I was going to be on call the coming weekend. Fridays prior to call weekends were always painful. Everyone was preparing for the upcoming days off, whereas I knew I was going to be spending the next two days at the hospital, waking up early both days. Even for a workaholic like myself, I dreaded the Friday before call weekends. I like to sleep in.
But this particular Friday, I was glad to be on call. Spending the weekend at the hospital meant that I had an excuse to come visit Alex at a time when the rehab unit would be all but empty. I was actually really excited about it.
I started out my day on the stroke unit. It was Chloe’s last day and she was practically in tears at the nursing station. “I’m going to miss you guys so much,” she sniffled.
I was hoping to get through Chloe’s last day without a big production, but she wasn’t about to let that happen. “Dr. Miller,” she said. “I just want you to know that I learned so much from you on this rotation. I think you’re an amazing physician. In fact, I’ve been considering a stroke fellowship myself, and I only hope I can be half as good a doctor as you are.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said. I’m not really good at the heartfelt speeches.
“No, thank you,” Chloe said to me.
I coughed, trying to brush off her ridiculous compliments. “Listen, Chloe, I think you did a good job this month. You were really on the ball when it came to our patients. If you do decide to apply for a stroke fellowship, I’d be happy to write you a letter.”
Chloe beamed. “Oh my god, that would be awesome, Dr. Miller. Thank you so much!” She lowered her voice. “Also, I just want to apologize for the time I argued with you earlier in the month. That was really unprofessional of me.”
I frowned. “What?”
“You know.” Chloe’s face flushed. “Over that young guy, Connors. You were right about him… I saw him recently and he hadn’t gotten any movement back in his legs, so I guess you were right about not being overly optimistic. Dr. Cantrell says he’ll probably never walk again.”
I swallowed. “Dr. Cantrell said that?” Even though I already guessed it was true, it was sobering to find out that another physician agreed. Part of me had been hoping maybe Dr. Cantrell knew of a few similar cases where the patient had walked out of the hospital. Obviously not though.
But did it really matter to me that Alex couldn’t walk? I was still wildly attracted to him and he seemed to feel the same way. We still had the kind of connection that you see between two people maybe once in a lifetime. So no, the walking didn’t matter to me at all.
It was almost 1PM when I finally had a chance to get down to the rehab unit. I had been hoping to get there earlier have a few minutes to spend with Alex, before his afternoon therapies started up again. When I got there, he was sitting in his wheelchair, a tray on his lap while he finished up his lunch. His eyes lit up when he saw me walk in.
“Rachel,” he said. “You made it.” He looked at the clock on the wall. “We’ve only got like fifteen minutes though.”
“I know,” I said regretfully.
He grinned at me. “There’s something I want to show you. Something really awesome. You ready?”
I nodded and sat down next to him on his bed.
As I watched, Alex grunted with effort as he flexed his left hip just barely enough to lift his thigh about an inch off the seat of the wheelchair. He held in that position for about two seconds before it dropped back onto the seat. He looked back up at me, beaming. “My legs aren’t dead anymore,” he announced. “I can move my left hip. It feels like I’m lifting a boulder, but I can do it.”
“That’s wonderful!” I said.
He smiled wider. “I think you awakened some new nerve connections.”
“Maybe.” I was trying to be supportive, but I was careful to keep my excitement guarded.
The smile faded from his face. “What?”
“It’s just…” I scratched the back of my neck. He seemed so happy and I didn’t want to burst his bubble. But I didn’t want him to have unrealistic expectations and then be disappointed.
“You don’t think I’m going to be able to walk again,” he acknowledged.
I hung my head. “No, I don’t. Maybe a little, but I think you’re always going to need a wheelchair. Maybe you’ll only need it for long distances if you’re lucky, but if I had to guess, I’d say you’ll need it almost all the time.”
I don’t know what I expected Alex to do. Burst into tears? But he didn’t. He just flashed me this funny little smile. “I know,” he said.
“You do?” I was shocked.
He shrugged. “Look, Rachel, I figured out that being able to move my hip a little bit doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to walk like before. I accept that most likely isn’t going to happen. I’m just glad to get back something.”
Alex had a good attitude about the whole thing. It was something that impressed me over and over.
“To be honest,” he said. “I almost feel like the whole thing was worth it. Because I met you.”
I stared at him. “Are you serious?”
“Of course I’m serious,” he said. And as he said it, he leaned forward and kissed me. When he pulled away, I felt his hot breath on my neck. “I’m crazy about you, Rachel.”
I think that was the most romantic thing I’d ever heard: he was happy to have had a crippling spinal cord injury because it resulted in us getting together.
“Can you come back tonight?” he asked me.
I shook my head. “I’m going to be doing admissions all night. But I’m on call this weekend. I can come tomorrow morning.”
He pouted. “Yeah, okay. I guess I can wait. As long as you promise you’ll be here.” He reached out and took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Rachel, I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. Not Eva in the whole five years we were together, not anybody. I know it’s sounds crazy, but I feel like I’ve been waiting for you for the last twenty years.”
It didn’t sound so crazy because I felt the same way. But I couldn’t say it to him. Not yet. Instead I gave his hand a squeeze before I left the room.
I didn’t get a chance to sit down in my office and take a breather until nearly five o’clock. Pre-call Fridays were always incredibly busy. Once five o’clock came, my call would officially begin and I’d start hearing from the emergency room with all the stroke patients who came in.
I leaned back in my chair, closing my eyes and allowing myself to fantasize about Alex for a moment. He was so sexy when he smiled. I loved the feel of his skin against mine, his gray eyes gazing into mine. I felt like a stupid schoolgirl with a crush. How could the man I had hated for so many years end up being the love of my life? Maybe Grace had been right all along about there being a thin line between love and hate.
The phone rang on my desk and I picked it up, thinking it was one of the other attending neurologists, ready to sign out to me for the weekend. Instead it was a vaguely familiar voice. “Hello. Dr. Miller?”
“Yes, this is she.”
“Dr. Miller, this is Eva Holt.”
I guess I never knew her last name, so it took a second to register. It was Eva, Alex’s former fiancée. Calling my office, for some reason.
Oh god, did she know about me and Alex? Was she calling to yell at me for stealing her man? Well, at least over the phone, there was no chance of a full-on catfight breaking out. I braced myself.
“I’m so sorry to bother you, Dr. Miller,” she said. “But you’ve given me so much advice and I wasn’t sure who else to turn to. I really feel like we’ve connected in the time I’ve known you. You’ve become like… an older sister to me.”
Older sister? That was a little insulting somehow, especially since I was several years younger than Eva. But at least she didn’t say aunt or mother. “Oh,” I said. “Um. What’s wrong?”
Eva sighed. “I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching, and… I think I made a huge mistake.”
My stomach sunk. “You… you do?”
“Yeah, I…” Her voice sounded very small, sad. “I think I got scared and I panicked. I miss Alex. And I feel awful about what I did to him.”
“I see,” I said, trying to sound neutral.
“I mean, I’m 37 years old,” she said. “Who am I going to get that’s better than Alex? And this is probably my only chance to have children.”
I cleared my throat. “Well, I thought you said that there was no… you know, passion.”
“Passion is overrated,” Eva declared. “I love Alex, that’s what’s important. Being in love isn’t nearly as significant. I mean, how long can you be in love? A year? Two years?” She paused. “Anyway, I do really care about him. And he has a lot of good qualities. He’s a nice guy, he’s reliable, he cares about me…”
Reliable? That was a good quality for a car, not a person. Well, it wasn’t a bad quality for a person, but it probably wasn’t a reason to be getting married. “You realize,” I said, “he’s had very little recovery in his legs. The overwhelming likelihood is that he’s going to need a wheelchair for the rest of his life.”
Eva was quiet for a minute and I hoped somehow this had dissuaded her. “You’re pretty sure about that?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You said before that with braces and crutches, he might be able to walk,” she said.
“That’s true,” I admitted. “But probably not very much. Maybe he could walk a little bit around the house, but probably not outdoors.”
“If he could walk around the house, then I’ll get him walking all the time,” Eva said confidently. “The therapists here just haven’t been able to motivate him enough, no offense. I know how to motivate Alex.”
I couldn’t help but remember how Eva persuaded Alex’s therapist to get him up on his feet before he was ready, and how miserable he had looked. I imagined him in a year from now, his legs still very weak, but Eva pushing him to walk more and more. She’d make him feel guilty for using his wheelchair, no matter how hard it was for him to walk.
But maybe she was right. Maybe that was what he needed.
“I can deal with crutches and braces,” Eva said. “I’ll get used to it, I think. Anyway, that’s all the more reason he needs me right now. I’m the only one who can help him.”
I was grasping at straws now. “Are you sure he’ll take you back?”
“Yes,” Eva said without hesitation. I hated the confidence in her voice. “He was pretty angry at me last week when I told him, but then he called me and begged me to come back. Said that he still loved me and felt like he couldn’t live without me.”
“I see,” I murmured. He called her? When did that happen? I remember he mentioned calling her before we got together, but had he called a second time since then? I was afraid to ask.
“Between you and me, Dr. Miller,” she said. “I was going to some of those online dating services last night and… I just felt sick. Alex is so great. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I guess I just freaked out when I thought he was going to be in a wheelchair, but I’ve come to my senses.” She paused. “Unless you think I’d be making a huge mistake.”
I hated Eva for putting me in this position, for trusting me with the fate of her relationship. Yes, I thought Alex was a great guy. Yes, I thought she was an idiot (and a bitch) for dumping him. But the problem was, I couldn’t compete with Eva. She and Alex had been together for five years. They had a house together. No matter how infatuated he was with me at the moment, if she showed up, he’d probably take her back. No, he’d definitely take her back.
“I think you need to really be sure about it,” I said carefully. “You don’t want to get Alex’s hopes up again if you don’t think the relationship has a good chance of succeeding.”
“That’s true,” Eva said thoughtfully. A possible reprieve? “Maybe… I’ll come by tomorrow morning. I think once I see him, I’ll know.”
“You don’t think that’s too soon?” I said. God, I hated myself sometimes.
“We’ll see, I guess.” Eva laughed nervously. “I’m a little scared about how he’ll react, but… I think he’ll be happy. I know exactly what to say to him.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I really want to thank you, Dr. Miller,” she said. “Your advice has been really helpful to me. I know this is beyond the call of your duty, so I just want you to know how much I appreciate it.”
As I hung up the phone, a sick, dizzy feeling overtook me. Eva was coming tomorrow and there was nothing I could do about it, short of convincing Alex to go AWOL from the hospital. If Eva wanted him back, she was going to get him back.
I sat there for a moment. In fifteen minutes, it would be five o’clock and I’d be on duty for the weekend, but I didn’t even feel like I could focus. Finally, I did something that I never do, which was to page Grace to my number and added: 911. Pages to 911 were reserved for super emergency situations and my personal life had never before qualified. But I was desperate.
Grace called back almost instantly: “Rachel, what’s wrong?”
“Alex’s fiancée wants him back.” And as I said the words, I started to cry.
My tears were interrupted by a blaring noise from the loudspeaker about a code blue in the ICU. That was Grace’s territory. “Do you have to go?” I sniffled.
“No, it’s fine,” Grace said. “The patient they’re coding has already been dead for like a week. The family just won’t be happy till we do CPR and break a few ribs. Anyway, Rachel, tell me what happened.”
“She called me up and told me she made a huge mistake,” I sniffled. “She’s going to come over to the hospital tomorrow and tell him. What am I supposed to do?”
“I think,” Grace said, “that you should fight for him.”
That was the kind of answer I expected from Grace. Why did she think I was capable of such a thing? I couldn’t even win over fat, bald Charlie. What chance did I have with a cute guy like Alex? “I can’t,” I said.
“Well, why not?”
“Grace,” I began. “Alex was with his fiancée for five years. Five years. They have a house and a life together. I’ve been with him for less than a week. How could I possibly compete with that? If she wants him back, he’s hers. It’s the best thing for him too, I think, and I’m sure it’s what he wants.”
“Oh, stop it,” Grace scolded me. “Rachel, Alex is obviously crazy about you! How do you know what he wants?”
I didn’t know how to reply to that, but I knew I was right. If given the choice between me and Eva, I felt absolutely certain he would choose Eva. “I just know,” I said.
I could almost hear Grace shaking her head on the other line. “Fine, Rachel,” she said. “I don’t have the energy to argue with you anymore. Go ahead, give up. Let her have him.” She heaved a sigh. “Just do me one favor, okay? Go out with the upper hand.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, Alex is the one who messed you up when you were kids,” she reminded me. “So now you’ve got to be the one to dump him. Before you let him go back to his fiancée, break his heart a little.”
I heard some shuffling in the background and someone yelling, “We can’t get a pulse!” Grace let out an exaggerated sigh. “Rachel, I’ve got to go tell them to stop CPR,” she said. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Yes,” I managed. “I’ll be fine.”
When we hung up, I pulled out the compact that I keep in my purse. Even though I don’t wear make-up, I find it essential to carry around a compact for times when I strongly suspect I have spinach in my teeth. Or like now, when I wanted to check out the damage from crying. Unfortunately, if you’re a pale-skinned white girl, even a few tears result in a red nose and puffy, bloodshot eyes. I looked a mess. My only hope was that most of the attendings would want to sign out to me by phone rather than in person. I wasn’t sure how to explain my face otherwise.
This was going to be a long night.