I shouldn’t be surprised. After what I did yesterday, they couldn’t keep me around. I knew it was going to happen the second I stuck the scalpel into that kid’s neck. Hell, I knew it about fifteen seconds before that. But what could I do?
The truth is, the moment when I made that incision was the best moment I’ve had in the last three years. It wasn’t until a minute later that the reality of what I had just done finally hit me.
It was a mistake, a huge mistake. I mean, I’m not a surgeon anymore. I can’t just go around cutting people. Especially with an unsterilized blade. And then I stuck a freaking soda straw in the guy’s neck. It was an act of desperation. I didn’t want to do it. But I couldn’t have lived with myself if I let that kid die in front of me and knew I could have possibly prevented it.
Dr. Remy, the chief of surgery, broke the news to me. He was the one who pulled the necessary strings to get me a job within the hospital. He was my mentor before my injury. He told me once he’d never seen a surgery resident who had as much promise as I did. Funny how things work out.
“You know why I called you in here,” Dr. Remy said to me when I got to his office. He has one of the biggest offices in the hospital. The couch in his office looks like it costs more than a year of my rent. His expensive suit makes me feel like a slob.
“I have a pretty good idea,” I said. “How is he doing?” I braced myself.
“He woke up,” Dr. Remy said. “He’s talking. A little confused, but hopefully he’ll recover.”
I felt relief wash over me. I sunk down in my chair, all the energy drained from my body.
“But what you did…” Dr. Remy shook his head. “Noel, you’re not a surgeon anymore. You cut into his throat with an unsterilized scalpel. From the anatomy lab, for Christ’s sake.” He shuddered. “You were in the hospital… you should have waited for help to come.”
An unsterilized scalpel was better than a pen. That was the next thing I was going to ask Chloe for if she hadn’t produced the dissection kit. That would have been interesting. “He was about to die,” I said through my teeth. “We were in the basement and nobody was coming to help. He wasn’t getting any oxygen. I had to do it…”
“And you no doubt saved his life or at least spared him significant brain damage,” Dr. Remy admitted. “But it doesn’t matter. The hospital is going to be sued because of what you did. His parents have already told us.”
I nodded. I wasn’t surprised.
“We have to let you go,” he said. “We don’t have a choice. They’re probably going to win the suit.”
“I see,” I said.
“Noel…” Dr. Remy leans back in his chair and looks at me. How many times had I seen those eyes staring at me over a surgical mask across the operating table? I used to love scrubbing in with Dr. Remy. He believed in me. He told me what he thought I should do with my life and I listened. “You shouldn’t be operating the elevators anymore anyway.”
“I was doing better at it,” I said defensively.
“That’s not what I mean,” he said. “Noel, it killed me to see you doing that job. And you hated it. You can do so much more with your life. I wasn’t sure before, but I think you’ve proven yourself recently.”
“I can’t do surgery anymore,” I said.
“I’m not suggesting you return to surgery,” Dr. Remy said. For a second, I’d actually been hoping that really was what he was suggesting. Surgery used to be my life. I loved it. “But there are other options. Dr. Conrad told me you were helping some of the med students in the anatomy lab. Did you ever think about going back to school to get a degree in anatomy?”
“No,” I said.
“We’d both be happy to write you a letter of recommendation, Noel,” he said. “I mean, you can give it a shot, can’t you? What have you got to lose? Nobody is going to get hurt if you don’t succeed.”
Yeah, except then I’ll know for sure that I’m not capable of it. Now at least there’s some hope in my mind. Ever since I got home, I’ve been fantasizing about going back to school and having a career that isn’t humiliating and emasculating. I want this. I’ve had a taste of what’s possible and I don’t know if I can go back. If I can’t succeed at this, then… well, I don’t know what.
Noel’s Memory Book:
Even though I do my outpatient therapies in the same building, I’ve deliberately avoided going back to inpatient unit where I did my early rehab. I’ve wanted to. There are a lot of nurses and therapists there that I got to know really well and I wished I could see them again. But I hadn’t been able to make myself go. That time in my life really sucked and I didn’t want to be reminded of it.
But today I felt like I had to take my mind off everything that had happened in the last few days, so I thought I might as well go visit. Couldn’t make me feel any worse.
I showed up just past lunch time, before the change of shift, when I knew things wouldn’t be too busy. I shoved my right hand into the pocket of my jacket and walked onto the rehab unit, remembering that the last time I’d been here, I’d been in a wheelchair. The unit seemed smaller than I remembered, and brighter somehow. I recognized the smell immediately: there was a patient nearby who’d had a bowel accident and needed desperately to be changed. My first instinct, strangely enough, was still to feel embarrassed and hope it wasn’t me.
I approached the nurse’s station and my stomach clenched when I saw Mary, the fifty-something nurse with hefty arms, a big round, friendly face, and a loud, throaty laugh. She’d been my primary nurse during most of my rehab stay. At least, the part I remember.
“Hi,” I said to Mary, trying to forget that she’d seen me at my worst.
Mary looked up at me and smiled pleasantly. “Can I help you?”
For a minute, I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then it hit me: Mary didn’t recognize me. Had it been that long? I’d been here forever, or at least that’s how it felt. I guessed Mary had a lot of patients and I must not have stood out. That made it easier somehow.
“Um,” I said. “I used to be a patient here and…”
That didn’t jog her memory. Mary was still giving me that blank, pleasant smile. “Were you? What’s your name, dear?”
“Noel Andrews,” I mumbled.
When she heard my name, Mary’s face changed entirely. Now she was looking at me in complete disbelief. “Noel? Oh my lord, is that you? It couldn’t be!”
“Uh,” I said, blushing now. “Yeah, it is.”
She continued to study my face as if she still couldn’t quite believe it. I guess she did remember me. Finally, she raced around the nursing station to get a closer look. She pulled my left hand from off my cane and clasped it in hers. “I can’t believe it’s really you! Look at you! This is incredible!”
Before I could say anything else, Mary yelled out, “Valerie! Lisa! Get over here! It’s Noel Andrews! And look how handsome he looks!”
I have to say, it wasn’t terrible for my self esteem to spend the next hour having a bunch of female nurses and therapists gushing over how great I looked. Even though they were just comparing me to when I was drooling in a wheelchair with half my skull missing. I’ll still take it.
At one point, my old speech therapist Megan asked me if I’d gone back to being a surgeon. The crazy thing was, she wasn’t just trying to be nice, I don’t think. She actually genuinely thought I might have gone back to my old career. And this was Megan, a therapist who knew how much I used to struggle just to remember what year it was. The fact that she could look at me and even think that was possible was what made me finally realize that Sonya’s words might be true. Maybe I’m really not that bad anymore.
I’m lying in bed next to Noel. His shirt is off and I’m running my hand over his chest. He also has a long scar going down his chest. It goes all the way down from his xiphoid process, the little bone that hangs off the sternum of his chest, down past his umbilicus (i.e. his belly button). I run my hand lightly down the scar. “What’s it from?” I ask him. I’ve been dying to ask him about it forever, but he always seems so resistant to talk about his injuries.
“Exploratory laparotomy,” he says. “They cut me open to find out where I was bleeding. They removed my spleen.”
I looked at him, horrified.
“That’s okay,” he says. “I don’t miss it much.”
I guess among body organs to lose, the spleen isn’t as bad as some of the others.
“The worst part is,” he says, “it was at my own hospital. The guys who did it knew me. They had worked with me on a daily basis.”
That would be weird for me. I can’t imagine cutting open the chest of someone I know and seeing the same layers of fat, muscle, fascia, and intestines that’s in our cadaver. It feels like the people I know ought to be special somehow. Like filled with candy or marshmallows.
“So I got fired,” he says.
“What?” I’m shocked.
He shrugs. “It was inevitable after what I did.”
“So what are you going to do now?” I ask.
He props himself up on one elbow. To my surprise, he’s smiling. “I think I’m going to go back to school,” he says. “I want to try for a degree in anatomy.”
I hug him. “That’s wonderful!” I say. “You could be an anatomy professor!”
“Well,” he says. “That would be really far down the line. But… I think this feels right for me. I want to try, at least.”
I hug him tighter. He seems different now. Happier. Lighter.
“How about you?” he says. “I’ve never seen anyone so excited about doing a little CPR.”
I blush. “Well, it was pretty cool saving Rich’s life.”
“You should work in the ER,” he says. “Ninety percent of the time you’ll be seeing babies whose moms think their crying changed pitch or something, but every once in a while… you’ll get to be a cowboy and do something crazy to save someone’s life.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I say. I cuddle closer to him. He might be right, but I don’t want to think about my career. My career will happen eventually. Right now, I just want to enjoy being with Noel.
Graham and Claire are working together on the dissection of the foot. Claire looks really pretty today. I look at her face and realize she’s wearing a good amount of make-up. I hadn’t noticed her wearing make-up to lab before. I wonder if she’s trying to impress Graham now that he’s single.
“This is the tarsal tunnel,” Claire says knowledgeably. “The tendons going through the tunnel are the tibialis posterior, the flexor digitorum longus, and the flexor hallucus longus.”
Graham isn’t really listening to her. “Hey, Chloe,” he says. “Guess what?”
I lift my eyes to look at him. He’s smiling. “What?”
“Elizabeth Woodhouse called me,” he says. “She apologized and she asked me if I want to observe a surgery with her.”
He looks really happy. Graham deserves to be happy. He’s not a bad guy.
“That’s great,” I say. “So ortho is winning out over plastics?”
“For sure,” he says. “Bones are great. I’ve seen joint replacements on TV and it’s so awesome! That’s what I want to do with my life.” I believe him. I can’t imagine Graham passing out during a surgery when they pull out the saw. He’ll probably think it’s really cool.
“What is it with men and orthopedic surgery?” Claire says. It’s funny how even when she’s flirting with Graham, she can’t keep from being a bitch. It’s too ingrained.
Graham ignores her. “Thanks for introducing me to Elizabeth, Chloe,” he says. “She seems really neat.”
So Graham and I are okay again. Thank god.
Noel’s Memory Book:
Rose called me this morning. She sounded really formal on the phone. “Hello, Noel,” she said. “I was wondering if you might be available this evening?”
“Sure, come on over,” I said.
Like I’ve said, Rose and I have always been fairly close, but not so much in a brother and sister kind of way. It was always obvious who was the older of the two of us. She liked being maternal and telling me what to do, i.e. bossing me around. I think she probably would have laid off me if she had a child, but I guess that wasn’t in the cards for her.
Rose came by in the evening, clutching a book to her chest. She looked nervous. “I brought you something,” she said.
She handed me a book that was called (and I’m not even kidding) Cooking For the Cognitively Impaired. I didn’t know what to say. “Gosh, thanks, Rose. Um, I don’t know how much cooking I’m going to be doing.”
“Well, a lot of the recipes are really simple,” she said. “Some of them just use the microwave.”
Wonderful. I was embarrassed to put this in my bookcase. “That’s really thoughtful.”
Rose smiled, encouraged. She was still hovering in my doorway, but she was looking around, possibly for things on fire or exploding midair. She didn’t find any. I cleaned before she came, just so she wouldn’t have any cause to pick on me.
“Can I… make you dinner?” she asked.
“I can do it,” I said. I joked, “That’s what the cookbook is for, right?”
Rose’s eyes filled with tears.
“Rose, I’m kidding,” I said quickly. “It’s okay. Cook something. I love your food.”
She collapsed onto my couch, crying for real now. I didn’t know what to do so I hobbled to the bathroom to get her some tissues. I sat down next to her and put my good arm around her shoulders. “Rose, I’m okay,” I told her. “I promise you.”
“I know,” she hiccupped. “You’re obviously doing great. Better than me, even. I guess… that’s why I’m upset. I feel like… you don’t need me anymore.”
“You don’t. You don’t need me. You’ve got your girlfriend and you can do everything yourself.”
She looked up at me with bloodshot eyes. “You called me Rosie.”
I frowned. “Yeah…”
She wiped her face with the back of her sleeve. “That’s what you used to call me. You haven’t called me that since we were kids.”
I guess I forgot about that. Somehow it was comforting to Rose though. She reached out and took my right hand. She gently stretched out my fingers, like the way they taught me to do in therapy. Usually it hurts when my fingers get stretched out, but when Rose does it, it never hurts.
“I’m glad you’re getting back to the way you were,” she said. “I really am. I want you to be doing well. I mean, you’re my little brother and I love you. I guess I’m just a lonely old maid.”
“Stop it, Rose,” I said. “Come on. You’re so pretty. And nice. And smart. You could have any guy you want.”
“You could!” I insisted. “You put up one of those online personal ads and you’ll be beating them off with a stick!”
Rose smiled sheepishly. “I’ve been thinking about that. You really think I should do it?”
“Yes, definitely!” I said. “You deserve to go out and have some fun.”
We ended up having a great night together. Rose cooked dinner while I made her up a personal ad on some online dating site. I described her as “voluptuous” and said that she was capable of putting both feet behind her head. She deleted the ad instantly, saying that she was glad getting hurt hadn’t wrecked my ability to be “completely immature.” Thanks, Rosie.
Noel’s Memory Book:
I spent most of today looking up programs in anatomical sciences. I’m excited about this. Really excited. The more I look into it, the more I actually feel like I can maybe do this. When I work with Chloe, the information seems to be sticking. I don’t know why it’s become easier for me all of a sudden. Maybe Sonya was right that I had some kind of psychological block and I just needed the motivation to get past it. Chloe was my motivation.
I made a list of a few programs I wanted to apply to in the nearest city, so I can take public transportation and I won’t feel so lost without a car. Also, I want to stay close to my family because much as I want to be independent, I do need their help. And of course, I want to stay close to Chloe. I want things to work out with Chloe. I love her. I wouldn’t be doing any of this if not for her.
I was just looking through some application materials for a local program when I heard a knock on my door. I checked my watch. Chloe was supposed to come by, but I wasn’t expecting her for at least an hour.
I got up to answer the door. I was shocked to see Liz standing in front of me. And she was crying.