. As long as I’m breathing, I’m fighting.”
He nodded, squinting through the tears. “But you know you can’t tell me how to feel. Loving someone means you don’t get to choose how you show it.” The man fidgeted with his hands, not knowing what more to do or say. He was holding a full bottle of her pills, and stared at them. “The pain – how is it?”
She sighed. “Nothing hurts. Those painkillers pack a punch.”
He forced a chuckle. “You’re flying now, aren’t you?”
She genuinely laughed. It was a very quiet sound.
“You were always afraid to fly.” Here he interwove his fingers with hers. “You would make me hold your hand the entire time.”
She gave him a very knowing look, simultaneously serious and playful. “And who’s afraid to let go now?” she asked, looking down at their hands.
He didn’t – or couldn’t – return her playful half. “I’m more afraid that I can possibly say.”
She shook his fist. “I need you to be strong for me,” she coaxed, with more than a hint of desperation.
He looked down at the floor and was quiet for a long moment. When he did speak, it was clear that he had been crying. “How?” he sniffed. “You are my strength.”
She was unable to answer him.
It was time. I walked over to them, breaking their reverie. “Patient 1913, they’re ready for you in the operating room.”
He squeezed her hand so tightly that he nearly broke it. But he did not say goodbye.
Five hours later, I was beyond what I’d thought the limits of exhaustion could be. But I was smiling.
This was the reason I endured it all. The moment, right now, that changed someone’s world for the better, was the purpose for which I pushed myself through the unending sadness of unanswered hospital prayers.
“It was a success!” I announced triumphantly, pushing the doors open. “She beat the odds, she’s doing better than we…”
I stopped talking and looked down at the man.
He was slumped in his chair, completely still.
Clutched in his stiffened fingers was his wife’s bottle of pills.
It was empty.