[Written October 13, 2010]
Just outside room 129 in the intensive care unit of the Overland Park Regional Medical Center, a small group of grim-looking doctors and nurses gathered to speak in hushed voices about the dying patient within.
“Four milligrams in the last four hours. It’s useless to give him more.”
“He doesn’t want more, anyway. He kicked us out this morning–yelled at us to get out of the room. He doesn’t want our help anymore. He knows it’s too late.”
Stifling a yawn, one of the nurses spoke up. “Does his family know? I haven’t seen any visitors in his room lately.”
“He doesn’t have any family.”
“None we know of, anyway.” There was a quick shuffling and a loud flap as each doctor examined the patient’s charts on their own clipboards.
A brief silence, and then: “I think we’re looking at the end here.”
“No, not yet.” A young nurse fiddled with the drawstring on her turquoise scrubs. Everyone looked at her, but she matched their eyes with a thoughtful look. “I don’t think it’s time yet. I don’t know what it is–I can’t explain it, I just don’t think he’s ready.”
One of the senior doctors started to speak. “Corinne, you’re not Hospice. There’s nothing you can do–”
“No, I know that. I know I can’t do anything. I just want to talk to him.”
* * *
Later that night, the young woman quietly slipped into the room, being careful not to tread too heavily on the linoleum floors. The door closed with a click behind her.
“Is that you?” The man lying perfectly still on the bed didn’t open his eyes.
Corinne didn’t hesitate. “Yes. It’s me.”
“Oh.” The man tensed up briefly, as if about to react, but he then rolled over, eyes still closed, and clutched his pillow tightly to his chest. He was wrapped in layers of white sheets on a hospital bed that was entirely too large for his frail body, and the monstrous medical machines hanging over his head cast ghostly shadows on his gaunt, sallow face.
Corinne looked around the moonlit room, but decided not to turn on the lights and instead pulled up a chair next to the headboard of the bed. “How are you doing?” she crooned gently. “Do you need anything?”
“No. I’m fine.” There was a pause. Corinne watched the man’s chest rise and fall as he wheezed sterile air through his lungs.
“Has Dr. Stanton been in here yet? Has he talked to you at all today?” Corinne noticed her voice adopting a child-like tone, and she felt a slight pang of guilt for belittling the man’s condition and turning his weakness into her interest.
He noticed it too. He took a deep breath and exhaled sharply through his nose. “No, he hasn’t. I’m surprised he hasn’t talked to you either. Or did he want you to examine me yourself?”
He stopped abruptly and succumbed to a violent coughing fit. For a moment, Corinne feared the worst. But he caught his breath and rolled on his side toward her to continue speaking.
“I saw you out there,” he said, an edge in his voice, “all of you, out in the hall earlier. I don’t know what you said but I saw you all looking at me. And then everybody looked at you. What did you do? What did you say to them to make them look at you like that?”
“I–” Corinne was surprised. “I said I wanted to come talk to you. I–I thought maybe you had something to say.”
“You doctors are all the same,” he said suddenly, frowning. He sat up straighter, as if his point would be better made by his erect posture. “You watch people like me wither away every day. No big deal; it’s just a job for you. The entire time I’ve been here you’ve watched me and made your little notes on your clipboards and made your case files like I’m some kind of specimen, and only now, at the end, do you ever come in here and see what I have to say. How do you think I feel? You come in here and talk your baby-talk to me and coddle me, and then you close the door and shake your heads to the other doctors, thinking I don’t see it.
“But I have seen it; I’ve seen it all. I wish I hadn’t. You people continue to poke and prod me like it doesn’t matter what’s going through my head. I’m a lab rat to you–something to observe. I’m in this goddamn room dying–dying!–and all you do is watch me go. And you write your little notes. You spend all your time familiarizing yourself with my disease, but not one of you ever bothered to familiarize yourself with me.”
Corinne opened her mouth to defend herself. “I–”
“No, I’m not finished.” The man waved his hand to silence her. He was wide awake now, empowered by all this talking. “I’ve been in here wasting away–what else is there for me to do? You’ve watched me in here for months, and you never said a word to me until right now. Why?”
Corinne shifted nervously in her seat and pretended to pick at a loose thread in her scrubs. Neither of them spoke for three straight minutes, and Corinne, who could ordinarily chat up anyone with ease, found herself utterly speechless. The man stared at his left hand for a few minutes before saying quietly, “You’re Corinne Thomas.”
Now Corinne looked up, taken aback. The man only laughed. “Ah, that surprises you? That I know who you are? But you…you don’t know who I am, do you?” He peered at her, amusement in his tired eyes, and gingerly reached over his limp right arm, still wrapped in the hospital blankets, to reach something on the table beside his bed. “Here, take a look at these,” he said, dropping a chain of dog tags into her hands. “I had to take them off for the MRI.”
Corinne turned the metallic tags over and sharply drew in a breath of air.
“Frank!” she exclaimed.
He grinned. “Surprised?”
“You–you look so different!” Corinne didn’t know what else to say. She let the tags fall onto the floor with a clink and took a closer look at the man in the gurney. Frank was not the man he was six years ago; beneath the sheets he was debilitated and broken. His bald head gleamed in the moonlight through the window, and whenever he turned his head even the slightest margin, the scars all around his scalp shone on top of his skin. He was rail thin, and his hands shook when he reached for a glass of water on his nightstand. Every time he closed his eyes, even just for a blink, it seemed like an immense effort to open them back up again, like all his energy had gone into that one movement.
Frank laughed bitterly as she looked him over. “War does that to people.”
“I read about you in the paper, all those years ago. My parents showed me the article. I couldn’t–I didn’t want to believe it.” Corinne said hesitantly. “Everyone thought you were dead.”
“To be honest, so did I,” Frank said, stretching his arms behind his head. Corinne gasped: his right arm ended just below the elbow. When he noticed her gaping, Frank lowered his arms quickly and cupped his only hand around the stump. “Oh, this? This is where it all started.”
Corinne was awed. She sat there staring at him for a minute. “Frank…what happened?”
Frank dropped his amused smile and turned his hardened gaze onto her. “I thought you’d never ask.”
* * *
“I had trained for over four years when I was deployed,” Frank began, stoically, “that summer six years ago–remember? I never thought I would have to go overseas, but it happened so unexpectedly. I had somehow forgotten I might actually have to leave–I was too busy planning the wedding. But what could I do? I had trained so hard for this, and I had to go. So at the end of July my dad drove me down to Waynesville for my first official report for duty, and then on August 11 I got on a plane to Baghdad. August 11–my own wedding day. I’ll never forget that day, as long as I live.” Frank frowned. “I guess that’s not too much longer now.
“I arrived at the airport in Baghdad and immediately set out for camp. It wasn’t as exciting as it seems. I spent most of the first two years I was over there keeping up camp, caring for the sick and wounded, filing important documents with our personnel–that sort of thing. We didn’t see much action where we were set up at first, but I did move around a lot. It didn’t hit me until we got more into central Iraq that here I was, in the middle of an actual war.”
Frank suddenly stopped and held up his remaining hand. “I have to say one thing: you have to understand that I loved your sister, Corinne. I would have done anything for her. I still would. But we were apart for so long, and in such a terrifying way…. Neither of us knew what our future would hold, if we had a future at all. I wrote to her as often as I could but I was hardly ever around. And besides, where I was stationed–well, the communication was exceedingly difficult. I’m not even supposed to talk about it.
“It wasn’t intentional, though; we just fell apart. In a couple of years I had been promoted to First Lieutenant. I felt great, and I was keeping busy–after a while I began to forget I was technically still engaged. Everything had changed. But it wasn’t bad–I was successful there, and we were really beginning to see changes in the country. Sometimes I wonder what would be different if I had married your sister–I certainly wouldn’t be here now. But I almost feel like if I had stayed with her–although I didn’t have a choice–I wouldn’t have been as happy as I was there, you know, having a reason. I felt like I was finally doing something with my life. And besides, from what I’ve heard, mainly you talking to the docs, she’s doing very well now without me anyway.”
“Oh, she is,” Corinne said excitedly. “She lives in Boston with her husband–they’ve got a beautiful little place. And she’s got two little girls now–twins–and another one on the way. A boy this time. He’s due in six weeks. We’re all very excited.” She paused for a second, and then cocked her head toward Frank. “It’s odd, though, when I think about it now, seeing you here in front of me, we all thought it would be you to raise her kids; we all thought you two would spend the rest of your lives together.”
Frank swallowed. When he resumed speaking, his voice cracked at first, but he hastily cleared his throat to conceal it. “I thought so, too, at the beginning. I thought I’d come back and we’d be a happy family again. But it never works out that way.
“Almost two years ago–let’s see, it’ll be two years in February–I was patrolling with three of my buddies just north of Baghdad, keeping an eye out on the civilian provinces, when everything turned upside down.” He pinched his eyes shut but could not stop a single tear from pouring out the side and rolling down his cheek. “I don’t remember anything. They said it was a roadside bomb, and we drove right over it. I guess when they came to get us, the driver’s body was so mangled they couldn’t put it on the stretcher in one piece. He was one of my best friends–gone. The other two guys in the truck, and me, had been blasted into the air and landed several feet away. When they came to get us, they thought we were dead, too. Our bodies were pierced by debris from the bomb and the truck.” Pointing to his head, he said, “See these scars? I had so many surgeries to get all the metal out of my head. There’s probably still some in me.
“I don’t know what happened to the other two guys–I doubt I would recognize them if I saw them now anyway. I was taken to Ibn Sina Hospital in Baghdad. I don’t remember that, of course–I was unconscious. But I guess when I got there, and they saw what had happened to me, when they saw this thing”–he flopped his amputated right arm down lifelessly on the gurney–“they flew me back home. And I’ve been here ever since.”
Frank had been staring off into the darkness of the room as he told his story, and with a jolt he now suddenly realized Corinne was still in the room with him. He grew uncomfortable, and Corinne noticed his nervousness. She reclined further back in her chair to give him some more room. “You don’t have to keep going.” But he only shook his head, scars once again glistening in the early morning moonlight. Corinne noticed them this time. “Yes, I do,” Frank murmured. “I really do.”
Taking a deep breath, Frank plunged onward. “I learned that both of my parents had died while I was away. I never even got the correspondence about my mom–but my dad died while I was unconscious, here in this hospital. I guess he had come to visit me a couple times, but how could I have known? I wish he had never learned what happened to me, but I am glad he won’t have to face losing his son now.
“Dr. Stanton was the first doctor I met after I woke up. I could still speak well enough–everyone was amazed about that–but I had no sense of time, and I hadn’t realized that my injuries were as severe as they were. I tried to stand up once, about a week after I woke up–that ended badly. I was too fucked up to know my body had been blown away. Doc Stanton had to convince me that I had been injured and had to stay here. I just couldn’t comprehend it.
“Anyway, I went through rehabilitation, which hurt like hell at the beginning. I was so frustrated with my body and myself–I couldn’t do anything anymore, and I always had to ask people for help. I was embarrassed. They kept telling me ‘it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault,’ but that didn’t make it any better. I’m not 100 percent back to normal, but thank God I can walk now. I have to use a cane, but I like walking out in the gardens.” He paused to sip some water, and then raised one eyebrow. “Of course, they won’t even let me do that without some supervision, but you win some, you lose some.
“Everything seemed to be getting better, except I had this nasty cough that wouldn’t go away. Dr. Stanton thought it was pneumonia from the sudden change in climate, so he gave me some meds to make sure it went away. But–” As if it was on cue, Frank stopped to cough harshly, his whole body rattling with the sound of his raspy lungs. “There, case in point. It didn’t go away. So he wanted me to get a routine exam–this was almost a year ago–to make sure my recovery was going okay.
“So I did, I went and had a bunch of tests done. It drove me crazy: the docs had exhausted me, but they didn’t tell me any of the results, good or bad. I could tell they were withholding something from me. They all spoke to each other the way you all were speaking out in the hall earlier. Whispers, quick glances. They kept sugar-coating it, telling me, ‘oh, you gave us a scare, but we’re taking care of it.’ The next time Dr. Stanton came in here, I literally grabbed him by the coat and held onto him–damn it, I wanted to know what was going on!
“This was a few months after I lost my arm. It still was sore, but what would you expect? Well, turned out it was hurting more than it should have been–because it had become infected. The doc told me the name of the bacteria–it was called ‘acinetobacter baumannii.’ I know, I hadn’t heard of it either, but in the military, it’s essentially a death sentence.”
Frank looked up at Corinne, whose brow was furrowed in curious concern. “See, if I had stayed in the States, this would not have happened. Even if I had contracted this illness, I could have received treatment pretty quickly. But in Iraq, you might be able to guess that military operations are pretty secretive, and anytime anyone got hurt it was dealt with quickly and kept hush-hush. They didn’t want anyone to know we had weaknesses, unless it ended in some glorious military feat and they could call somebody a hero. That’s why you only read about the bomb in the paper, not the rest of this hell.
“Dr. Stanton figured this out quickly. He’s a great doctor, and he’s seen a lot. But when he saw my case, after I’d been diagnosed, there was nothing he could do. I had been treated too late–not really treated at all for my real condition. This bacteria is drug-resistant, too, so even if he had given me meds, he could only help with lessening the pain, not killing the bacteria itself. He talked to me last week and told me my options: either I live here and slowly wither away in a medicinal daze, or I can stop treatment and die. I’ve been holding on for so long–but for what? Is it worth it?
“Anyway, about three months ago,” Frank said, pausing to shift slightly in the bed, “he said a new doctor would be shadowing him, a Dr. Thomas, and I immediately wondered if it was the same Thomas family that I knew for so long. I knew you had wanted to go to medical school–I guess that worked out for you.” Frank flashed Corinne a quick smile, which she returned gratefully.
“You have no idea how long I waited for you to come in here, to recognize me,” Frank said sadly. He was mindlessly twirling the corner of his bedsheets around his remaining index finger. “It finally dawned on me that that wasn’t going to happen. Look at me: I’m a completely different person.” Frank shrugged. “I can see that now. It’s been six years, filled with nothing but hardships for me. It’s such a long story to tell, and I guess now you can see how it will end.”
With that, Frank stopped talking. A very pregnant silence filled the room while both of its occupants collected themselves. Frank, who had been staring down at his good hand, looked up at Corinne. For a moment their two gazes locked onto each others’ rich, chocolate-brown eyes, and Corinne felt as though he was holding her captive.
“Frank, I–” She hesitated, her voice quivering. “I don’t even know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything. Just this: tell your sister I talked to you. Tell her I love her. I never stopped loving her. And tell her I’m sorry.”
This was too much for Corinne. Warm tears flooded down her face; she could feel them streaming from her eyes, and she gently rubbed them away. In six years, she had never heard what happened to Frank; she never even bothered to ask her sister what happened. When the Star had reported Frank’s apparent death nearly two years earlier, she had been shocked, but Frank had too long been out of her memory to be personally affected. Corinne had gone on with her life, graduating from medical school and hopping from hospital to hospital before settling down in the city in which she had grown up. She never had a reason to remember Frank. After all, he was dead. For her, as for millions of people around the country, he was another casualty of a distant war completely separate from her own life. How was she to know he would find her right again in her own city?
Frank, who had been watching Corinne, turned away and looked out the window. The night’s crescent moon was slipping beyond the horizon, and the first glimpses of orange and pink were just rising in the east. He smiled. “Look, the sun’s coming up,” he said. “I’m sorry I wasted your morning.”
Corinne shook her head silently as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. When she had regained her composure, she stood up to leave–but then stopped, leaned down and kissed Frank on the cheek. Grabbing her clipboard, she hurried toward the door. Her hand was on the doorknob when she stopped. “I have to ask,” she said with a sniff, still facing the door, “when I came in, you said ‘is that you?’ Who were you waiting for?”
A great sigh came from the bed. “Dr. Stanton. I was going to tell him to stop treatment. For good. I wanted a Kevorkian to help me, to end it all. I don’t want to live like this anymore. I can’t.”
* * *
Corinne left Frank’s room and gently pulled the door shut. She stopped and leaned on the closed door for a moment, breathing a heavy sigh. Her head was throbbing, everything was dizzy, she felt her legs go weak….
“Are you okay?” Corinne opened her eyes with a jolt to find another nurse standing next to her, his hand on her shoulder to steady her.
“Yes.” Corinne wiped her nose. “Yes, I’m fine. Can you tell me where Dr. Stanton is?” The man gestured to a conference room down the hall. Corinne immediately started off down the hall, lab coat fluttering behind her with the wind her gait created, until she reached the door the nurse had indicated. Blinded by the newly formed tears in her eyes, she flung upon the door to the conference room and walked past the staring medical staff that had convened for the morning right up to the doctor locked in conversation in the corner.
He turned, surprised to see her. “Corinne! What are you still doing here?”
But Corinne stopped the doctor mid-sentence. “The patient in 129. He’s ready now.”