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Circling around and around and getting nowhere. That was the ice in my glass, and the way I'd felt my life was going. I was now past middle-aged, and I'd been persuaded by my friend Beth to attend a "networking" event in the city. I was nursing a gin and tonic, and resisting the urge to check the time again.

I felt a tug at my elbow. It was Chipper Beth, wanting me to meet someone new. She was always doing this. Usually I found it kind of charming. It was nice that she was always looking out for me, wanting to set me up. Now I found it grating. She was drinking a Manhattan, and had become even more bubbly than usual.

"You're going to love this guy," she was saying. "Know how you almost became a doctor? He did, and I'm pretty sure he was at Fields Medical Hospital when you were."

"Oh, Beth, I don't know. . . "

Beth was obsessed with the fact that I'd gotten a degree from medical school and then never became a doctor. I really didn't like to think about it. Particularly, I didn't want to think about Fields Medical where I'd done my rounds. New medical students were hazed by working long hours on an impossible schedule. I had bad memories of being foggy-headed and hungry, pushing through the exhaustion in an effort to keep up with my classmates. Beth had no way of knowing this. The subject had only come up one time, and I didn't like to talk about it.

"Jordan is originally from Bangor, Maine, she was whispering in my ear. He's older, but he's a hottie. . . "

Beth led me to the hors d'oeuvres table. He stood there, with his back to me. He was short, clipped gray hair. But for being a doctor, he would have faded into the background. I saw that his fingernails were buffed. When we shook hands, there were no callouses. His hands were as soft as a baby's. I suddenly felt embarrassed of my own hands, toughened by housework that I did on the weekends.

He was surrounded by a bevvy of admirers. Women, like Beth, who thought that being a doctor was the be all, end all. I found this annoying. The husbands were there, too, making jokes and ordering more drinks. I swirled my ice around again.

"I wish you wouldn't do that," Beth was hissing.

"What?"

"Swirling your ice around. Your drink is old. Let me get you a new one."

I didn't want a new one, but Beth got one anyway, the soggy sad napkin whisked out of my palm and replaced with a fresh dry one that had a freshly cut lime bouncing nicely in the carbonation.

"Jordan, this is my friend, Ally."

He looked at me and looked away almost immediately. I hated it when people did this. Like I wasn't important enough spend the time to make eye contact. Doctors are always full of themselves.

"Ally had a residency at Fields Medical, too," Beth said.

"Oh. We must have missed each other," he said. He had a little chain on his left hand, a tiny gold bracelet with a little plate that had his initials, J.E.R.

I sipped slowly. I really didn't like gin and tonic, and was only drinking it because it seemed festive. This was my second. I suppose third if you counted the half finished one that Beth had replaced.

It was the bracelet that took me back. It was a talisman. Like one of those swinging watches that mesmerizers used in days gone by. Unwittingly, I slipped into a reverie of my days at Fields. That bracelet. I had seen it before. I took a slow, long sip of the gin and tonic.

* * *

The day of the procedure was a Wednesday. I remembered that, because I had allowed myself one indulgence, which was to watch a TV show I liked at the time on Tuesday night, "What's Gonna Happen?" The show featured contestants who participated in real-life scenarios, wagering on what was likely to happen. A guilty pleasure. In an ideal world, I guess I would have caught up on sleep, but I was human, and I needed to blow off steam. It always seemed too tempting to watch what would happen. Ridiculous, really. I cheered with the little guy who got the girl, cried with the man whose natural parents refused to acknowledge him. It was like one of those quarter-for-an-egg dispensing machines. Usually predictable, but always there was hope for something extra special to be revealed.

Earlier that day Dr. Rousch told me I'd be assisting in my first surgery. He was scrubbed up when I met him, iodine on his hands, tools on a table to the right. His reputation was well-known. Napoleon, he was called, because he was small and dictatorial. My friend Sara had cried after first rounds with him. Apparently he'd berated her. I was fairly sure I could handle him.

He turned to face me. He had dark, piercing eyes. "You're with me," he said, not making eye contact. He hadn't asked my name. I could see a gold chain on his wrist, reading "J.E.R."

"First surgery starts at 5:30 a.m. You're not going to throw up," he said to me, more like a command than a question.

"No."

"Good, I can't take it when residents screw up my procedures."

I could do this. I'd have to rally a bit. I was already tired from being up late on Monday night, doing rounds. There had been an older patient that cried out every hour. I was so tired. So tired. But I could follow instructions, and I knew how to command myself to focus.

So on Wednesday morning, I drank coffee, nothing else. I would leave no chance of screwing up the surgery. But I had allowed myself to watch TV. Now dark circles under my eyes and shaky hands were telling me that I should have eaten breakfast. I should have skipped my show and gotten some sleep.

The patient was having her stomach stapled. Actually, we called it "vertical banded gastroplasty." My friend had told me that doctors could make a pile of money doing only that procedure, but it was dangerous. People could die. And the procedure was usually not necessary, although helpful to those who had a hard time making lifestyle changes.

The first cut was the hardest. Dr. Rousch had plunged the scalpel deep into the abdomen. I forced myself to look as he peeled back the thick layers of adipose tissue. He called for the dilator. The body fat was yellow, like chicken fat, but innervated with pulsing blood vessels. The bright green florescent lighting made everything in the room vibrate.

"Calipers," Dr. Rousch had barked.

I handed them over.

He cut the stomach, removing a long pink-gray band. I could feel my head starting to feel light. Was the room beginning to turn?

"Suture. Your turn."

I was pretty sure that I wasn't supposed to do this part. I wasn't cleared to work on a real patient. Should I tell him I wasn't supposed to?

"What're you waiting for? Suture, dammit!"

Ok, no choice then, I'd be suturing. Besides, his hand was holding a clamp, and I could see the patient's heart rate beginning to rise.

My hands were shaking. I tried to steady them. The needle pierced flesh. The first stitch was tough, but then, I tightened, pulling tension just as I had a million times on the cadavers. It was easy after that. My gloves were bloody, but the heart rate went down. I focused only on finishing then. Make it neat, I thought. Be precise, I commanded myself. The room disappeared, and it was only me and the patient, finishing with the buzz of the lights in my eyes and my quaking hands, working methodically.

It was only when I was doing the post-op paperwork that my own heart dropped.

"Dr. Rousch?"

"What!"

"Dr. Rousch, there were twelve sponges."

"What?"

"Dr. Rousch, there were twelve sponges, but post-op count is only eleven."

There was a pause. "Are you sure?"

I looked at the log. Oh God. There was nothing marked. Was it possible that I had missed tracking this? I was supposed to be eyes and ears of the procedure. I thought one of the nurses would have tracked. God. They probably thought I was doing it.

"Well? What the fuck? Were there eleven or twelve?"

"Doctor Rousch, I'm not sure. . ." And then all went black.

* * *

Two weeks later, I found myself in Dr. Rousch's office. The patient was back. She had a fever.

"You're obese," Dr. Rousch had said. "Frequently my most obese patients have difficulty recovering."

But she didn't get better, and I thought I knew why. I stopped eating. I started crying inexplicably. When I saw a mother at the park, heavy-set, ordering a cone for her son, my heart began to race. When I saw people hugging, I thought about how fleeting our time was here on earth. I couldn't help it. I felt responsible. If it weren't for me, she would have lived.

I went to therapy after that. My therapist told me it wasn't my fault. But it didn't matter. I had to drop out, and that was how I found myself in law school, and that was how I found myself at a networking event for professionals, and now Beth was looking at him expectantly.

* * *

"Jordan, wouldn't it be weird if you and Ally were at Fields at the same time? Ally, when were you there? Was it '00?"

"Yes."

"See?" Beth was beaming. Jordan was there, then, too. Jordan looked at me. His tone was clipped. "Funny we never met."

He looked at me then, and I recalled the sharpness of his stare.

"Yes, funny we never met." I said. "Beth, I'm going to refresh my drink." I walked off to the bar with my fresh, crisp napkin still wrapped around my untouched drink. I walked quickly, and the ice cubes raced in a circle around the base of the glass, getting nowhere, moving quickly.

August 23, 2020 15:01

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3 comments

Pragya Rathore
15:59 Aug 24, 2020

Beautifully written! Fabulous job, Amy (one of my favorite characters, but not the Little Women one :D) You managed to make it entertaining and meaningful without overdoing the words or making it too long. Awesomely penned, hope to see more! :) Please check out my stories too, if you get the time :p

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Jonathan Blaauw
04:16 Aug 25, 2020

Hang on. The sponge thing, that can't really happen, right? I know it can, but it doesn't, surely? See, this is why I don't watch medical series... This is written in your usual, excellent style, but my focus was on the plot itself - thoroughly engaging! You've got three distinct parts, and the key one is the middle, recollection bit, but you build up to that so well that the start is just as engaging. And it was very clever how you presented Ally. It would've been easy to make her look bad due to her mistake, but instead, you get the read...

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Amy DeMatt
19:14 Aug 25, 2020

Haha!! I assure you the sponge cases are real! Thanks for the read. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your recents. Can’t wait for more!!

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