Mere Mortals

 

by Satchmo Fortis

 

 

 

 

Dr. Kelly Brackett stood at the nurses’ station hastily scribbling notes on a chart.  He was suffering from an unbearable headache.  The nasal stuffiness that had been plaguing him for months was particularly intense this morning, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe through his nose.  He finished writing the orders and handed the chart to Dixie.  “The man in Room 4 needs x-rays of his right forearm.  I’d also like Greg Pontiff from ophthalmology to take a look at him.  The corneal abrasion is pretty deep.”

 

His white-haired colleague frowned.  “Kel, you sound extremely congested this morning.  Are your sinuses bothering you again?”

 

Unwilling to admit he felt less than perfect, he attempted to downplay his dilemma.  “A little.  Perhaps the pollen count is higher than normal today.”

 

Dr. Early appeared skeptical.  “If that were the case, we’d be seeing other patients with respiratory complaints.  Why don’t you let me take a look at you?”

 

The head of emergency services started to slink toward his office.  “No, really, I’m fine.”

 

Dixie vigorously shook her head.  “Obviously you’re not fine or you wouldn’t be trying to pull a Houdini on us.  Stop the macho act and go with Joe,” she sternly warned.

 

Defeated, he morosely entered the treatment room and sat on the table.  Dr. Early carefully examined his ears, nose and throat and was now listening to his chest.  Dr. Brackett closed his eyes as he took a deep breath.  He hated being a patient.  This was his emergency room, and he was in charge.  Being a patient changed the dynamics of that relationship.  He felt vulnerable, an emotion he was not accustomed to.  By denying his physical complaints he could continue to believe in the myth of his own invincibility.  If only those pesky little symptoms would go away, everything would be fine.

 

“Kel, it looks like you have a nasty case of sinusitis,” Dr. Early pronounced.

 

Dr. Brackett appeared crestfallen.  It was official; he was a mere human.  “You’re kidding.”

 

His colleague began searching through the cabinets for medication samples.  “Absolutely no doubt about it.  No wonder you’re having so much trouble breathing today.”  As he handed Dr. Brackett a handful of antibiotics, he inquired, “Isn’t this your fifth infection in the past sixth months?  Have you considered seeing an ENT specialist?”

 

“Yes, and I haven’t given it any thought.”

 

“Well, there has to be a reason why you’re susceptible to so many infections in such a short period of time.  Why don’t I have Dixie set up an appointment for you with Frank Abrams?”

 

“Joe…”

 

“Would you rather hear this lecture from me or from Dix?” Dr. Early asked as he folded his arms.

 

“Oh, all right!” agreed the dejected Kelly Brackett.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Station 51’s paramedics carried their equipment to the dilapidated house in an older section of the city.  The aroma of alcohol permeated the premises, and the open front door revealed a very intoxicated group of people haphazardly strewn throughout the living room.  A distraught young woman frantically pulled at Roy’s arm.

 

“Please hurry!” she implored.  “I think he’s dead!”  She pointed to a bearded man sprawled on the couch.

 

“What happened?” asked Johnny as he set the drug box and biophone down on the floor.

 

She looked at the unconscious form of her friend and hesitated.

 

“Ma’am,” Roy prompted, “we need to know what happened so we can help him.”

 

The woman started crying hysterically.  “He was shooting up heroin and he felt really good for a while, but then he fell asleep and I couldn’t wake him!”

 

“Did he take anything else?”

 

“No, no.  Just a couple of beers.”

 

As Johnny knelt down in the plush carpet beside the man, he felt a sharp pain along his lower left leg.  “Ouch!”

 

“What’s the matter?” Roy asked.

 

“I scratched myself on something.”  Returning to the task at hand, he efficiently recorded the victim’s vital signs and examined his pupils.  He hurriedly wrote the information on his notepad as he reached for the biophone.  “Rampart, this is Squad 51.  Do you read?”

 

“Squad 51, this is Rampart.  Go ahead,” replied the severely congested voice of Dr. Brackett.

 

“Rampart, we have a 32-year-old male, the victim of a heroin overdose.  A witness denies the concurrent use of other drugs except the ingestion of two beers.  Victim is unconscious and completely non-responsive.  Pupils are fixed and dilated.  Vitals are as follows:  blood pressure is 64/42, pulse 32 and respirations are 8.”

 

“10-4, 51.  Insert an endotracheal tube.  Administer 0.8 mg. Narcan through the endotracheal tube, and flush with 10 ml. Lactated Ringer’s/Normal Saline fluid.  Start an IV of D5W TKO.  Maintain adequate ventilation and transport the patient as soon as possible.”

 

The paramedic repeated the instructions for confirmation.  “10-4 Rampart.  51 out.”  After treatment was initiated, Johnny briefly scanned the floor for the sharp object that scraped him earlier.  Not finding the offending culprit, he helped the ambulance attendant load the gurney as Roy ventilated their victim.

 

“Is he going to be okay?” she young woman pleaded.

 

“I don’t know,” Johnny honestly answered.  “The doctors are going to do everything they can for him.  Would you would like to ride in the front of the ambulance?”

 

The devastated woman raced to the passenger’s seat and swiftly closed the door.  She began to sob convulsively as she thought about how the party went tragically awry.  It was her boyfriend’s birthday, and he excitedly brought home a small plastic bag with something special to celebrate the occasion.  Borrowing a needle from one of their friends, he injected the liquefied form of the drug into his vein.  For several minutes his expression was one of pure bliss, and she delighted in his contentment.  But when he could not be roused, she panicked and called the fire department.  In her mind she could picture the dirty syringe her boyfriend buried in the carpet.  If only it knew how much trouble it had caused.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Johnny sat on the exam table waiting to attend to one final piece of unfinished business before they could return to the station.  With the exuberance of a small child, he swung his legs back and forth.

 

“That’s not fair,” Dixie complained as she entered the room.  “It should be illegal for grown people to have that much energy.”

 

“How is the guy we brought in?  Is he going to be okay?”

 

She sighed.  “I don’t know, it’s too early to tell.”

 

“It’s a shame,” Johnny said.  “What a way to spend your birthday.”

 

“Well, speaking of presents, I have something for you.”  She brandished a hypodermic needle in her hand.

 

“I thought I was current on my tetanus shots,” he grumbled.

 

“We can’t be too careful, especially since you weren’t able to determine what caused that gash along your shin.”

 

“Yeah, yeah.”

 

As Dixie swabbed his arm, she could feel his muscles tense.  “Would it help if I offered to kiss your boo-boo when I’m done?”

 

“Aw Dix!  I’m not a baby!”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Dr. Brackett felt like he had been sentenced to a firing squad.  Yes, he was suffering from yet another sinus infection, and yes, he was miserable.  But he was extremely uncomfortable consulting another physician about a condition of his own.  He was supposed to provide medical care, not to receive it.  He was angry with himself for allowing Joe and Dixie to intimidate him into seeing a specialist.  For heaven’s sake, the recurrent sinus infections he suffered paled by comparison to the trauma cases he saw every day in the emergency department.  Convinced this visit was a monumental waste of his and the ENT specialist’s time, he decided to leave when the nurse called his name.

 

“Dr. Kelly Brackett, would you please come with me?”

 

Damn.  He sullenly followed the nurse to the examination room and sat in the odd looking chair.

 

“Dr. Abrams will be with you in a few minutes,” she said as she closed the door behind her.

 

His anxiety grew as he inventoried the highly specialized equipment.  Knowing the purposes for each item should alleviate his irrational fears, but instead they only served to reinforce them.  What in the heck was he doing here?  This room looked like a medieval torture chamber!  Any moment he expected to spy a cat-o-nine tails mounted next to the otoscope.  His near panic attack was interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Abrams.

 

“Kel, I’m glad to see you send some business my way, but you didn’t have to come in person.”  The ENT specialist extended his right hand in greeting.

 

He automatically shook the man’s proffered hand.  “Well, I wanted to make sure the job was done right.”  Suddenly his mouth was having difficulty producing enough saliva to swallow.

 

“Hmm.  You do sound congested.  I understand you’ve had several infections over the past six months?”

 

“I see my reputation precedes me,” Dr. Brackett half-heartedly laughed.  “Yes, I’ve had at least five.  That’s not including the clear drainage in between infections.  Penicillin helps for a couple of weeks but then I’m right back where I started.”

 

“Okay, let me take a look.  Lean forward a bit and tilt your head back.”  Dr. Abrams examined his nose, then his throat and ears.  He furiously completed several forms before returning his attention to his patient.

 

“I’m ordering a series of x-rays and a CT scan of your sinuses,” he said.  “You have a deviated septum which is largely responsible for your symptoms.  In most cases, there are usually associated defects.  The films should detect any additional abnormalities.  Once I receive the results, I’ll give you a call and we’ll go over them and discuss treatment options.”

 

Treatment options?  He could not believe he was having this conversation.  Did he accidentally materialize into an episode of the Twilight Zone?

 

“Sure, Frank.  That will be fine.”

 

Dr. Abrams handed him a handful of paper.  “Here are the orders for the views I need.  You can have them done at your convenience.”

 

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

 

Yeah, thanks a lot Joe and Dixie!

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Dr. Kelly Brackett sat in the unfamiliar patient’s chair in the ENT specialist’s consulting room.  He surveyed the customary diplomas and family pictures on the walls, as well as the books and other bric-a-brac scattered throughout the office as he impatiently waited for Dr. Abrams to enter.  Finally, the physician arrived carrying a large envelope of films.  He immediately started clipping the x-rays on the light box mounted on the wall.

 

“The bad news is the x-rays and CT scan show several structural defects which are currently inhibiting your breathing.  The primary problem is a severe deviated septum, but you also have significant narrowing of the canals, as well as enlarged turbinates.  You’re prone to repeated infections since your sinuses aren’t able to drain properly.”

 

Dr. Abrams continued, “The good news is we can correct this surgically.  Due to the chronic nature of your problem, I’m sure you’re anxious to make arrangements as soon as possible.”

 

“Surgery?  What about allergy shots or a short course of Prednisone?”  Intellectually Dr. Brackett knew he wasn’t thinking like a physician at the moment.  The idea of voluntarily undergoing the knife frightened him.  Perhaps he could learn to live with the headaches and congestion.  Unquestionably they were a more pleasant prospect.

 

The specialist chuckled.  “No, that’s not going to work.  I’m afraid surgery is your best option.”

 

Perhaps stalling for time would appease the knife-happy surgeon.  “I’ll have to check my schedule and get back to you.”

 

“That’s fine.  I look forward to hearing from you,” Dr. Abrams confidently declared.

 

He wished he could reciprocate the sincerity of the feeling.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Dr. Brackett brooded in his office.  He seemed to be perpetually in a proverbial Catch-22 situation.  He needed surgery to prevent future recurrent sinus infections, but he couldn’t have it if he had an active infection.  His most recent bout with sinusitis resolved about two weeks ago.  Common sense dictated he call Dr. Abrams’ office as soon as possible before another setback occurred, but the idea of undergoing general anesthesia and having someone cut into him was reprehensible.  He shuddered at the thought.

 

A soft knock at the door interrupted his reverie.  “Kel, do you have a minute?”  Joe Early cautiously stood in the doorway.

 

“Sure, come on in.”

 

Dr. Early seated himself in one of the chairs opposite Dr. Brackett’s imposing desk.  “I passed Frank Abrams in the corridor about an hour ago.  He wants to know when you’re going to call to set up your surgery, and to be honest, I’m wondering the same thing.”

 

“What is this, a conspiracy?” the dark-haired physician asked suspiciously.

 

“No, I’m asking as a concerned friend.  It’s clear you need the procedure, and you certainly have enough personal and vacation time accrued to have it done.”  A thought struck Dr. Early.  “You don’t have another infection, do you?”

 

“No, nothing like that.”

 

“Then give me one good reason why you haven’t called and scheduled this,” Dr. Early challenged.

 

Dr. Brackett struggled to construct a plausible excuse.  “Well, the annual trend analysis reports are due soon…”

 

“That’s three months from now, and you usually don’t start on those until a month before the board meeting anyway.  You’ll have to do better than that.”

 

He tried a different approach.  “Joe, historically this is always our busiest time of year.  You know a new academic year just started, so we have a fresh crop of interns and residents rotating through the department.  This simply isn’t a good time to take a couple of weeks off for elective surgery.”

 

Dr. Early lifted an eyebrow.  “So it’s more convenient to suffer from chronic sinusitis?”

 

“I didn’t say that.”

 

“You didn’t say what,” Dixie questioned as she rounded the corner.

 

The white-haired physician grandly gestured toward their boss.  “Our esteemed head of emergency services is attempting to explain to me why he can’t spare the time from his busy schedule to have the surgery he obviously needs.”

 

“Kel, what is your problem?,” she snapped.  “You’re not indispensable, you know.  We can survive for a couple of weeks without you.”

 

“Dix…”

 

She angrily picked up the phone and handed it to him.  “So help me Kel, if you don’t arrange this right now, I’m going to grab a Black & Decker drill and make a few holes in your head myself!”

 

A shell-shocked Kelly Brackett stared at the insistent head nurse.  “I’m waiting,” she reminded him.

 

Numbly, he began dialing.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Even though the men of A-Shift were only called out to respond to a few minor calls that anyone with a fire extinguisher and basic first-aid kit could handle, Johnny was exhausted.  His muscles and joints ached fiercely, and nausea threatened to overtake him.  Perhaps he caught some bug that was going around.

 

Visions of a warm, soft bed tantalized his weary brain.  This weekend he planned to do nothing more strenuous than changing channels on television.  Johnny couldn’t remember ever being so tired.  Every movement required extraordinary effort.  He poured himself a cup of strong black coffee to rouse himself to consciousness.  While listening to the animated conversation of his shift-mates, he felt himself nodding off.

 

“Hey, Sleeping Beauty,” Chet taunted.  “Shift’s not over for another fifteen minutes.”

 

“Huh?”  Johnny struggled to fight his way to consciousness.

 

“What’s the matter?  Isn’t our company exciting enough for you?”

 

The paramedic tried to clear his head.  “I’m sorry.  I think I’m coming down with something.  I don’t feel too well.”

 

The mustachioed man jumped back.  “Ooh.  Keep your germs to yourself.  Stay on your side of the table.”

 

Roy studied his partner appraisingly.  “Do you think you might have the flu that’s been going around?”

 

“I guess.  I woke up this morning feeling like crap,” Johnny replied.  “All I want to do is go home and sleep for about a week.”

 

Captain Stanley intervened.  “John, why don’t you head on home a little early?”

 

“That’s okay, shift will be over in a few minutes anyway.”

 

Cap cleared his throat rather forcefully.  “Pal, that wasn’t a suggestion.”

 

Johnny meekly answered, “Yes, sir.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

An irritable Dr. Brackett was in his office catching up on his delinquent charts when Dr. Early seated himself in one of the leather chairs.  “Kel, am I interrupting anything important?” he asked almost apologetically.

 

His colleague snarled.  “No, I have to catch up on my charts before I can even consider taking any time off.”

 

Dr. Early was clearly pleased.  “So this means you’re finally going to have your surgery done.  When?”

 

“Theoretically I’m on the schedule for Tuesday morning, but if I don’t catch up on my charts, I won’t be going anyway for ages.  You know how the records administrator is.  She’s threatening to suspend my admitting privileges until I’m current on my charts.  This is going to take me forever!”  For some reason Dr. Brackett didn’t appear terribly disappointed about that prospect.

 

“How many charts do you have?”

 

“Seventy-eight.  Most of them only require signatures, but quite a few need dictation done,” he complained.

 

“Hmm.”  Dr. Early spent several minutes flipping though the charts and reorganizing them into neat stacks.

 

“What are you doing?” Dr. Brackett demanded.

 

“I’m trying to keep you on schedule.  The largest stack only needs your signature.  This stack requires Admitting History & Physical Summaries dictated and this stack needs Discharge Summaries dictated.  You could probably get the signatures done in a couple of hours.  If you dictate seven charts a day, you can be finished in plenty of time with two days to spare.”

 

“Joe, you’re all heart.”

 

“I’m trying to make sure you have one less excuse to try to worm your way out of this,” Dr. Early grinned.

 

The dark-haired physician appeared flustered.  “What makes you think I’m having second thoughts?”

 

“Because I know you, Kel.  You never have been a cooperative, compliant patient.  I have a sneaking suspicion you don’t plan to start.”

 

“Maybe I plan to turn over a new leaf,” he countered.

 

Dr. Early was not persuaded.  “When pigs fly.”

 

“You sound like Dixie!” wailed an exasperated Dr. Brackett.  “Why doesn’t anyone trust me?”

 

Grinning like a Cheshire cat, his colleague reminded him, “It’s called experience.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Johnny sat at his locker, slowing buttoning his shirt.  Despite lounging around his apartment on his days off, he felt incredibly lethargic this morning.  He was jolted to reality when Roy good-naturedly slapped him on the back.  “Hey Junior, how are you feeling?”

 

“Oh man, I’m beat,” Johnny announced.  “I must have slept for two days straight and I’m still bone-tired.”

 

Roy was immediately concerned.  He instinctively reached out to touch his partner’s forehead.  “Good grief, Johnny!  You’re burning up.  You should be home in bed.  I’ll go tell Cap.”

 

“No, don’t do that,” he implored.  “Once I get a cup of coffee in me I’m sure my energy will pick up.”

 

The senior paramedic was not swayed.  “That’s not going to lower your temperature.  I’m going to have Cap call in a replacement.  Face it Johnny, you’re sick.  Get changed and go home and rest.”

 

Johnny slumped forward in defeat.  “Oh, all right.”

 

“Are you going to be okay to drive?”

 

That was a good question.  He wasn’t confident he had the energy to change back into his street clothes, let alone navigate back to his apartment.  “Yeah, but I’d like to take a nap before I start on my way.”  He shakily walked to the dorm and collapsed onto his bunk.

 

Three hours later Roy approached his feverish partner.  “Junior, you need to wake up.”

 

“Go away,” he swatted.

 

“It’s time to go home,” Roy persisted.

 

Johnny opened his eyes to mere slits.  “I’m comfortable here.”

 

“You’re sick and you need to sleep in your own bed.  JoAnne is here to take you home.  I’ll drop your car off at your apartment in the morning.  Now move it.”

 

With a considerable lack of enthusiasm, Johnny forced his fatigued body into an upright position.  “Okay, okay, I’m coming.”  He followed Roy to the day room and greeted JoAnne.  “Hey, I hear you’ve been volunteered as my taxi driver.  I’m sorry about that.  I don’t mean to put you out.”

 

She eagerly hugged him.  “It’s no trouble at all.  When you have two kids, you’re used to being pressed into the taxi business at a moment’s notice!”  Unable to suppress her maternal urge, she felt Johnny’s forehead.  “You are burning up!  Let’s get you home so you can get well.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

God bless JoAnne.  Not only did she drive Johnny to his apartment, she generously stocked his kitchen with traditional “flu foods.”  She bought several cans of chicken noodle soup and broth, two six-packs of ginger ale and a box of saltine crackers.  JoAnne even prepared two recipes of Jell-O in case he didn’t feel well enough later to do it himself. 

 

Two days later Johnny’s wretchedness lingered.  He was suffering from fever, chills, nausea and vomiting.  His abdomen was sore and the aching in his muscles and joints was excruciating.  Decent sleep even cruelly eluded him.  The sharp ringing of the telephone provided a welcome relief from his exercise in self-pity.  He sluggishly picked up the phone.  “Hello?”

 

“How are you feeling, Junior?” an altogether too cheery voice asked.

 

“Like I should be planning my funeral arrangements.  “This is positively the worst case of the flu I’ve ever had in my life.”

 

Roy snickered.  “I hate to bring this up, but does your life insurance policy list me as your beneficiary?”

 

“Very funny,” Johnny replied.

 

“Do you need anything?  Can we take you to see a doctor, or pick up any groceries for you?  You know we’d be happy to help out.”

 

Johnny weighed his options.  “If it’s the flu, then it’s viral and it has to run its course.  You know the saying.  If you see a doctor, you’re better in a week, but if you don’t, you’re well in seven days.”

 

“I’m not sure I agree with you.  You may be getting dehydrated,” Roy warned.

 

“Well, I am running low on ginger ale.  If you or JoAnne are in the neighborhood, I’d appreciate a restock order.”

 

His friend seemed appeased.  “Okay, that sounds good.  JoAnne can drop some off after she takes the kids to school.  Anything else?”

 

“Yeah, the name of a good funeral home and a florist would be helpful,” Johnny joked.

 

“You’re hopeless!  Get some rest.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Dr. Kelly Brackett sat in his darkened office, listening to classical music and massaging his aching temples.  His thoughts turned to tomorrow’s agenda and his spine tingled.  The legendary brusque Brackett temperament had dissipated.  He usually prided himself on being fearless and controlling. Yet, alone in his office he was consumed with self-doubt.  If one of his patients suffered from the same chronic condition and required this procedure, he would recommend it without reservation.  Why couldn’t he accept the fact even doctors required medical intervention on occasion?  And why was that thought so damn scary?

 

He badly needed a couple of aspirin to dull his tension headache that had been building all day, but the pre-operative orders unequivocally prohibited the use of any medications that might interfere with clotting factors.  Instead, he resumed rubbing his forehead and contemplated his predicament.

 

Dixie came in carrying steaming hot cups of coffee.  “You looked like you could use some caffeine.”

 

Gratefully, he accepted a cup.  “You’re an angel.”  He readily swallowed the aromatic liquid as though he was in a world of his own.

 

“A penny for your thoughts,” she promised.

 

“Oh, it’s nothing really.  I have a horrible tension headache.”

 

She instinctively began massaging the tight muscles in his neck.  “About?”

 

“About what?” he replied.

 

“Kel, you’re not as dense as you pretend to be,” Dixie admonished.  “What do you have a horrible tension headache about?”

 

Dr. Early poked his head around the door.  “What is this about a headache?  I thought Kel usually gave headaches.”

 

Dr. Brackett mumbled, “Doesn’t any one ever knock around here?”

 

The head nurse continued her ministrations.  “He’s complaining of a tension headache, but he won’t tell me what it’s about.  But my guess is he’s stressing out over the prospect of his impending surgery.”

 

“That’s ridiculous,” he shouted.

 

Dixie winked at Dr. Early before returning her attentions to her petulant charge.  “What time are you scheduled to check in at the admissions desk tomorrow?”

 

The tense physician’s complexion was ghastly pale.  “I don’t have to be there until noon!”

 

“Kel, do you need anything for anxiety?” Dr. Early suggested.  “It might help your headache.  I know it would certainly help ours.”  The fair-haired doctor and Dixie broke out into a fit of hysterical giggles.

 

Dr. Brackett debated his answer.  He didn’t want to admit his weakness, but he was absolutely frightened to death.  A sedative might take the edge off his mounting terror.  “Fine!” he glowered.  “But I’m only consenting to take them strictly as a humanitarian gesture.”

 

“Thanks, Kel.  I appreciate your dedication to public service,” Dixie said as she affectionately rested her hand on his neck.

 

*     *     *     *      *

 

The head of emergency services grimly picked up a chart from the nurses’ station and began reading the patient’s history.

 

“Kel, what are you doing here?” asked a stunned Dr. Early.

 

“Working, what does it look like I’m doing?” he skillfully deflected.

 

“Aren’t you supposed to be in the admitting office?”

 

“I don’t have to check in until noon, so I thought I’d make myself useful until then.”

 

Dixie dryly observed the exchange.  “Kel’s probably hoping we’ll get swamped and he’ll conveniently forget to register.”

 

The doctor shot back, “Dix, I’m wounded you would accuse me of such a ploy.”

 

“Uh huh.  Do you have your suitcase in your office?”

 

“Of course not, it’s in my car.”

 

She held out her hand.  “Hand them over.  I’ll go get it out of your car so you’ll have one less excuse not to check in at the appointed time.”

 

Dr. Brackett growled as he fished the keys out of his pocket.  “You sound like you don’t trust me.”

 

“Not for a moment.”

 

His colleague mused, “I think we can insure he will be removed from duty at noon due to mental instability.”

 

Dixie’s face lit up.  “I whole-heartedly concur with your prognosis.”

 

It was official.  He was a beaten man.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Dr. Brackett never understood the need for extraneous paperwork.  He impatiently endured the admissions process as the clerk shuffled through an avalanche of forms.

 

“Okay, Dr. Brackett, we have you scheduled for a private room on 4 West.  I need for you to sign here, here, here, here, here, here,” she paused while she flipped to the next section, “here, here and here.”

 

He sighed as he proceeded to sign his life away.  Most of the forms were the standard consent to treatment, authorization to release information for billing purposes, agreement to pay for services not covered by insurance, etc.  He probably even signed a form refinancing his house.  When the clerk was satisfied the plethora of forms were completed, she attached a bracelet around his right wrist and smiled sweetly.  “If you’ll have a seat in the waiting room, someone from transportation services will be down with a wheelchair shortly to take you to your room.”

 

“I don’t need a wheelchair,” he huffed.  “I’m perfectly capable of walking there myself.”

 

“I’m sure you are sir, but it’s hospital policy for all patients to be escorted to their rooms in this manner,” she apologized.

 

He was furious.  It was hospital policy, but he hadn’t expected the rules to be applied to him.  He was about to demand to speak to the young woman’s supervisor when a familiar figure loomed on the horizon.

 

“Is there a problem, Kel?”  Dixie struck a menacing stance.

 

“Uh, I, uh, can find my own way to my room,” he pathetically explained.

 

“Kelly Brackett!  You know the rules of this hospital as well as I do.  All patients must be escorted to their room by wheelchair or gurney.  No exceptions.”  She pulled at the plastic band wrapped around his arm.  “In case you haven’t noticed, you’re officially a patient now, and the rules apply to you too.”

 

The doctor was not impressed.  “Well, it’s a stupid rule.  I’m ambulatory, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be allowed to walk to my own room.”

 

“Do the words ‘potential legal liability’ ring a bell?”

 

“Oh Dix, for crying out loud!  I’m not going to fall and sue my own hospital!  You’re being absurd.”

 

“No,” she argued, “you’re being bull-headed.”  Her expression softened.  “What about a compromise?  Would you allow me to take you to your room?”

 

Somewhat mollified, he wickedly grinned.  “Slave!  Fetch me my chariot!”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

He stared at the sterile walls of his private room.  The only splash of color was the large impressionist style print hanging directly across from his bed.  Funny, he worked at this hospital for years, but he never found the unique antiseptic smell unsettling until now.  There was a constant cacophony of noise:  doctors being paged over the intercom, patients contacting the nurses’ desk, visitors shuffling throughout the corridors, voices murmuring, telephones ringing.  How on earth did they expect patients to rest?

 

Dr. Brackett noted the time on his watch.  It was eight o’clock.  In ten and a half hours he would be wheeled to the operating suite to begin the pre-operative procedures.  He felt a peculiar tightness in his chest at the thought of his approaching doom.

 

The anesthesiologist performed his evaluation half an hour ago.  Without a prior surgical history, Dr. Brackett had no idea if he was likely to experience any adverse reactions to anesthesia or not.  That uncertainty unnerved him.  Fortunately Dr. Roberts was a cautious physician, and he decided to adjust his choice of medications accordingly.  He was also a perceptive man.  Sensing his patient’s growing agitation, he wrote orders for a mild sedative and a sleeping pill.

 

Feeling like he had a date with the executioner rather than his surgeon in the morning, Dr. Brackett tried to calm his breathing to quell the rising panic.  He closed his eyes in concentration.

 

Dixie’s soft whisper was heard at the door.  “I think he’s asleep.”

 

He was startled into alertness.  “I’m awake.  Come on in.”

 

Dr. Early seated himself in one of the notoriously uncomfortable visitor’s chairs.  “How are you doing, Kel?”

 

“You realize of course I have ample time to make a break for it.”

 

“Oh, Kel.  You make it sound like a prison sentence,” Dixie scolded.

 

He indicated his accommodations.  “I am in solitary.”

 

She playfully slapped him on his leg.  “When you can breathe decently in a few weeks, you’re going to be glad you did this.”

 

“Right.”

 

“Kel, you owe it to the department to have this done.  You behave like a real bear when you’re sick,” Dr. Early said.

 

“I do not!” Dr. Brackett vigorously denied.

 

Dixie nodded.  “I’m afraid I have to agree with Joe.  When you’re miserable, everyone is miserable.”

 

“Well, I’m certainly going to be miserable tomorrow.”  The depression in his voice did not go unnoticed.

 

Dr. Early stood up and squeezed his friend’s shoulder reassuringly.  “Good luck.  We’ll see you after your surgery.”  Dixie didn’t say anything.  She simply leaned forward and gave him a kiss.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The perky young nurse quietly entered Dr. Brackett’s room.  “Sir, I have your evening medications for you.”  She held out the small paper cup and glass of water and waited expectantly.

 

“What is this?” he barked.

 

“Dr. Roberts left orders for a sedative and a sleeping pill for tonight,” she timidly answered.  “Didn’t he mention this?”

 

The memory of the conversation came rushing back.  Yes, the anesthesiologist had discussed his plans at length.  This was so embarrassing.  He was going to be a complete basket case by tomorrow morning!

 

“Yes, yes he did.  I’m sorry, I forgot.”  The doctor swallowed the pills and thanked the nurse profusely.

 

Hopefully the medication would take effect soon.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“Dr. Brackett.  Dr. Brackett.  You need to wake up.”

 

“What?”

 

The nurse firmly shook his shoulder.  “Surgery will be up in fifteen minutes.  You need to void your bladder and change into a gown,” she instructed.

 

He fuzzily sat on the edge of the bed trying to clear the cobwebs from the drug-induced sleep.  The moment of truth was finally here.  He barely had time to complete the requested activities when the gurney arrived.

 

“Your ride is here,” the nurse announced.

 

They helped him climb onto the gurney, and then covered him with a thin hospital sheet.  Dang!  Did they put these things in the refrigerator before they gave them to patients?  Brrrr!  The attendants rolled him down the corridor and into the elevator, bumping him against the doors in the process.  Where do these people learn to drive?  At drunken frat parties?  He clenched his fist in irritation.

 

In a couple of moments he was wheeled into the surgical holding area.  A white curtain partitioned his cubicle.  Predictably, a nurse holding a ream of papers approached him.  She checked the name on his hospital bracelet.  “Are you Kelly Brackett?”

 

“Yes, guilty as charged.”

 

The woman beamed.  She was entirely too enthusiastic for this early in the morning.  “My name is Joan and I’m your nurse this morning.  I’m going to ask you a few questions and then I’m going to get your IV started.  Okay?”

 

Dr. Brackett protectively held his arm.  “What if I’ve changed my mind?”

 

She seemed to find the remark amusing.  “We have drugs to subjugate you to our will.  Besides, according to your chart, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when.’  You’re already here, so what do you say?”

 

Resigned to his plight, he replied, “Oh, okay.”

 

“All right then.  Let’s see, you haven’t had anything to eat or drink since midnight, right?”

 

The nervous man shook his head.  “No.”

 

The nurse checked off an item on her list.  “Did you void this morning?”

 

Geez!  How humiliating!  He nonchalantly answered, “Yes.”

 

“Are you allergic to any medications?”

 

“Not that I’m aware of.”

 

“Have you ever had surgery before?” she queried.

 

“No.”

 

“Are you wearing anything under your gown?”

 

He was becoming annoyed at the intrusions.  “No.”

 

“Okay then.  Let’s get your IV started.  Are you right or left handed?” she questioned.

 

His mind went completely blank for a moment.  “Uh, right.”

 

She swabbed down his left arm and deftly started the IV.  “Dr. Roberts ordered some pre-operative Valium, so you should be feeling pretty relaxed in a few minutes.”  Joan removed the syringe from the port and deposited it in the sharps container.

 

In spite of the sedative, Dr. Brackett still felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety.  He prided himself on taking charge during crisis situations.  That’s why he thrived in the emergency room.  Yet, at present he felt anything but in control.  He felt completely at the mercy of other people.  Sure, he knew Frank Abrams was professionally qualified to perform this procedure, Pete Roberts was an extremely competent anesthesiologist and the staff of Rampart Hospital was the finest group of people he had the privilege of working with.  But he hated admitting to himself that he wasn’t the master of the universe.  Even worse, he wasn’t in control of his own body.

 

A voice penetrated through the fog.  “Kel, are you ready?”

 

Dr. Brackett looked up into the kind face of Dr. Roberts.  “Yeah, let’s get this over with.”

 

“Now there’s an eager patient!” the anesthesiologist joked as he rolled his patient toward the double doors of the operating room.

 

After transferring him to the operating table, Dr. Roberts began attaching him to various monitoring devices.  “Your vital signs are a bit elevated.  Are you okay?”

 

His mouth dry, Dr. Bracket struggled to moisten his lips.  “Yeah, I’m fine.”

 

The anesthesiologist wasn’t deceived.  “I’m going to give you a little bit more Valium.  You should feel better in a couple of minutes.”

 

Shortly afterward, a gowned and masked Frank Abrams entered the chilly OR.  “Dixie must be standing outside barring the door.  I can’t believe you’re finally here,” the surgeon jested.

 

The reluctant patient was rapidly losing his ability to stay conscious.  Dr. Abrams nodded to the anesthesiologist to begin.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

He was smothering.  There was something obscuring his nose and mouth preventing him from breathing, and he desperately clawed at the source.

 

“Dr. Brackett!  Don’t touch the mask!  You need to breathe through your mouth.”

 

The voice did not make sense.  Didn’t it understand he had to remove the obstruction so he could catch his breath?

 

Joan kindly nudged his shoulder to heighten his level of awareness.  “Dr. Brackett.  You’re in the recovery room.  You’ve just had surgery on your sinuses.  You can’t breathe through your nose because of the cotton packing.  You need to breathe through your mouth.  The humidified oxygen should make you more comfortable.”

 

Her message registered in some part of his brain.  Gradually his breathing eased.

 

“That’s it,” she encouraged.  “You’re doing fine.  Go back to sleep.”

 

He was too drugged to argue, and for once he complied with medical advice.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Dr. Brackett was returned to his private room a few hours ago, but sound sleep still escaped him.  His sinus cavities were stuffed with cotton, which created a panicky feeling when he tried to breathe.  Reflexively his mouth opened to draw in air, but it felt weird.  The humidified oxygen helped.  It could be because the warm moist air helped to keep his mucous membranes comfortable, or perhaps psychologically the steady supply of oxygen reassured him his breathing passages were not completely obstructed.

 

The angle of the bed was also proving problematic.  Until the swelling subsided, it was being maintained at a constant forty-five degrees.  Dr. Brackett was having difficulty adapting to his new position.  He was a capricious sleeper by nature, and the additional challenges were proving more than he could bear.

 

The throbbing in his face intensified an hour ago.  He gingerly touched the swollen area near the right side of his nose.  The warm liquid on his hand alarmed him.  Instinctively he pulled it away and studied the thick blood dripping from his fingertips.  He blindly groped along the railing for the nurse’s call button.

 

“Yes, how may I help you?” the disembodied voice asked.

 

The dazed doctor stared at his now bloodstained gown.  “My nose is bleeding.”

 

“I’ll be right there,” the voice promised.

 

Within seconds a nurse appeared.  “Dr. Brackett, when did this start?” she questioned.

 

“A couple of minutes ago.”

 

“Are you in any pain?”

 

“Yes,” he confessed, “it started about an hour ago.”

 

“Why didn’t you ask for your pain medication then?” she asked in amazement.

 

Dr. Brackett held his bloody palm to his nose.  “I thought I could handle it.”

 

The nurse was aghast.  “Sir, your medication will work more effectively if you take it at the earliest onset of symptoms.”  She carefully examined the source of the bleeding and placed a folded washcloth over the area to staunch to flow.

 

“Here,” she instructed, “place your hand over this and apply light pressure.  I’ll be right back.”  The nurse promptly returned with a syringe and an armload of supplies.  “Okay, I’m going to give you an injection of Demerol for your pain, and then we’ll get you cleaned up.”

 

“Injection?”  He eyed the needle with trepidation.  “Why can’t I take something orally?” he reasoned.

 

The middle-aged nurse smiled inwardly.  Men were such babies, and this one was a physician.  The worst kind of all!  “I’m afraid your doctor wrote orders for your pain meds to be administered intramuscularly, at least for now.  Besides, it should take effect faster, and you look like you can use all the help you can get.”

 

Grudgingly, he rolled onto his side.  He grimaced as the nurse found her target and plunged the needle into the sensitive skin of his hip.  How did he ever allow himself to be coerced into this?  The nurse started unloosening the ties of his gown, and his back suddenly felt very cold.

 

“What are you doing?” Dr. Brackett gasped.

 

She disregarded the squirming man as she worked to divest him of his clothing and his dignity.  “We need to change you into a clean gown.  Did you forget why you rang the call bell in the first place?”

 

Oh yeah.  He ventured to glance at the bright red blood that stained the front of his gown and his sheets.  For a few fleeting seconds he felt strangely lightheaded.  Oh, this was ludicrous!  He was a trauma physician.  Blood and guts were an essential part of his vocation.  He had never been squeamish a day in his life.  Of course, the blood was never his before.

 

Breathe, he reminded himself.  Just breathe.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The cliché “death warmed over” was making a lot more sense.  Johnny felt absolutely dreadful.  Over the past several days he became intimate with his toilet bowl, making generous contributions of ginger ale, Jell-O, chicken broth, and anything else he thought his queasy stomach could tolerate.  Alas, his good intentions were for naught.

 

He reached on the shelf and retrieved a soft terrycloth hand towel.  Hanging his head over the sink, he rinsed the foul taste from his mouth and splashed the cool water over his sweat-drenched face.  Having blotted the excess moisture, Johnny’s gaze drifted toward the mirror.  The reflection startled him.  Was he more delirious than he realized?  Were his eyes playing tricks on him?  Perhaps it was the lighting of the bathroom.  Johnny rummaged though the drawers until he located the desired item.  He ran to the kitchen with a mirror tightly clutched in his hand.

 

Johnny quickly examined his skin and eyes.  They appeared to be yellow.  Not trusting his judgment, he nervously dialed the familiar phone number.

 

“L.A. County Fire Department, Station 51, Mike Stoker speaking.”

 

“Uh, Mike, this is Johnny.  Is Roy there?”

 

“Sure,” Mike responded, “hang on.”

 

A moment later his partner’s comforting voice answered.  “What’s wrong, Johnny?”

 

“Roy, this is kind of embarrassing, but I need a second opinion.  I was in the bathroom barfing…”

 

“Still?”

 

“Yeah, but that’s not the reason I’m calling,” Johnny admitted.  “I think I’m yellow.”

 

Roy’s eyebrow climbed toward his hairline.  “Yellow?  Do you mean your skin or your eyes?”

 

“Both.”

 

Shifting into paramedic mode, the questions began, “When did this start?”

 

Johnny said, “I noticed it a few minutes ago.”

 

“You mentioned you’re still vomiting.  Have you kept anything down?”

 

“Not in about a week.”

 

Roy closed his eyes.  “Okay Junior.  I’m going to call this in as a still alarm.  Jim and I can be there in about ten minutes.”

 

The whining began immediately.  “Aw Roy, you don’t have to do that!  Can’t you stop by between runs or something?”

 

“Johnny, from what you’re describing, you probably need to be treated for dehydration if nothing else.  We’ll see you in a bit.”

 

Johnny finally acquiesced.  “Oh, all right!”  Now he was probably going to be hospitalized for some stupid flu bug.  Why did these things always happen to him?

 

*     *     *     *      *

 

Not surprisingly, Roy’s predictions proved correct.  Rampart ordered an IV in view of Johnny’s symptoms of severe dehydration, including a slight irregular heartbeat.  Suffice it to say, they were also concerned about his jaundiced appearance.  As a paramedic, Johnny knew what the outcome of the call was likely to be, but that knowledge didn’t improve his mood.  He was despondent during the entire ride to Rampart.

 

The ambulance soon came to a stop and the back doors snapped open.  The attendant helped Roy to unload the gurney, and Dixie directed them to Treatment Room 3.

 

“Johnny, I guess no one can accuse you of being a red-skin now,” she teased.

 

He groaned.  “Not that being called yellow-bellied is any better.”

 

They smoothly transferred him onto the exam table and changed him into a hospital gown.  Dixie took a new set of vitals, and recorded her findings on Johnny’s chart.

 

“Well, if it isn’t Rampart’s most colorful patient,” Dr. Early said as he entered the treatment room.  “You say you first noticed this today?”

 

“Yeah, I’ve had the worst case of the flu in my life for the past few days, but it wasn’t until this morning that I noticed the jaundice.”

 

“Hmm.  Describe what you mean by ‘worst case of the flu,’” encouraged the physician.

 

Johnny paused to organize his thoughts.  “Well, I’ve been having trouble keeping anything down.  The thought of eating is enough to make me nauseated.  I’ve been having really bad stomach pain, I guess from all the vomiting.  I’ve been running a fever, and my muscles and joints really hurt so it’s hard to get comfortable.  I’ve even tried a heating pad and Ben-Gay and stuff.  And I’m so tired all the time!  I don’t seem to be able to catch up on my sleep.

 

“I see.  Have you noticed any discoloration in your urine?  Has it been darker than usual?”

 

“Now that you mention it, it has.”

 

Dr. Early lifted Johnny’s gown and palpated his abdomen.  “Your liver is slightly enlarged,” he commented.  He continued his thorough exam.  “You also have some adenopathy present.”

 

“So what are you saying Doc?”

 

The emergency room physician washed his hands.  “I need to run some blood work, especially some liver function tests, but I believe you have hepatitis.”

 

The speechless patient sunk into his pillow.  “Hepatitis?  But I haven’t been exposed to anyone with hepatitis, and I don’t use IV drugs or anything…”

 

A light bulb went off in Roy’s head.  “Johnny, remember that rescue we went on a couple of months ago where the victim overdosed on heroin?”

 

“So?”

 

“Something stuck you.  Do you think it might have that junkie’s needle?”

 

“Maybe.  I don’t know, I never saw what it was.  The carpet was that thick shag stuff you could probably lose a small animal in.”

 

Dr. Early listened to the conversation with interest.  “The time frame coincides with your symptoms.  Transmission by a contaminated needle is one mode of infection.”

 

Johnny expectantly looked at the doctor.  “So, how do you treat it?”

 

“There really is no specific treatment for hepatitis, aside from rest and avoidance of alcohol.  However, since you’re badly dehydrated from the vomiting, I’m going to admit you and keep you here until your electrolytes have stabilized and you’re able to tolerate a soft diet.”

 

“Aw, Doc!”

 

The unyielding physician wrote the orders in Johnny’s chart.  “It may be a while before we have a room for you.  The hospital has been swamped with elective surgeries and the flu.  We’ll get you upstairs as soon as possible.  In the meantime, I’ll send Dixie in to draw some blood and get an IV started.”

 

“I can’t believe this!” Johnny moaned.  “This day gets worse by the minute.”

 

*     *     *     *      *

 

Dixie was hesitant to deliver the news.  Kel had not thoroughly enjoyed being roommates with John Gage during a previous hospital confinement.  He jokingly complained about having to share a room with young Romeo, and said the experience was more tolerable when Johnny was unconscious.  Now fate brought them together again.  They would be sharing a room once more.

 

She softly knocked on the door.  “Kel?”

 

“Come on in, Dix.”  The doctor was practically sitting upright in bed, propped up with several pillows.  His face was bruised and swollen from the surgery and the cotton packing added to his misery.  He seemed to be having difficulty remembering to breathe through his mouth.

 

“How are you feeling?”

 

He rolled his eyes.  “Like hell.  Frank said it would feel like the worst cold imaginable, but he has a serious talent for understatement.”

 

She gently brushed his hair away from his face sympathetically.  “How long is he going to leave the packing in place?”

 

“About a week.  There’s absolutely nothing in the world that could possibly make me feel worse than I do right now,” he whined.

 

Dixie bit her lower lip as she remembered the reason for her errand.  “Uh, Kel.  There’s something I need to tell you.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“You’re going to be getting a roommate in a few minutes,” she calmly informed him.

 

“But this is supposed to be a private room,” he grumbled.

 

“I know,” Dixie soothed, “but the hospital is nearly filled to capacity, so they’ve had to convert some private rooms into semi-private ones.”

 

“Great, this is just great.”

 

“Kel, there’s something else you ought to know.”

 

“You mean there’s more?” Dr. Brackett asked in astonishment.

 

She placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.  “Johnny Gage is going to be your roommate.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Dr. Brackett was furious about his predicament.  He specifically requested a private room.  Not only was he relegated to sharing it now, but with an immature very hormonal overgrown adolescent.

 

He dared to notice the form in the adjacent bed.  Johnny was sleeping fitfully, as his fever and aching joints prevented him from enjoying a restful slumber.  He hadn’t thrown up his toenails for at least an hour, which meant he should be christening the sheets at any minute.

 

The doctor assumed attractive nurses would be fussing over Johnny once he settled in.  Thus far that scenario had yet to occur.  Admittedly he wasn’t feeling well, but that usually didn’t serve as a deterrent from pursuing willing young ladies.  Even barely conscious, the young man flirted shamelessly.

 

Unbelievably, Johnny sought medical assistance voluntarily on this occasion.  The physician never could understand why the paramedic was so averse to admitting he was human.  Everyone got sick once in a while, it was nothing to be embarrassed about.  Considering his occupation, it was almost humorous to watch Johnny try to weasel out of medical attention.  His training and experience should enable him to know better than to neglect his health.  Poor Johnny, if only he’d realize doctors were there to help him.  The process was really quite simple.  Seek help at the first onset of symptoms, and follow the doctor’s instructions.  Any one with half a brain could do it.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

“Hey, Kel.  How are you feeling?” Dixie cooed.

 

Dr. Brackett scowled.  “I’m ready to leave.  There’s nothing they’re doing for me here that I can’t take care of at home.  For crying out loud, I’m a doctor!”

 

“Yes, and you’ve made sure everyone knows that,” she lightly rebuked.  “Kel, Dr. Abrams wouldn’t insist on keeping you here if he didn’t feel it was necessary.  I promise as soon as he thinks you’re ready to be discharged, I’ll personally drive you home and provide any nursing services you require.”

 

“Any nursing services?”

 

She slyly winked.  “Of course, we’ll have to negotiate my fee.”

 

“Hmm, let me guess, a candlelight dinner at Ernie’s?”

 

“That’s a good start, but I had something else in mind.”

 

“Ooh, do tell,” he replied enthusiastically.

 

Dixie placed her hands firmly on her hips.  “Okay, these are my terms.  Stop harassing the nurses and stop whining like a two-year-old.  Your behavior is an insult to toddlers everywhere.  Honestly, I’m not sure which is worse, having you deny you’re sick or behaving like a baby.”

 

As if to reiterate her point, the head of emergency services pouted.  “I’m not that bad, am I?”

 

“Yes, you are,” she chided.  “Now do we have a deal?”

 

“That depends.  I need clarification as to what the nursing services include,” he playfully hinted.

 

Dixie laughed.  “You’re incorrigible!”  She considered the sleeping figure in the other bed.  “Speaking of overgrown children, how are you and Romeo getting along?”

 

“Actually he’s been relatively quiet, which was my first clue he hasn’t been feeling well.  Since he doesn’t sleep well due to the joint and abdominal pain, he’s exhausted most of the time.  But you know Johnny, he won’t admit he’s suffering or ask for help when he plainly needs it.”

 

“Sounds like someone else I know,” she replied cryptically.

 

He ignored her remark.  “I mean, Joe wrote orders for analgesics p.r.n., but Johnny refuses to ask for them.  Medical care has to be practically be forced on him.”

 

“Kel, as I recall, you weren’t exactly the picture of cooperation when Joe suggested you see a specialist, or even worse, when you needed to schedule your own surgery.”

 

The embarrassed doctor stared at the painting.  He hated it when she was right.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The nurse delivered dinner to Rampart’s mismatched roommates.  “Johnny, aren’t you going to eat?” Dr. Brackett asked.

 

“Nah, I’m not hungry.”

 

“Are you nauseated?”

 

Johnny smiled.  “Doc, you’re off duty.  You’re supposed to be resting.”

 

The doctor persisted.  “I know, but are you nauseated?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Dr. Brackett quickly pressed the call button.

 

“Aw, Doc.  Why did you have to do that?” the paramedic groaned.

 

“I was going to see if you’re due for an injection of Phenergan.  You need to eat.”

 

“Doc…”

 

“Would you rather have a garden hose up your nose?”

 

“No, but I don’t want the nurses hacked off at me either.  Believe it or not, I’m trying not to make a nuisance out of myself, unlike other people.”

 

Dr. Brackett raised his eyebrow.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

Johnny slumped against his pillows.  “You’re a great doctor, but you make a lousy patient.  Unlike the ER, you’re not in control here.  Constantly barking orders at the nurses isn’t going to get you out of here any faster.  Chill, man!”

 

“Johnny, surely you understand the importance of insuring patients receive the proper medications in a timely manner.”

 

“Yes, but I also believe the nursing staff shouldn’t have to tolerate a hostile environment.  Aren’t you familiar with the old saying ‘honey attracts more flies than vinegar’?"

 

“What’s your point?”

 

“I’m saying that people are more likely to want to do things for you when you’re nice to them, even when it’s their job.”

 

A frazzled nurse appeared in the doorway.  “Yes, what can I do for you?”

 

Johnny pasted a famous trademark crooked grin on his face.  “Ma’am, I’m having a bit of trouble with some nausea.  Could you please check my chart to see if I’m due for another shot?”

 

She smiled brightly.  “Yes, of course!  I’ll be right back.”

 

Dr. Brackett glowered at his roommate.  “Honey and flies, indeed!”

 

A few minutes later the nurse happily breezed back into the room bearing a syringe.  “Good news!  Your wish is my command.”  She quickly swabbed the IV port and injected the medication.  Noticing the untouched tray, she looked dismayed.  “Aren’t you going to eat?”

 

He shrugged.  “Maybe later when my stomach is settled.”

 

She nodded as she removed his tray.  “Well, let us know when you’re hungry and we’ll scrounge up some Jell-O or juice for you.”

 

The physician sulked.  “I noticed she didn’t offer to take my tray.”

 

“You didn’t threaten to puke on her or smile for that matter,” Johnny added.  As he became groggy from the medication, he turned toward his roommate.  “Doc, can I ask you a question?”

 

“What?”

 

“Why do doctors make such lousy patients?” Johnny earnestly inquired.

 

Dr. Brackett sighed.  He was really clueless as to why this was the case, but he knew someone who had plenty of opinions on the matter.  “I don’t know, Johnny, but I’m sure Dixie has plenty of theories.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The morning light danced across room 458.  Unfortunately, it was the only form of sunshine making its warm presence known.

 

“I don’t know why Dr. Abrams won’t let me go home,” Dr. Brackett continued to harp.  “I feel fine.  I could recuperate just as well at home as I could here.”

 

The distinct sound of his roommate’s muffled giggles could be heard across the room.

 

“What’s so funny?” the frustrated doctor demanded.

 

“Listen to yourself, you sound like a patient!  Now you know what it’s like when the shoe is on the other foot.”

 

“That’s preposterous.”

 

Johnny propped himself up on his elbow.  “How many times have we had this conversation when the roles were reversed?”

 

“I’m not sure I follow you,” Dr. Brackett said warily.

 

“Oh, come on Doc.  I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve begged to be released from the hospital, but you’ve given me some reason to err on the side of caution to hold me prisoner against my will.”

 

“That’s an exaggeration, don’t you think?”

 

Johnny sputtered, “Baloney!  Every time I hear you say the words ‘just to be on the safe side’ I get goose bumps!  That always means I’m stuck here for at least another day or so.”

 

The physician/patient tried to explain, “But that’s different.  I have a responsibility for the people under my care.  I’m simply doing my job.”

 

“Well, maybe your doctor is doing his.”

 

Technically Johnny was correct, of course.  But still, the stubborn Kelly Brackett couldn’t accept his role as a patient.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

As Dr. Early intently studied the most recent lab results, Johnny prepared to present a performance worthy of an Academy Award.  Summoning his courage, he began his charade.  “Doc, I feel much better today.  Can I go home?”

 

The sidelined emergency room physician interjected, “Don’t let him fool you, Joe.  Even with the antiemetics, he’s still vomiting.  I think he’s only kept a couple of glasses of juice down since he’s been here.”

 

Johnny looked menacingly at his roommate.  The unwelcome advice as not appreciated.

 

Dr. Early peered over his glasses at his less than forthcoming patient.  “Is that true?”

 

“Uh…well…”

 

“Is the Phenergan helping at all?”

 

“Yeah…but…”

 

His unsolicited advocate responded.  “No, it isn’t.  He’s throwing up less because he’s significantly restricting his fluid intake.”

 

Johnny wailed plaintively, “Traitor!”

 

Undeterred, Dr. Brackett proceeded.  “I’ll bet he’s orthostatic and his potassium levels are in the basement.”

 

Johnny’s official physician bemusedly removed the blood pressure cuff from the wall.  “Just for grins, I’d like to test your hypothesis.  With his patient lying down, he obtained the first reading.  To record the next, he moved him into a sitting position.  Johnny soon became lightheaded and his vision misted over.  When his level of consciousness improved, he noticed his hospital bed was tilted upside down slightly.

 

“Johnny, are you all right?” Dr. Early demanded.

 

He opened his mouth to reply, but his stomach had other ideas.  The acrid taste of bile forced its way through his throat.  Johnny clenched his fists and pounded the bed in frustration.

 

“An NG tube?” Dr. Brackett opined.

 

Dr. Early concurred.  “Johnny, your digestive system needs a rest.  The recurrent vomiting is wreaking havoc with your electrolytes, especially your potassium level.  I understand this procedure isn’t pleasant, but it should help you stabilize faster.”

 

“Can’t we try the meds a little while longer,” Johnny whimpered.

 

“Absolutely not.  It’s imperative we do this as soon as possible,” Dr. Early firmly stated.  He gradually adjusted Johnny’s bed so he was in a semi-reclining position again.  “I’ll be back shortly.”

 

Johnny muttered, “Ooh, I can’t wait.”

 

Dr. Brackett tried to offer his support.  “Under the circumstances, it’s an appropriate course of action.”

 

“Why don’t you mind your own business?!”

 

“What?”

 

The paramedic fumed.  “Just because you can’t dictate your medical care doesn’t give you the right to butt into mine.  I don’t rat you out to your doctor when you get nosebleeds from lowering the angle of your bed, or when you refuse your medications.”

 

“That’s different,” Dr. Brackett reasoned.  “I’m a doctor, and I’m capable of making informed decisions regarding my care.”

 

“You’re pathetic.  You hide behind that excuse to avoid facing unpleasant unrealities.  When you’re sick, poof!  No problem.  You choose to ignore your illnesses, hoping they’ll go away.”

 

“Well, I know of another obstinate individual who tends to downplay symptoms,” the physician retorted.

 

“Why you…”

 

The escalating verbal barrage was temporarily halted by the reappearance of Dr. Early.  In his hands he carried the dreaded tubing.  “Okay, Johnny.  You know the routine.  Do you have any questions?”

 

“No, let’s get this over with.”

 

Dr. Brackett couldn’t help himself.  “Do you need a hand, Joe?”

 

Johnny reached his breaking point.  “Doc, don’t you think you’ve done enough already?  Why don’t you leave me alone!” he screamed.  He buried his face in his pillow and sobbed.

 

Dr. Early excused himself, and returned brandishing a handful of syringes.  “Johnny, I’m going to give you some meds before we begin.  You should feel relaxed in a few minutes.”  True to his word, Johnny began to feel warm and cozy.  Heck, he was starting to feel so good he would probably let Dr. Early shave him bald.  Therefore, he offered no resistance when the thin plastic tubing was threaded through his nose.  The task accomplished, Johnny burrowed into his covers and drifted into the land of Nod.

 

“Is he asleep?” asked Dr. Brackett.

 

“Yes, he should be out for a few hours.  He’s exhausted.”

 

“What did you give him?”

 

“Perhaps the same thing I ought to give you,” Dr. Early warned.

 

The dark-haired man was mystified.  “I have no earthly idea what you’re talking about.”

 

“I’m talking about interfering in Johnny’s care in such an abrasive manner.”

 

“Oh, come on.  We all know what an uncooperative patient he can be.  You saw how he was trying to manipulate you into releasing him although he’s not medically stable.  I was only trying to help.”

 

The vertical physician crossed his arms.  “Do you think any of this is news to me?  I’ve known Johnny Gage as long as you have, and I’m equally immune to his charms.  I don’t care how great a thespian he is, I wouldn’t dare have considered releasing him based on his vital signs and lab work values.  You complain about Johnny being immature, but it’s you who is acting like a spoiled brat.  You can’t get your way with Dr. Abrams, so you’re trying to take control of Johnny’s care.  Well, it’s not going to work.  Get it through your thick skull, I’m in charge of his case, not you.  Have I made myself unclear in any way?”

 

A chastised Kelly Brackett meticulous studied his bedcovers.  “No.”

 

“Fine.  I’ll see you later.”

 

Watching the doctor close the door behind him, Dr. Brackett pondered the morning’s events.  There was an element of truth in their words.  He did suffer from an overwhelming need to control people and things.  Being a patient horrified him because he could not manipulate the circumstances of his condition.  But by gosh, if Dr. Brackett couldn’t dictate his own care, he was going to offer someone else the benefit of his superior expertise, whether they wanted it or not!  Alas, his intended victim was equally renown for his disdain of being on the receiving end of medical attention, and his heavy-handed efforts went unappreciated.

 

He watched his roommate sleep peacefully for the first time since his admission.  Dr. Brackett realized he owed John Gage a huge apology when he awakened.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

The afternoon dragged on interminably.  There was nothing on television but game shows and soap operas.  The remorseful doctor dreaded the apology he needed to make when his roommate rejoined the land of the living.  Humility was not his greatest virtue.

 

Dr. Brackett tried to immerse himself in a back issue of JAMA.  He scanned the same page four times, but didn’t have the foggiest idea what he read.  His mind was a million miles away.

 

Dixie bustled into the room balancing several gifts in her arms.  “Hi!  Sorry I’m late.  Ron decided to convene an impromptu meeting after the shift change to go over changes in the vacation requisition form.”

 

“You’re kidding?”

 

She was extremely annoyed.  “Do I look like I’m laughing?”  Dixie’s expression brightened as she unloaded her burdens on his bedside table.  “Your doctor said you couldn’t have any flowers, so I decided to improvise.”

 

Like a small child at Christmas, Dr. Brackett eagerly inspected his gifts.  There was a coffee cup filled with jelly beans, a box of playing cards, a jig-saw puzzle, a paperback detective novel, two books of crossword puzzles…and a bottle of massage oil?

 

The head nurse impishly grinned.  “Strictly for therapeutic use.”

 

“Hmm.  And what if I require assistance in applying this prescribed substance?”

 

“I’m sure arrangements can be made for a duly licensed health care professional to make a house call,” she purred.

 

“Dix,” he fawned, “you’re the best.”  He leaned over to kiss her.

 

“Kel!  You have a roommate.”

 

“You mean Rip Van Winkle?  He’s been asleep for hours.  Joe drugged him to the gills.”

 

“Why?”

 

She was going to hear the story from someone else sooner or later.  He might as well come clean.  “Uh, as you know Johnny hasn’t been responding to the antiemetics, so it was determined he required an NG tube.”

 

Her soft doe-eyes looked into his.  “So why does he resemble a zombie?”

 

“I, uh, got a little frustrated with my doctor this morning, so I took it out on Johnny.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

The doctor rubbed the back of his neck.  “Since I wasn’t too successful in taking charge of my own care…”

 

The picture was becoming abundantly clear.  “You took it upon yourself to take over Johnny’s treatment.”

 

“Something like that.”

 

Dixie threw up her hands in disgust.  “Kel, when are you going to learn?  I don’t care if you are a brilliant physician, people don’t appreciate being humiliated.  That was a tactless thing to do!”

 

The genuinely contrite Dr. Brackett apologized.  “I know.”

 

“Did Joe have to sedate him?”

 

“Yes.”

 

The disappointed nurse cocked her head.  “You know, he should have sedated the daylights out of you, too.”

 

Dr. Brackett’s mouth twitched into a small smile.  “Actually, he did make that threat.”

 

“Good.  You deserved it.”

 

He picked up the bottle of massage oil.  “Perhaps a neck rub would eliminate any lingering kinks in my foul disposition today.”

 

She poured a few drops of the aromatic oil in her hands.  “Okay, but as soon as Mr. Van Winkle wakes up you have to promise me you’ll make amends.”

 

“It’s a deal.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

On the third morning of the roommates’ mutual incarceration, Dr. Brackett’s surgeon still refused to release him.

 

“But Frank, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be allowed to go home.  I’m not having any more nosebleeds and I’m on oral pain meds…”

 

Dr. Abrams steadfastly held his ground.  “No, the nurses report you’re still experiencing frequent panic attacks, causing you to breathe ineffectually.  Your blood gasses show you’ve been hyperventilating.”  He scrawled in his patient’s chart.  “I want to put you back on humidified oxygen until tomorrow.  That should help make you more comfortable.  I also need to readjust the angle of your bed; it’s flatter than it should be.  That may account for the pronounced swelling you have this morning.  I’ll write orders for something to help with that.”

 

The proud head of emergency services was reduced to a withering mass.  “Can I go home tomorrow?”

 

“Let’s take it one day at a time.  I’ll see you in the morning.”  Dr. Abrams congenially patted him on the leg.

 

Dr. Brackett was inconsolable.  Would he ever be released from this prison?  Worst of all, he did this to himself.  Sure, Dixie and Joe practically placed the gun to his temple, but he’s the one who signed his rights away.  Hey, there’s a thought!  He could sign himself out AMA!  He was infused with a renewed feeling of energy and purpose.  Humming to himself, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed.

 

A well-rested Johnny stared at him in disbelief.  “You’re sure in a good mood for someone who’s stuck here for another day.”

 

“That’s because I’m not,” he informed the paramedic matter-of-factly.  “I’m going home.”

 

“But I distinctly heard…”

 

“I know, but I’ve decided to sign myself out AMA.”

 

Johnny’s mouth gaped open.  “I don’t believe what I’m hearing.  Did I hallucinate our conversation last night?  After you apologized for nosing around in my business, didn’t the great Dr. Kelly Brackett finally admit he’s human, and promise to follow the advice of his own doctor?”

 

Strung by the truth of the words, Dr. Brackett’s shoulders slumped forward.  “But I don’t want to stay.”

 

“Do you think I want to be here?  I’ve been a patient in this fine institution more days than I care to count.  You have to give me credit in the originality department for some of the schemes I’ve tried in order to bargain for an early release.”

 

The doctor laughed.  “You have presented a few challenges.”

 

“Doc, don’t sign yourself out.  And stop acting like you’re indestructible like Superman.  Even he got sick when he was exposed to kryptonite.”

 

Dr. Brackett seemed thoughtful.  “Does this mean I have to get rid of my pajamas with the big red ‘S’ on them?”

 

Johnny giggled.  “No, but you do need to lose Lois Lane.  I don’t think Dix would be willing to share.”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Dr. Early was pleased with Johnny’s progress.  “So, have you had any more episodes of vomiting since yesterday?”

 

“No, not a one.”

 

The white-haired physician looked to his colleague for confirmation.  Dr. Bracket raised his hands helplessly.  “Don’t ask me.  I’m merely a convalescing roommate.  I have no opinion on this issue.”

 

Johnny smiled appreciatively.

 

“Well, your vital signs have improved, but your electrolytes are still a source of concern.”

 

“Can I go home?” he asked hopefully.

 

“I’m afraid not,” Dr. Early replied.  “We need to monitor you until your potassium level has stabilized.  If we add too much potassium too quickly, it can potentially result in life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias.  We’ll keep you here another day or two, just to be on the safe side.”

 

The doctor’s last phrase inadvertently provoked a fit of laughter from the room’s recumbent occupants.

 

“What’s so funny?” he inquired.

 

“Nothing, Doc.  It’s an inside joke,” Johnny explained.

 

“Do you think you could manage a liquid diet if I pulled the tube out today?”

 

“Will it get me out of here any faster?”

 

Dr. Early rubbed his chin.  “It might.”

 

Johnny gestured toward his nose.  “C’mon, Doc.  There’s a warm, slimy bowl of Jell-O with my name on it somewhere.”

 

Soon Johnny was blissfully unfettered.  He entertained himself by scooping the green, slightly congealed liquid into various configurations.  After taking a sip of his apple juice, he resumed his artistic endeavors.

 

Dr. Brackett scolded, “Aren’t you going to eat that?”

 

“It’s green, and besides, it’s melted,” Johnny charged.

 

“It doesn’t matter what color it is, just drink the damn stuff!  Do you want to stay here forever?  I swear, you are the worst patient I’ve ever seen in my life!”

 

Johnny smugly unleashed his arsenal.  “Oh yeah?  You’re not exactly the model patient either.  You’ve been fighting your doctor and the nurses tooth and nail since you’ve been here.  With all due respect, you’ve been behaving like a world-class jerk!  Rumor has it the only reason you’re here is because a certain ER nurse threatened to perform ad hoc surgery using power tools.”

 

“Where did you hear that?” Dr. Brackett queried.

 

“I have my sources.”  Johnny took another sip of his juice.  “Do you want to know what I think?”

 

“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me anyway.”

 

The paramedic’s expression grew serious.  “I believe you and I are a lot alike.  We each have jobs where we help other people.  It’s a demanding field that requires dedication and self-sacrifice, and we’re confronted with life and death every day.  Occasionally it can get pretty overwhelming and scary.  If I thought about all the things that could go wrong, I’d be paralyzed with fear and I wouldn’t be able to perform my job.  Or if you dwelt only on the patients you couldn’t save instead of the ones you could, you’d go nuts.  So we build these imaginary suits of armor and tell ourselves nothing can hurt us.  Not injury, sickness, feelings, bad luck, nothing.  We pretend we’re invincible.  But sometimes our fears and frailties surface, and that frightens us.  We don’t like to be reminded we’re mere mortals.  That’s why we make such terrible patients, because we don’t want anyone to see the imperfections in our carefully constructed armor.”

 

The physician was awed by the young man’s insight.  Imagine, John Gage, a philosopher!  Perhaps he misjudged this hose jockey.  Beneath the long hair and the carefree attitude was a kindred spirit.  Watching his roommate twirl the green slime around his spoon, Dr. Brackett growled, “Are you going to eat that, or do I have to shove it up your nose?”

 

After a hearty chuckle, the Jell-O disappeared.

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Dr. Abrams made his rounds surprising early this morning, and his patient was ecstatic to learn he was being released today.  The specialist was barely out the door when Dr. Brackett began packing his suitcase.  He did not understand the source of the mirth emanating from the opposite side of the room.

 

“What?”

 

The worldly Johnny advised, “You have plenty of time to do that.  You probably won’t be out of here until noon.”

 

“But my doctor just released me,” Dr. Brackett argued.

 

“Yes, and the paperwork will need to go through a million levels of bureaucracy, and get bogged down in at least a dozen.  You’ll need prescriptions filled, a nurse will have to go over the same post-op instructions you already know about, a volunteer will probably be by to ask you how you enjoyed your stay, oh, and don’t forget, you’ll have to wait for someone to bring a wheelchair up here…”

 

The physician cringed.  “Oh no, not that again!”

 

Johnny shrugged apologetically.  “Sorry.  Didn’t you have to jump through some of these crazy hoops to be discharged after we had that virus?”

 

“I guess.  I don’t remember.  Dixie took care of some of the details.”

 

“Well, take my advice.  Give her a call and have her reserve a wheelchair for you when you’re ready.  That way you’re not at the mercy of transportation services.  Besides, she’s much better looking!”

 

Dr. Brackett agreed.  “Any other pearls of wisdom?”

 

“Don’t remind the nurses you’re leaving today or they’ll pull your dietary card.  If your discharge paperwork gets delayed, they won’t send you anything to eat.  If you’re gone by lunchtime, they’ll give your tray to a new admit so everybody’s happy,” Johnny said.

 

The departing roommate attempted to stifle a giggle.

 

“Oh, and have Dixie pick up your prescriptions and deliver them to your room.  If you wait for the pharmacy to bring them up here, you could be delayed for another hour.  Call and make your own follow up appointment with Dr. Abrams.  The nurses’ station will schedule it whenever there’s an open appointment.  If you do it yourself, you can arrange a time that’s convenient for you.”

 

No longer able to contain himself, Dr. Brackett erupted into uncontrollable laughter.

 

Johnny’s jaw dropped.  “I don’t understand.”

 

“You’ve definitely been a patient here too many times to be this familiar with the routine!”

 

“Well, for the record, I never came here of my own free will.”

 

Dr. Brackett grinned conspiratorially at Johnny.  “You know what?  Neither did I!”

 

*     *     *     *     *

 

Three weeks later Squad 51’s paramedics chatted with Dixie as she handed the supply box to the younger partner.  “Johnny, you’ve had a busy morning for your first day back.  This is what, your fourth call?”

 

“Yeah.  I guess L.A. missed me,” he mused.

 

Roy wistfully reminisced, “It sure was quiet.  No ranting or raving.”

 

“Well, when your temporary partner spends most of his time alphabetizing the drug box, I guess you do get lonely.”

 

Dixie tapped her temple in recollection.  “Oh, I almost forgot, Kel wants to see you.  She ran to retrieve the doctor from his office.

 

Dr. Brackett sprinted to the nurses’ station carrying a shoebox-sized package.  “Good morning guys.  I’m glad Dixie caught you.  I have a belated get-well present for Johnny.  I saw this in San Francisco last week, and immediately thought of him.”

 

“Gee, Doc.  I hope they’re my size!” Johnny teased.  He excitedly unwrapped the bright red paper.

 

“What is it?” Roy asked.

 

“It’s a miniature suit of armor.  It’s wonderful.  Thanks Doc.”

 

“Oh dear,” cried Dixie.  “It’s broken.  See?  There’s a crack in the breastplate.”

 

The former roommates smiled at each other knowingly.  It made perfect sense.  The flawed suit of armor was intended as a gift from one mere mortal to another.

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer:         My tortured soul continues to borrow them from Mark VII Limited and Universal Television to satisfy a sinister psychological purpose.

 

Thanks:               To my own “Sopranos” (and one tenor!) who help me to indulge in this guilty pleasure.

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