Shannon stepped up to the allegedly automatic sliding doors of Saint Agnes’ side entrance and waited. The wall of old metal, brittle plastic and cracked glass stared back at her, silent and impervious.
Shannon stepped back three paces and walked forward again. Nothing.
She stepped back five paces, then forward. Nothing.
The weight of the bag on her shoulder and the tension of the delicate grip she had on her filled, paper coffee cup suddenly peaked.
“Come on,” Shannon yelled, kicking the stubborn doors, which instantly opened.
The sounds of the busy family clinic poured out at her. Even at a good distance from the urgent care side entrance, she could hear that Saint Agnes was alive today, teeming with people and children, volunteers and nurses. And one day it would all be hers.
She stole a quick glimpse down the corridor at the Nurses’ station, the heart at which Saint Agnes’ four corridors met and through which all personnel, patients and traffic passed, on their way to all the other destinations on the clinic’s first floor. The desk itself looked quiet, despite the mob of people she could hear just beyond sight of it.
As soon as Shannon cleared the entryway, she banked right and bound up the back stairs. As she ascended the steps two at a time, she decided to skip the shower she had planned. A shower would relax her and she wanted to stay energized, at least for the first half of hershift. She walked down the hall to the doctor’s lounge, took in the smell of fresh paint and spied a mural of clouds in the first of the new wards. The impersonal concrete walled rooms of the second and third floors had be demolished and were being replaced by brightly lit, festively painted, windowed wards.
Shannon remembered the gloom that permeated these halls not so long ago. Now, she stood still, letting the sinking sun beam against her freckled face, silently bidding that drab dolor a fond farewell, before pushing open the lounge door to change.
Shannon knew all about Saint Agnes. It was the dead end community clinic where no one wanted to end up. Grads, fresh out of pre-med landed at Saint Agnes because it was a place to keep your feet wet until being accepted by an accredited medical program. Saint Aggie was everyone’s back-up because Saint Aggie was notorious for being none-too particular about their practice of transient medical staffing.
Until nine months ago.
Steve Loomis was the first person Shannon knew personally who was turned down for an interim internship. He was one of her numerous study partners in the same respectable program at American University that she had finished three years earlier. Shannon knew Steve could be the A- student he always claimed he wanted to be, instead of the B- student that he actually was, if he just tried a little harder, studied a little longer. Saint Agnes was his ace in the hole until a “real” medical facility accepted him. The rejection was sobering and the first of many for young but average Pre-Med grads in the DC Metro area.
It finally came to light that a new administrator for Saint Agnes was making sweeping changes to the family clinic. He was giving Saint Agnes a complete overhaul. Alas, the days of staffing the clinic with any willing and semi-able body had become a thing of the past.
Shannon had never given Saint Agnes a second thought beyond the effectthe new management had on a number of her friends. She had spent the last five years working her way through four different residences, from OB/GYN to internal medicine, hoping that one particular discipline would either capture her interest or at best capitalize on her abilities as a doctor. Shannon had the unique dilemma of loving every department she explored and being great at all of it. Perhaps the fact that she was always attending seminars and always acquiring certifications and always tutoring underachieving medical students had something to do with how utterly adept she was at everything.
Shannon had decided on Boston for a year to explore oncology when she was called to the Dean’s office for a very secretive meeting. And it was here that she finally met the man responsible for sending the lives of recent DC med grads into a frenzy, the man responsible for all the changes happening at Saint Agnes.
Very serious on the outset, the new administrator asked Shannon how an obviously gifted doctor like herself had not been wooed away by Hopkins or Cedars Sinai.
Shannon had been asked the question before and she simply replied, “I tend to do better in a small pond.” She had never seen anyone’s eyes light up the way this man’s visage did. He seemed excited rather than disappointed at her managed ambition. It made her feel safe to add, “I like seeing the change I make in the world. It’s harder to do that in a hospital that is an institution onto itself… I need to see the faces.”
Shannon smiled as she jammed her pink pumpkinseeds into her locker, remembering again, how that answer melted what was left of the man’s stony demeanor. She forced her voluminous, wavy red locks into a single red scrunchie and saw once more how he bubbled over with excitement as he shared his ambitious array of plans for Saint Agnes.
Dr. Randy Sturdevant had promised her Resident and Chief of the Urgent Care ward. This was to happen, of course, once Saint Agnes was completely transformed into a premiere hospital facility. It was easy to say yes to Dr. Sturdevant once Shannon realized they actually shared the same vision: a medical facility that stoodas a monument of public service, focused on the health and medical needs of its immediate constituency.
Shannon wasted no time testing Dr. Sturdevant’s resolve. Just one week after she had accepted the job at Saint Agnes, she went to him about the drab office space they were calling a physician’s lounge. And within a week, the showers were sand-blasted and retiled. The couches and chairs that sat upon cinder blocks fastened together by rusted hinges were replaced with comfy couches, cushioned tables and chair sets and a file cabinet stocked with office supplies. A coffee station, two new refrigerators and three functioning vending machines (one healthy, one naughty, one beverage), all materialized from her one humble request. Tying her pink Nikes, she grinned at herself as she remembered actually thinking the words “change you can believe in.”
That fast action was just a small indication of the all out war Dr. Sturdevant was waging on the Saint Agnes reputation as a subpar health care facility. Everyday, Shannon could see a new layer of age and despair lifted from the clinic’s metaphorical soul. And she would be there to witness the renaissance first hand.
Shannon downed the last of her hot green tea as she emerged from the doctor’s locker room in her uniform of choice: a white long sleeved mock turtle neck under monkey print scrubs. She clutched the stethoscope around her neck with both hands, wondering how many people would mistake her for a nurse or a candy stripper today. She was used to it. As she descended the stairs and made her way to the nurses’ station, she saw her most important patients ogling as she walked by; the children. She chose the cartoon chimp print so that she could make a game out of counting the monkey’s many poses with her younger patients. The cartoon print scrubs were making her very popular at Saint Agnes.
“Hello Esmeralda,” Shannon sang as she surveyed the filled dry erase board hanging on the wall of the station.
The full figured Latino woman peered at Shannon over the square glasses that sat on the edge of her nose. At the sight of the young doctor, the woman’s head sprang up, an adoring motherly smile blossoming across her full, over-painted lips. “Monkeys today, huh?”
“Yup. I was feeling a little goofy today.”
“That’s nothing new for you, Amiga. When are you on?”
Shannon’s gaze panned across the noisy waiting room, filled to capacity. In a single glance, she counted four infants, six crying toddlers, and fourteen sets of parents – half of whom seemed frantic with impatience and worry, the other half bored and watching the novella on the waiting room TV, blissfully oblivious of their rowdy children.
In the last column, Shannon carefully printed her name in orange dry erase marker, “Right…,” then replaced the dry erase pen triumphantly. “NOW!”
The steady stream of stitches, broken limbs and infected cuts lined Shannon’s intake box. Esmeralda could spot when the doctor was in her zone and automatically sent all the pediatric cases Shannon’s way. On days like this, Shannon would flash through case after case with the maximum amount of patient contact and the minimum amount of shuffled paperwork. The grace and alacrity with which Shannon administered medical care, counseled parents and counted monkeys was inspiring.
In the back of her mind, she noted the intake board and how her progress in “caring and clearing” her patient roster easily put her colleagues to shame. But she didn’t worry too much about what they thought.
Dr. Collins, who never saw more than eight patients a shift. Dr. Meadows who couldn’t clear a single case without a minimum support staff of one orderly and two nurses on tow. Their days were numbered at Saint Agnes; not just because she was a superior physician. Dr. Sturdevant had made it clear to everyone: if you don’t care, you can’t stay. Caring made Shannon a better doctor, so she had no sympathy for the rest of the staff who didn’t. Caring is not like the Boards, you can decide to care, so no one has to fail. And those who do… well, that’s completely on them.
Putting compassion back into medicine. Shannon was on board with that.
The crowded waiting room emptied of its child population by 8:25pm, returning the area to a safe level of occupancy. The scores of families shifted from the waiting room to the pharmacy lobby. Shannon greeted her first lull of the evening with a cleansing sigh. She wiped her last case from the Intake board, and walked to the urgent care main entrance, whose doors, of course, promptly opened at her approach.
“Esmeralda,” she announced, “I’m going to go kill myself now.”
“I think we’re over the hump for now. Take your time,” Esmeralda replied.
Salem Light 100s.
They were her mother’s brand. Shannon could remember squirreling away her mother’s discarded paper cigarette cartoons just so she could sniff any lingering scent from them. After trying her first cigarette at age 14, she was instantly convinced that all this cancer stuff was the biggest wives tales ever told to man. How could something that gave you such a divine experience be harmful to your health? As her career pursuits narrowed in on medicine, and the facts of the hazards of smoking became scientifically irrefutable, Shannon simply took a different tact: she smoked because she enjoyed it. After all, any habit that required you to be at least forty feet away from your place of business when you took a break couldn’t be all bad.
Shannon was sure the habit was some twisted unconscious rebellion from the instructors and relatives and close friends who constantly professed her perfection, both professionally and personally. Smoking proved that she was flawed; she needed to be flawed, she didn’t want to be special. She rejected the pedestal over and over again during her residencies. She just wanted to be Shannon. Besides, she balanced out her acknowledged stupidity of smoking nicotine cigarettes with the moderation of only smoking a quarter pack a day and a ritual daily aspirin to tip the odds of not getting cancer, ever so slightly in her favor.
Shannon took a deep drag of her cigarette and relished the icy hot sensation that filled her lungs. The hit eased the ache in her shoulder blades and nudged her eyelids open a little wider.
The evening air was still. So it was not long before the young doctor found herself enwrapped in her own translucent atmosphere, happily entranced in her smoke, grateful for the momentary stillness of the night. She fell into an unexpected meditation with the synchronized flashing stoplights at the corner, allowed the taillights of each passing car to join the spontaneous kaleidoscope of sailing, blinking lights.
She had more than a third of her cigarette left when she saw the young man approaching her. He was tall and lean, but his brown features were young. Shannon blew her smoke towards the street and turned to face the young man. He probably wanted to bum one. Shannon began to debate the merits of indulging a child this young in such a deliciously despicable habit when he said, “My Moms needs a doctor.”
“We’ve got a few in here,” Shannon answered nodding towards the clinic entrance.
The young man licked his lips, sizing the doctor up carefully. “She didn’t wanna come, but I made her.”
Shannon tossed her bud into the street. “Is she ill?”
“Her husband hurt her. But she doesn’t wanna tell the police.”
“He’s not my father!”
“OK. You’re mother’s husband…” Shannon waited. She knew this kid; she encountered kids like him every day, slow to trust, quick to bolt if the questions become too complicated. She didn’t want to scare this boy off, so she would tread lightly until she could get the whole picture.
The young man kept his hands thrust in the pockets of his Georgetown hoodie, but kept his head held high. “Look, if she got help from a nurse, do y’all still need to report it?”
“It depends on-”
“He shot her.”
“We’re supposed to,” Shannon answered, resisting the impulse to close the distance between them.
“I told her no. It was the only way to get her here,” the boy explained further.
Shannon gave a small nod, but forced herself to wait. The rules of engagement for the clinic staff were very clear: he has to ask for help first, she can’t offer. It was the hardest part of her job. So many people simply don’t know how to ask.
The boy swallowed, inched closer. “So can you look at it?”
“Where is she?” Shannon asked, hoping her could continue to temper her relief.
The boy pointed to a woman doubled over on a bus stop bench.
Shannon quickly knelt before the woman who sat rocking slightly. She was moaning quietly as if she were concentration on controlling the pain, as if she were forcing herself to not cry out. “Where is she hurt?”
Shannon lifted the woman’s red shirt and saw the blood-soaked bandages around the woman’s outer left thigh.
“What’s your name?” Shannon asked as she wheeled the woman into the urgent care.
“And your mom’s name?”
Shannon quickly maneuvered the wheelchair up the hall to the station where she slowed down briefly to say. “Esmeralda, I’m taking Ms. Carson next. Could you please help DeAndre fill out the forms?”
“I’m not filin’ out no papers. I told you-”
“DeAndre, if I’m gonna help you, then you gotta work with me. Deal?” Shannon didn’t wait for a response before she turned her attention to the head nurse behind the desk. “We’ll be in eight. Send Ursula when she gets back?”
Shannon wheeled the wounded woman forward just as she saw DeAndre’s eyes light up, torn whether or not to follow. “Wait! She a doctor?”
“Best one we’ve got,” Esmeralda remarked, handing the boy a form on a clipboard. “Fill out where it’s highlighted. Truthfully.”
She felt the presence behind her for a while. With no voice to interrupt her work, Shannon and Ursula made swift work of taking a short history, assessing the woman’s vital signs and hooking LaNeisha up to two separate intravenous drips. When Shannon rounded the bed, she saw DeAndre watching silently. His brave face was now shrouded with trepidation. He stepped closer and touched his mother’s still hand. The woman’s moaning had subsided as she dozed quietly, her eyes drifting open and fluttering closed intermittently.
It was not until Shannon settled down to take a closer look at the thigh wound that DeAndre found his voice. “So did you call Five –Oh?”
“Not yet,” Shannon answered, concentrating on the work before her.
“You said you wasn’t gonna call nobody!” the boy insisted, lunging forward.
“I said you’ve gotta work with me. So how about you cut me some slack?” Shannon answered firmly.
Reluctantly, DeAndre took a step back. He found his mother’s hand at the bedside and gently gathered it into his, his eyes never leaving the doctor on the other side of the bed.
“Ursula, I’m gonna need-”
“Don’t ask me,” Ursula interjected in her thick Jamaican accent. “You can’t ask me for it…”
Shannon thought for a moment, and remembered. The staff of Saint Agnes has learned the legal loopholes that allowed them to service all types of emergency situations for which, as a family clinic, they were not yet certified to perform. Because bureaucracy often stood in the way of treating every patient in need, the staff and nurse developed an unspoken code that fortified their “plausible deniability” argument, should the medicine they practiced ever come under question. The only way to do that and keep their doors open: speak no evil. Shannon almost said the words, inadvertently pulling Ursula into the ethical dilemma of reporting the injury. Almost.
“I’ll be back with what you need,” Ursula nodded confidently.
Shannon nodded, then swiveled around on her stoolto grab the gauge and a drainage basin from the counter behind her. “You’re very lucky Ms. Carson. It looks like a clean entry and exit wound. The bullet missed the bone and the femoral artery.”
“Wait,” LaNeisha’s eyes fluttered open. “what are you saying?”
“Arteries Mom, like the biggest veins in your body. But she’s saying you’re good. That bullet didn’t hit nothing importance.”
LaNeisha’s mumbling trailed off as her eyes closed once again.
“Why she acting like this? You give her drugs or somethin’?”
Shannon threw a glance at the head of the bed. “See that drip there? It’s for the pain.”
“They gonna lock him up now?”
“I don’t know what happens next.”
“We’ll be fine,” LaNeisha said quietly. Remarkably, her eyes were open and clear now. “We can go home.”
“We ain’t goin’ back there!” DeAndre shouted.
“Naw, Ma! Forget it! You the one always saying you love me too much to lose me to a bullet. That goes for you too. I ain’t gonna lose you to no bullet. Sure as hell not to him.”
Shannon watched DeAndre wrap his mother’s hand in both of his as the woman silently began to cry. She tried to regain a handle on her clinical distance long enough to stop staring; she failed. With nothing to do until Ursula returned, Shannon watched the boy carefully wipe away his mother’s tears, one by one. “I’ll find a place.”
Shannon knocked on the open door of Randy Sturdevant’s office, peering in timidly.
“You’re still here,” Shannon said lightly.
“I live to work,” It took a moment before Randy Sturdevant could tear his attention from the pages before him.
“Don’t you mean live to serve?” the doctor continued, easing into the modest office.
“Same difference.” Randy answered, forcing a fake but brief smile.
Shannon flashed the girlish grin that she knew Randy liked with no effect, letting her know the administrator was still mentally entrenched in the business of running his hospital, even this far into the day. His sleeves were still drawn, cuffs still buttoned. His tie hung tight and straight from his neck. He looked at her expectantly, unfettered with the need for small talk.
They were becoming friends, but they weren’t friends yet. Randy could be hilarious, but Shannon rarely saw that side of him at work. Here it was all business, all the time. Despite knowing that, Shannon made another attempt to keep it light saying, “Isn’t there someone waiting for you at home?”
Misfire. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-”
“It’s not a problem.”
“Me either. I don’t have-”
“Shannon, it’s not a problem.”
A genuine smile. Maybe all was not lost…
Shannon met her boss’ eyes. “I’m in trouble.”
Randy sat back in his chair. “Shut the door. Have a seat.”
Shannon obeyed, gripping the file folder in her hands nervously. “A fourteen year old brought his mother in with a GSW to the left thigh.”
Randy stared into Shannon’s face for a long moment. She knew she didn’t have to finish when he frowned and threw his pen then his glasses, down on his desk. “And you promised not to call the police.”
“I was wondering if, maybe instead, you could ask your police officer friend to pay them a visit,” Shannon offered carefully.
“Stop right there,” Randy commanded, leaning forward. “If he even knew as much as I do right now, he’d have no choice in the matter. Nelson’s a cop, not a social worker.”
Shannon sat, waiting, her green eyes trained on Randy’s left hand, his finger sawing against his thumb.
Finally, Randy reached forward, taking the patient file from Shannon. “Leave it with me. How’s the mother?”
“She should be admitted. At least overnight,” Shannon added hopefully.
“I’ll have University come pick her up.”
“We’re gonna lose a lot of wiggle room with things like this once we’re accredited. Don’t make this a habit.”
Shannon allowed Randy to hold her gaze, respectfully. “I won’t. Thank you.”
Shannon stood to leave, then just as quickly twirled around again. “How’s that coming by the way?”
“Recruiting a social worker,” she pointed gingerly.
Randy looked down at his file-covered desk wearily. “I’m reviewing applicants as we speak.”
“Is Anthony Parra in there somewhere? The EMT?”
“I haven’t gotten that far. But I think I told you I’m not looking to hire someone who’s going to up and leave the first chance he gets.”
“I understand. But there’s also the opportunity to develop new talent in the field. Tony would be great for St. Agnes, for however long we had him.”
“Lobbying a bit hard, aren’t we?”
“He’s one of the med students I tutor. He’s still trying to pass the MCATs. And he’s a friend. He has a really good heart. Just wait until you meet him. You’ll know.”
“Again, pretty high recommendation,” Randy observed calmly.
Shannon threw her hands up in dainty surrender. “I’m done. Thank you.”
Shannon watched Randy scratching along the center of his bushy widow’s peak as she tried for a graceful exit. But instead, he added, “You said he goes by Tony?”
“Yup,” Shannon smiled. “Why?”
Randy didn’t answer right away.
Shannon had grown accustomed to watching the wheels in Randy’s brain turn, meticulously grinding towards a solution. She expected Randy to share some grand revelation.
Instead, he simply replaced his glasses on his face, picked up his pen and smiled gently. “Nothing. Probably just a co-incidence.”
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