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Creative Nonfiction Drama Fiction

Before this year, I wouldn't have paid much attention to people’s laziness. I wouldn't have dwelled on the crowded chats in the lunchroom about the latest story on The Daily Mail or a patient they shouldn't have been talking about. And I would have turned my back when I saw staff treating break-rooms like private bedrooms— in a couple of different ways, if you know what I mean. It was just what people did. And I figured that nothing could really change people. But this year, people’s laziness began to cost lives, un-masked chats in the lunchroom became super-spreaders, and break-room hook-ups meant that more than sexual favors were being exchanged. I wasn't looking the other way when protocol was being ignored anymore. Not in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

New Year’s Eve was typically a hectic day in the ER anyway; teenagers drove drunk home from house parties and got into accidents, people of all ages came in with alcohol poisoning, and others who planned an devastating exit from this life were saved by friends and family. All were rushed to the ER, where we, in turn, rushed to take care of them. But this year, our ER was a make-shift tent outside. Large extension cords that supplied power to vital monitors stretched from outlets inside, technicians constantly tinkered with said monitors, and nurses and doctors scrambled to attend to patients. 

As hospital director, I was monitoring more than just the ER; the cardiology unit needed assistance, the oncology unit had constant questions, and the ICU was on its last leg. This year was about more than just managing the crowds of people who came in with accident-related injuries. It was about convincing healthcare workers, people who decided to embrace science for a living, to do just that— believe in science. And it wasn’t working.

“I just think it’s weird that they made it so fast,” a technician with puffy blonde hair and a dramatic spray tan commented. She munched on a bag of Hot Cheetos in the break-room. I couldn't help but wonder if she could list the chemicals that went into her favorite orange skin dye or explain to me what made her favorite salty snack so brightly colored. 

“Right? And I’m just like, I’m gonna need ya’ll to take it first,” a nurse replied. She laughed at herself. “That way, if you drop dead, I’ll know not to take it.” She took a hefty sip of her “detox” tea. 

Although I wasn’t looking forward to it, I was going to have to have the conversation with them. After all, they were healthcare providers on the oncology unit, and they were coming directly in contact with some of our sickest patients.

“Hi ladies!” I said brightly, pretending as if I hadn’t heard their chatter. “I have exciting news for you. You are both first in line to get the COVID19 vaccine!”

They exchanged glances.

“I won’t be taking it,” the orange one said firmly. “There just isn’t enough data behind it.”

“I won’t be taking it either,” the other chimed in. She slurped down the rest of her loaded tea, eyes wide with energy. 

I tried to convince them, spouting out the evidence I had for the vaccine, the minimal reported side effects and the importance of protecting cancer patients. Eventually, I handed them the packet I had made that contained copies of clinical trials for the vaccine, information on how to evaluate studies for accuracy, how to avoid false information on social media sites, the risks of cancer patients getting COVID19, the nurse’s role in the pandemic, and more. The orange one refused, and the other grabbed the edge of it like it was covered in vomit. I sighed loudly as they turned their backs. Dr. Marvel, the chief of surgery at the hospital, patted me on the back as she watched the girls scurry off. 

“You’re really trying,” she said, smiling sadly. “The amount of false information circulating out there is just astounding. Everyone gets their information from Kathy on Facebook. There’s not much else we can do.”

The hypothetical “Kathy” she was referring to was your typical suburban mom or grandma, who only reposted sensationalized news stories such as “Child Raised by Wolves Re-enters Society” or “Lemonade Linked to Sudden Death in Idaho Teen.” I mean, the list goes on and on.

But whatever Kathy was posting on Facebook didn’t matter. I couldn't sit there, on the last day of 2020, with the same nonchalance I always had about those who didn’t follow protocol. It was time to start 2021 off with a new resolution: holding people accountable. 

We had 300 doses of the vaccine, and only 2 takers so far. One of the respiratory therapists, Gray Carpenter, interrupted my dark thoughts with an even darker reality. 

“Dr. Flores, one of the patients in unit 20 tested positive.”

Unit 20 was the oncology ward. I closed my eyes and gripped the counter to steady myself. “Thank you for letting me know. Have you gotten your vaccine yet?”

“I haven’t decided if I wanted it or not yet,” Gray said, gritting his teeth and smiling. I could see his vape sticking out of his front pocket. 

“You’re coming to me to report that one of our most severely immunocompromised patients has contracted COVID19, and yet you refuse to do the one thing you can right now to protect other patients like this one?” I said, astounded. 

Gray’s eyes darkened. He seemed taken aback by my frustration. “This is a matter of personal choice. I decide what goes in my body, and you need me to stay healthy. We are at a shortage here.” He walked away from me with the same attitude, pulling his mask down, and stepping outside to get a puff of his vape. 

I was close to hyperventilating. 2020 was almost over, but its demons would be lurking for much of 2021. Because, in contrast to what people believed, this kind of darkness wasn’t tied to a year. It was tied to a culture that embraced selfishness and a distorted, extreme version of individual freedom. That wasn't going away any time soon. That was the American Way. 

What could I do? I couldn't fire people for not taking the vaccine— then they could sue. Trial lawyers were more aggressive than ever, advertising their services via personalized smartphone ads, lengthy TV commercials, and flashy billboards. I felt like a firefighter who sat back and watched houses burn, one by one, with tons of water at my disposal.

My spiraling thoughts came to a halt when Natasha, an oncologist and my closest friend in the hospital, approached me.

“Naomi isn’t doing too well,” Natasha said to me, her eyes wide with urgency. 

Naomi Lee was an 8 year old girl with relapsed leukemia who had been staying in the hospital since the day after Christmas due to a severely elevated white blood cell count. Simply put, it wasn’t safe for her to be anywhere else other than a sterile environment. As hospital director, I didn’t often spend much time with patients, but I had been frequenting the oncology wards since the pandemic escalated in order to be sure that appropriate measures were being taken. Although the purpose was mostly to observe doctors, nurses, and technicians to ensure that safety protocols were being followed, little Naomi always sparked conversation with me. We had begun talking about the vaccine and how she would soon be able to go back to her crowded apartment building, where she could safely ride shared elevators, spend time with her large family, and visit her friends from a distance. But tonight she was on a ventilator. 

As Natasha and I exchanged our concerns for the situation, the clock turned over to January 1st, 2021. The hospital staff all cheered, and some took off masks to take a sip of their beverages as mock “toasts.” It was time to put my resolution into effect. 

“I want a report of every single person who has been taking care of Naomi for the past 5 days, whether it be doctors, nurses, nurse assistants, or therapists,” I said loudly, my rage like a thin string that would break at any moment.

The staff on the floor gaped at me. Natasha even seemed a little surprised. Nobody said a word, not even the nursing director. I wasn’t known to be this confrontational. Matt, the IT man for the oncology unit, finally said, “I can get you a report of who has been on her service.” 

Thank you,” I said. 

Matt sheepishly began his work on the report, avoiding the gaze of other employees who thought I had simply lost it. By lunchtime, it was ready, and it gave me the information I needed. A total of ten staff members had cared for Naomi in the past 5 days: 5 nurses, 1 respiratory therapist, 1 X-ray technician, 2 doctors, and 1 nurse’s aide. It was bad enough that people in any field of healthcare broke social distancing protocol, but staff in the oncology unit breaking protocol was probably one of the more immoral things I’d seen in my life. Just as I’d suspected, the staff members’ social media contained the information I needed to let them go. 1 doctor had attended an ugly Christmas sweater party. Another had attended a massive baby shower. 2 nurses had attended weddings out of state. 3 others had Christmas parties with friends. The nurse’s aide didn’t have any dirt that I could pull up. But the X-ray technician had attended a funeral. And posted a picture of it, for some odd reason. People made it way too easy to fire them. I collected my information and sent it off to human resources, a move that scared me but also made me feel hopeful. Maybe it would hit some people with reality. 

“These people could sue you for this, you know,” Carol from HR said to me, laughing and leaning back in her swivel chair. “It’s really an invasion of privacy.”

“It’s really not, though,” I shot back. “College and graduate admissions check out social media of their applicants. Employers monitor social media too. I’m letting you know that I have the evidence to prove that these people are not following protocol and are therefore causing deaths in this hospital.”

“Aren’t you afraid to make enemies here?” Carol asked, with a curious look on her face.

“I’m more concerned about the patients who have no choice but to trust the people taking care of them to actually take care of them,” I said with a weary sigh. 

“Do you honestly think that new hires will follow the protocol?” Carol asked me, a dubious look on her face. 

“…Yes.”

“Nobody’s following protocol. Everyone’s tired of it. Even if you did fire these people, you wouldn't have enough time to hire more before the shit really hit the fan and people began to pile in. Because Christmas just happened, and it’s coming.”

“What am I supposed to do? Sit around and watch it all burn down?”

“Pray about it, darlin. He’s got all the answers. And he’s got a plan, even for that little girl with cancer, whether you like that plan or not,” Carol said confidently, pointing at the cross on her desk. 

Pray about what you want, but do all of the things that lead you farther away from it. Pray about it, but don’t act. Pray about it, and hope that’s enough. I guess the atheists and Santa Claus had it right when they said, “Be good for goodness sakes.” 

I put in my official orders to fire the staff members who had violated protocol and posted the new job openings on on Indeed The drive home felt five hours long. The frost on my windshield un-fogged just enough for me to see the road, and the dreariness of the winter seemed to have brought even the deer into hiding. The grey bricks of my apartment building seemed to sigh under the weight of the heavy roof, and the gutter seemed to creak with exhaustion. The warm air hitting my face was the only relief I’d had all day. I took off my coat, pressed the button on the Keurig and hoped for a better 2021.

January 05, 2021 20:16

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3 comments

Echo Sundar
20:37 May 11, 2021

Wow. That was touching. So much emotion. I loved the determination of the nurse this story is so fresh and so devastatingly true. You told this story flawlessly. ANd I absolutely loved this line, . I felt like a firefighter who sat back and watched houses burn, one by one, with tons of water at my disposal. Absolutely vivid.

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Elizabeth Inkim
03:26 Feb 08, 2021

Great story, you absolutely had me with that last line; it felt like you saw me at that moment. I usually don't read creative nonfiction, but it was well worth the shift, thank you for the piece. I actually used the same prompt this week for my latest story, "A Hollow Home". I usually write more fantasy type stories, but "And I am a creator at heart" and "A Hollow Home" are two of my more contemporary pieces. I have a feeling that you might also like them. Let me know if you check it out in the comments, I'd love to know what you think.

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A.G. Scott
06:22 Jan 06, 2021

I've worked in a hospital, and although precautions are usually taken seriously, I can confirm that a lot of nurses are just the most annoying girls from high school, so this story rings true in that sense. Especially the hot cheeto shit. I mean, jesus. I felt the character's frustration. You wove it well into the descriptions.

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