Ellen closed her eyes and massaged her temples. When she looked at her desk again, she had to resist the urge to laugh hysterically. The mountain of paperwork had not gone away. Staff evaluations to do, three meetings on the calendar for today, one nurse out sick and another due to go on maternity leave any day… She shook her head and took a swig of coffee. Taking a deep breath, she counted to ten, gazing at the serene landscape picture that her mother had advised her to hang in the office. Feeling slightly better, she turned on her computer and was just about to plunge into her work when there was a peremptory knock on the door. It opened before she could say anything and a large, well-dressed man strode in. Felicity, the charge nurse for the day, followed, looking extremely flustered. The man loomed over the desk.
“Are you in charge?” he said, staring down at her with steely blue eyes.
“Good morning. I am the nurse manager of the clinic,” said Ellen, rising to her feet and meeting his gaze. He had picked the wrong morning to mess with her.
“I am Dan Bradford,” he said. “Of Bradford Industries.”
“I am sorry, but that doesn’t mean anything to me,” said Ellen. “How can I help you?”
He looked Ellen up and down with narrowed eyes.
“My wife had an appointment with Dr. Weisberg this morning at eight thirty. It is now nine o’clock and there is no sign of him. According to your nurse, there is no telling when he plans to get here.”
Ellen looked at Felicity.
“Dr. Weisberg was called to see one of his patients in the emergency room who presented with a medical crisis this morning. He’ll be here as soon as he can. Meanwhile Dr. Hamad offered to speak to Mrs. Bradford, but…”
“This Dr. Hamad is a fellow, not an attending. We did not come here to be seen by the junior staff,” interrupted Mr. Bradford.
“If you don’t want to see Dr. Hamad, you will have to wait for Dr. Weisberg or reschedule your appointment,” said Ellen. “I am afraid medical emergencies take priority.”
“You don’t seem to understand that I am a very busy man. I already rearranged my schedule once to come to this appointment.”
At that moment there was a light knock on the door, and a petite woman entered, leaning on a cane. Although she was smiling pleasantly, she looked wan and tired.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Diana Bradford. I apologize for my husband’s impatience. Dan, there is no reason for making a scene like this. I am glad that Dr. Weisberg gives his patients priority. You can leave me here and come back to pick me up if you have more important things to do.”
She looked sternly at her husband and Dan Bradford’s jowly face flushed. Taking advantage of his discomposure, Ellen shepherded everyone out of her office.
“Felicity, could you get Mr. and Mrs. Bradford some coffee, please, while they decide what they want to do.”
Felicity returned thirty minutes later. Ellen raised her brows and grinned.
“You survived to tell the tale. What happened?”
Felicity shook her head.
“Thank goodness Dr. Weisberg showed up a few minutes later. They’re in with him now. Mr. Bradford still found time to tell me that he plays golf with the CEO of the hospital and knows the state legislators very well. He also complained about how shabby the clinic is. What are they doing here in a state hospital instead of at some fancy, rich facility? His wife is sweet. I don’t know how she puts up with it.”
“They’ve already tried everything money could buy. Their last option is to get on Dr. Weisberg’s clinical trial. I’m afraid they’ll just have to slum it if Mrs. Bradford gets enrolled.”
Mrs. Bradford did enroll in the trial and began her weekly chemo treatments. She never lost her kind demeanor and endeared herself to the clinic staff with her good nature and patience. Mr. Bradford continued to bluster and complain on a regular basis. Ellen kept her office door open on Mrs. Bradford’s treatment days so staff could come in and safely vent about his boorishness. His wife was still able to silence him with a glance, but she steadily weakened over the next few weeks and seemed mostly oblivious to him. When she had completed her course of treatment, she and her husband came back to discuss results with Dr. Weisberg. Ellen stopped to speak to her in the exam room as she waited.
“Good morning. Where’s your husband today?”
Mrs. Bradford smiled.
“I sent him down to the gift shop. I needed a few moments by myself. The news will not be good today. I don’t need scans to tell me that. I can feel it. I’m so tired. I only went through with this for Dan’s sake. He’s not a bad person, you know, but he’s been in that dog-eat-dog business world for so long that he doesn’t know how else to act. He’s used to people asking how high when he tells them to jump. Unfortunately, cancer doesn’t work that way.”
Ellen offered her a glass of water as she succumbed to a fit of coughing.
“You’ve been heroic. It’s often hard for family to accept that someone is tired of hospitals and treatments, but it’s your decision. You are not a failure if you don’t want to pursue this anymore.”
Mrs. Bradford shrugged weakly.
“Well, Dan can't complain about me not being willing to try. The decision’s out of my hands. Dr. Weisberg has already said that there’s nothing else to be done. To be honest, it's a huge relief.”
“What do you want?” said Ellen.
“We’re very fortunate. We live in a nice lakeside house. I want to go home, sit on the deck with my cat Whisky on my lap, sip a glass of white wine, and watch the sunset. They tell me not to cuddle him because of the risk of infection, but I don’t care anymore. Poor Whisky doesn’t know what he’s done wrong. It’s a myth that cats are not as loyal as dogs.”
Ellen squeezed her hand gently.
“I’ll come back after you’ve seen Dr. Weisberg.”
Dr. Weisberg shook his head as he passed her in the hall a short time later. Ellen hurried to the exam room. Mr. Bradford seemed to have shrunk and aged.
“There must be something else to try,” he said. “I can't lose you. What am I going to do without you?”
Mrs. Bradford looked weary but serene.
“Dan, this time it's about me. No more medical procedures and treatments, thank you very much. Let’s go home. Whisky is waiting for me.”
“We can arrange home hospice services,” said Ellen. “I’ll follow up on that.”
For once, Mr. Bradford did not argue.
A month later, Ellen was again in her office, staring at what seemed like the same pile of paperwork. She sometimes imagined that it began growing like mushrooms in the dark as soon as she left the office in the evening. Felicity poked her head around the door.
“Mr. Bradford is here. He wants to speak to you.”
“Send him in,” said Ellen, bracing herself.
He looked exhausted as he sat down in the chair opposite her.
“She died a couple of weeks ago,” he said abruptly. “'I've told you that I have contacts in high places in the legislature and important friends in business?”
“Several times,” Ellen said drily.
“I’ve told them how well you all treated her. I’m going to push for that funding you need and I’m making a large donation myself.”
Ellen blinked in surprise.
“Thank you. We were just doing our job.”
He laughed bitterly.
“It’s only money. I know how to make it and raise it. But in the end, it didn’t matter for the most important person in my life. Thank you.”
He shook Ellen’s hand, dashed a tear off his cheek and shakily left the room.