“What Now?”

Submitted into Contest #58 in response to: Write a story about someone feeling powerless.... view prompt




Writing prompt #58

Write a story about someone feeling powerless.

“What Now?“     by clcronan 2020

He’s eyes refused to open, he was unable to move any of his body. He could hear, and after a few moments deduced he was lying in the hospital so this wasn’t his imagination. What exactly had happened he could not recall. He passed out from that much excursion.

She sat in the barbarically uncomfortable chair, tucked in amongst the myriad of beeping and clicking and pumping and pulsing machines. She was still in a state of shock over how quickly this had all happened. And sick to her stomach with guilt for the decision she had made. He had made his DNR emphatically clear. They had discussed it more than once and yet she needed him, the world needed him, he had no right not to try, she had no right not to try.

A young doctor walked into the ICU room where they had been for the past 3 hours. The rest of the day was a blur of the horrible phone call, the accident scene, the helicopter, the emergency surgery, the most dreaded news, and the battery of tests and assessments. The dostor nodded at her, picked up the chart from the end of the bed, reviewed it, put it back, took a deep breath and told her there was nothing more they could do until the swelling went down and certain tests were returned. Dr. Watersworth was heavily sedated and intubated, so she might as well go home. They should have more information tomorrow.

He worried when she made no motion to acknowledge what he had said. “I’ll send a nurse in to assist you.” He went out to the floor managers station and asked that emotional support be sent in for Dr. Watersworth’s assistant, Ms. Bainbridge.

He came in and out of consciousness every 8 to 12 hours over the next three days. The staff reacted to a monitor that alerted them to increased brain activity, but the patient showed no physical signs of awareness. He did, however, hear the goings on around him. He had flashes of disconnected images that made no sense and so they annoyed him. He wanted someone to fill in all the missing information, but could not find a way to communicate his consciousness. And he could not manage to stay awake.

Ms. Bainbridge had taken up residence in a nearby hotel run by the hospital for the many caregivers who came in with the patients from all around the globe to receive the world’s best care here. She’d been on the phone for the last 10 hours trying to put together the best care team, the best legal team, and the best team to continue his research back at the university. She finally stood to stretch and realized she meant to be at the hospital three hours ago. A quick shower, into her rumpled suit, and a disgusting cup of coffee, an apple from the convenience store and she was standing at the shuttle stop in the rain. “At least this way no one will notice the wrinkles, but this suit is officially ruined, so I will have to have one, or a few, sent to my room.” She was muttering this allowed to herself when the shuttled pulled up. She smiled weakly at the driver and took the first available seat. “If he is awake, how will I ever explain myself?” was the thought that nagged at her until she reached for the lever on the door to his room.

The Nurse manager tapped her on the shoulder before she opened the door and asked her to follow her to the conference room. As she had requested, Dr.s Neil Quest and Christopher McCormick, the top spinal injury specialists, were waiting for her arrival. Through the oversized glass window wall, they saw the ladies approaching and stood when the conference room door was opened. Introductions were made, the nurse manager alerted the stenographer that it was time to join the meeting, and she returned to her station.

“Ms. Bainbridge, I would have been sorely disappointed had you not called upon me for Dr. Watersworth’s case. He is highly esteemed in his field, and closely watched for his advances in cancer care.” Was Dr. Quest’s response to her apology for pulling them in so abruptly. “I would like to second that,” said Dr. McCormick as they all took their seats. 

 “We, of course, will pursue restoration of good health, but to speak bluntly, this injury is compound, There is no indication that any movement will be regained below the neck. The most we can hope for is some controlled movement of the mouth and eyes. There is going to be a long recovery time for memory and even longer for cognitive function, and even longer still for physical recovery.” Dr. McCormick spoke with a sense of authority, but a tone of compassion.

“We understand that as his guardian you chose to override his order for DNR. You understand the legal ramifications to that?” Dr. Quest asked. She nodded. “May we know why?” he continued.

She sat up straighter. She wanted to try to meet them at the level of professionalism they had set. She cleared her throat, but could not stop the tears from silently running down her cheeks. “The world needs him. Even if his body is broken, his brain can save lives. He was so very close to a breakthrough in his research that I felt he’d, well, that is I hoped he’d want to finish. And to be alive long enough to know he had discovered a way to save over 430,000 people every year from a very devastating death from pancreatic cancer.” Her closed fist came up to press against her lips, she struggled to take a deep breath, and to keep what little composure she had remaining. She felt so inadequate for the task of deciding the course of this mans life. Who was she to say? What right did she have to go against his wishes? But the answer she had given to the doctors was true. Even in his projected condition, his life had value.

The patient, between long stretches of unconsciousness, worked at opening his eyes. He knew they were fluttering and that such a small thing had caused a big stir around him, but he kept passing out. He did finally manage to peel his lashes apart, but the light that seeped in blinded him and made his head throb. He thought he’d rest a while, and try again later.

Ms. Bainbridge was spending most of her days at the hospital tucked into a small cubby off the family waiting lounge making call after call trying to coordinate so many details that she often felt overwhelmed, unable to keep things in any sort of prioritized order. She was sure her note taking was as incoherent as her train of thought. She rested her forehead on her forearm and fell into a state of semi-consciousness. Her thoughts ran as wild as a cyclone, but there in the quiet eye of the storm was Dr. Watersworth.

She was just starting her pre-med undergraduate work when she first saw him. A very disheveled old man who was fumbling with his keys trying to get into his office. A few graduate students walked past making terrible faces behind his back. She asked a classmate about it and was told, his nickname, behind his back, was Old Watersworthless. He was known to be in a constant state of confusion, and forgetful to the point of concern. Rumor had it that the board left him on staff because he was as brilliant in the lab, as he was hopeless in the lecture hall.

She did not experience this for herself until her her first year of grad school. Dr. Watersworth came to class in his house slippers. She happened to be behind him as they reached the door, and tapped his shoulder, and gently inquired, “Pardon me sir, but you seem to have forgotten to change your shoes.”

“Oh, my.” He said, as if he were resigned to living like this.

“Might you have a pair of shoes in your office sir?”

“Oh, well, two or three pair by now I should think.”

“If you like, I can run up and get them before you enter the lecture hall. All I’ll ask in turn is that you don’t mark me late.”

“Oh, why, how nice. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather enjoy the reactions of your classmates as I walk in there with my bedroom slippers on?”

She jogged to his office, grabbed a matching pair of shoes even though one was under a chair and one was acting a a paperweight to a rather tall stack of papers on his desk. She replaced that one with a dusty book so as not to disrupt whatever system he might have. She jogged back to the hall and found him right where she left him. As the students entered around him they signaled each other to look at his feet and tried not to laugh.

“These seem right for the occasion,” she said cheerfully. He looked at her with the eyes of a young boy who had been adrift for a very long time. He stepped into the shoes. She picked up the slippers and stuffed them in her backpack. She winked at him and said, “Mums the word.” 

By the end of that year she was working as his office assistant, and by the end of the year after that she had moved into his house as a personal assistant. She cared more deeply about his reputation than he ever did. She worked very hard to make sure he was fed, dressed, and on time. She handled the household bill paying because he always forgot to do it. She kept his engagement calendar, and accompanied him to most speaking engagements. As time passed her responsibilities came to include acting as his executor. He had no one else, and so had never taken the time to name a beneficiary to anything. He named her. He said he would trust her with his life.

At that thought she sat bolt upright in her chair, in a cold sweat. She had let him down. She had gone against his expressed, written end-of-life wishes. She kept him trapped in a body he surely would not want. “Well,” she said aloud to the empty room, “He’ll be a whole lot easier to keep track of now.” Her attempt at levity broke her open into sobs that poured out from under the closed door. Shortly, a social worker came to sit with her.

When she had pulled herself together sufficiently, they went together to see how the Dr. was fairing today. His eyes were open. When their eyes met she ran to him, sobbing and apologizing and squeezing his hand. He could not feel her hands on his. His head would not move, he could not speak. Tears rolled down his cheeks onto the pillow. The attending asked her to please take a break because the patient needed to stay calm. The social worker assured them it would be just a short break.

It was almost a month after the accident that she calmly explained to her dearest friend, Dr. Watersworth, that she needed him to finish his work, because she, and others more knowing than her, were certain he was on the verge of a treatment altering breakthrough that just might keep pancreatic cancer from killing people. She cried again as she recalled to him the story he told about what motivated him to work so tirelessly.

His own father had succumbed to the disease. Leaving the young boy, and only child, to look after his mother. His mother never recovered from the loss, and that 11 year old boy felt the burden of his inadequacy to save his father from the disease or his mother from a life of grief. He vowed to find a solution. He dedicated his entire life to it. He never married or had children. He really never had any relationships at all. Too busy, he said.

She expressed her guilt and grief at not honoring his wishes. She hoped that as he regained his ability to communicate that he would find a way to forgive her. She had fallen into providing care for him, out of simple compassion, but also so that she could see him triumph. Her own father was a victim of this same cruel killer. She supported the doctor in order to participate in the solution. But she needed to know if her motivation for keeping him alive now was selfish, or a shared sacrifice. Was he willing to go through the rigors of regaining the ability to communicate so that he could finish what he started? 

These questions proved to be too much for him during the early months of his recovery. The buzz at the hospital and back at the lab were that he might never regain his mind as it had been before the accident. She fought to block that possibility from her thoughts. She kept on, one step at a time. She was there with him as often as possible, and was otherwise working the phone. She lost 15 pounds in two months. She felt 20 years older than she did before the accident. She slept erratically, and almost always woke in a cold sweat. Her dear friend was suffering through more than she had ever imagined. The doctors promised her that each setback was normal. That a body this traumatized has to reprogram itself from every direction. The healing process was never a straight line.

Dr. Watersworth did learn to communicate with his eyes. He would often ask her to leave. She wrestled with why. Did he hate her? Did he blame her? No, no he just knew she was overtired. Right?

Three months into the ever-pressing ordeal, she agreed to go ‘home’ early and not make any phone calls. The social worker walked her to the elevator reassuring her that this was a long game, not a sprint, so it was time to do some self-care. Ms. Bainbridge gave a weak and tired smile of gratitude to her new friend as they parted.

Dr. Watersworth was spending the evening in the rotating-to-prone bed. His eye-tracking computer was placed on the floor under his face in case he wanted to call the nurse, who would be right there in the room. He was able to signal “OK” to the information and instructions she gave. His recall had noticeably improved, and Ms. Bainbridge had proudly informed the staff that his rapidly shifting eyes were his normal deep-thinking quirk and not indicative of a seizure. His eyes were shifting like that as he lay there, lost in calculations. He painstakingly typed out “PARP post platnm Bevaciz X floconoz .4mmg in SDTM as PD ATCH cAMP as ICF” He exhaled, and that was the end. He flat lined. There was a renewed DNR on file, Ms. Bainbridge still listed as executor, so there were no “heroic efforts” to revive him. A doctor was called in to declare time of death, and Ms Bainbridge was telephoned.

She sat quietly at the foot of her bed, feeling drained. The angst she had been living with seemed to set itself like cement. Maybe that note he left would be the key to all his research. Maybe not. Neither of them could have tried any harder.  

She knew guilt would be her permanent burden. Her sense of purpose and duty died with Dr. Watersworth. She stood to begin packing up her things and noticed the room for the first time. She’d been living there so long, and never noticed any of the details. The thought made her feel hollow. And seasick. She sat back down. That felt wrong, so she stood up again. But made no move to pack. She sat back down, looked at her refection in the mirror, and very quietly, like a lost child, said, “What now?”

September 10, 2020 22:38

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Jana S
22:41 Sep 16, 2020

The beginning was an instant hook, and the characters are well-developed. The ending is amazing and caps of the story perfectly. Maybe you could add a bit more description, and maybe start explaining things a little earlier? Otherwise it's great ;)


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22:11 Sep 16, 2020

I'm not gonna lie I was a little confused as to what was going on at first but then as I kept reading I was really drawn in. As Ms. Bainbridge's connection to Dr. Watersworth was explained and his personality was described I was even more interested in how he was going to react to her overriding the DNR. Very good story, I'm curious what his last note meant. Thank you for writing it!


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