“I’m not going to help you! Look at him! He has the same surgery and he’s older than you. He can walk to the washroom by himself. Why can’t you?” The voice sounds like it’s coming from a grinding saw, piercing into my ears. My heart trembles.
I am a coward. The sight of a dead bird or even my own shadow would make me jump. Naturally, on my first day on the Rehab unit in the new hospital, I long for a smooth beginning: one that is free of any confrontation or emergency. I am superstitious and believe a good start is always a good omen in a new job. Unfortunately, the unpleasant voice does not go away and it annoys me. I slow down my walk toward the nursing station.
“Don’t baby yourself. You’re here for rehab!” the sharp voice squeals.
“God dammit! Don’t yell at me!” a male husky voice roars.
“I’m not yelling, I’m telling you!”
“You son of bitch! Get out of here!” I can hear the heavy breathing by now. I am near the door. My heartbeat accelerates.
A middle-aged black woman walks swiftly into the room, bypassing me. She stands inside of the room and calls, “Pat.” Her voice is low, but firm.
“I don’t want to work with this patient anymore. Isn’t he here for rehab?” I hear a slightly subdued, yet defiant voice.
Before I realize, a short woman with a plump figure, her face looking like a cherry in color and shape, her double chin shaking, storms out of the room where my patient is supposed to be. She walks so fast that her short hair seems to pull away from her scalp. Like a fireball, she bumps into my shoulder.
“Excuse me,” I apologize. Stunned, I steady myself.
I hear some sound coming out of her nose but can’t make out the word. The woman I presume is Pat continues on without turning her head, as if I were a part of a wall. This is my first encounter with Pat. My instinct tells me right away that she is someone whom I need to avoid at all cost.
Pat, forty-five, is a single woman. She is five-foot tall and has a frowny face and scarcely parted thin lips. When she talks, her hands are either on her hips or crossing her chest, gesturing a certain undeniable authority.
The middle-aged black woman is the unit nurse manager. Her name is Lauren. I watch her go to the patient’s bedside. She talks calmly. “I’m very sorry about this, sir. What can I do for you?”
Lauren has a soft voice. I can see the redness fades from the patient’s face. With the help of Lauren, he gets up and sits in the recliner beside his bed. Before Lauren leaves, she asks the patient, “Are you comfortable now?”
“Yes, thank you.” He waves his hand.
“My pleasure.” Lauren places the call button by his side and reassures him. “Please feel free to call if you need anything.”
Lauren’s unhurried demeanor and motherly composure comfort me. Right away, my heart slows down and I can breathe normally. I wipe my sweaty hands on my white coat and begin my day.
The Rehab unit is shaped like a letter U. Patient rooms are along the U shape, and the nursing station is in the center. The station consists of five connected regular desks, each with a computer on it; at one end there is a large printer. Behind the nursing station, a storage room, a head-nurse office, an office for the discharge coordinator, and a staff lounge are located.
I like the layout of the unit as the U shape serves as an architectural refuge. If Pat works on one side, I and others can stay on the opposite side. It turned out that I am not alone. There are a few nurses who have changed their shifts from day shift to evening or night shift, and others have switched teams to avoid interacting with Pat. Out of sight, out of mind.
Luckily, I’ve survived the first few weeks without having had to deal with Pat after our first encounter. Every now and then I hear her voice in the air, as if it squeezes out of a high-pitched engine. I’ve stayed away.
Today, I see Pat storming out of my patient’s room again. My patient is very upset too. After calming him down, I decide to talk to Lauren about Pat once and for all. “Lauren, you know that Pat often gets into argument with patients. Can’t we do something?”
“Dr. Lin, I know what you’re talking about. It’s not always easy to get rid of someone who doesn’t perform in this hospital, especially if one is a union member,” Lauren tells me.
I have no idea what it means to be a union member. The word “union” scares me as if it’s an insurmountable mountain. I say, “We don’t need to fight with anyone or to discipline her. Maybe just give her the option to go to another service?”
Lauren tells me that she is a new nurse manager on this unit. Apparently before she came, Pat was transferred to this unit because she had problems with her former station. Lauren didn’t know her and was in need of nurses, so she accepted her. “It’s not easy to transfer her to other services, since a lot of people have known her.”
“Actually, she isn’t a mean person, but her uncompromising manner is hard for people to deal with,” I say.
Lauren sees my frustration and promises that she will talk to Pat about her behavior.
I continue my routines on the unit. One morning, during my rounds, I find one of the patients needs a blood test. To save time, I sit at the nursing station to place an order in the computer, instead of going to my office which is one floor below the Rehab unit. I am absorbed in typing. When I’m done, I raise my head and notice Pat is beside me. My instinct is to turn my head away, pretending that I don’t see her, so that I can just leave. Then I hear her sniffle. I look at Pat and can’t believe my eyes. Pat’s eyes are red and puffy.
“Are you okay?” As soon as the word rolls out of my mouth, I regret them.
“Not really.” Her voice is hoarse.
“What happened?” I feel stuck. I can’t just stand up and leave.
“My boyfriend is in the hospital.”
“Your boyfriend?” The tone of my voice betrays me.
Pat wipes her nose with a piece of tissue and starts to tell me her recent unforeseen romance from Houston…out of the ashes. “Two months ago, I received a call from a funeral home in Houston. They told me that I had an aunt who died. She had no children. In her will, she named me as the next of kin. Therefore, the funeral home wanted to send her ashes to me.
“So I agreed. The day I got the ashes, another man called me from Houston. The man told me that there was a mix-up by the funeral home. The ashes that I received were the man’s wife’s and my aunt’s ashes were mistakenly poured into the Atlantic Ocean according to his wife’s wish. Since I didn’t even know my aunt anyway, I didn’t mind. But the man invited me to Houston to return his wife’s ashes and I went. In Houston, I met his son, Erik. He’s ten years younger than me. But we fell in love with each other.”
Ha, from ashes to romance? Is this a fairy tale, an act of impulse, or a true light at the end of the tunnel? No wonder for the last few weeks the unit has been peaceful. I have attributed this tranquility to Lauren’s talk with Pat. Now I see why. “So, where is your boyfriend now?”
Two pearl-sized tears roll down Pat’s cheeks and her shoulders twitch. “He’s in the hospital in Frankfurt.”
“Last week, he went to Frankfurt for a business conference.” She put an emphasis on the “business conference.” Noticing my attentiveness, Pat continues, “Saturday, when he took a walk on the street after dinner, he was hit by a car. Now he’s in the ICU.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“His nurse told me that he’s been in and out of a coma, but whenever he wakes up, the only name he calls is mine.” Her eyes well again.
“He truly loves you.”
“I’m going to Frankfurt to see him tomorrow,” Pat says.
“You are?” Pat’s devotion to this man that she barely knows takes me by surprise.
“For how long?”
“I hope he’ll get better soon.” This time I am sincere, but for my own sake. First of all, for a whole week, we’ll have absolute peace on the unit. Second, I hope that her boyfriend will get better, since it seems that her temperament has visibly improved since they have been together.
One day, I go to the unit to see my patients. One patient spikes a fever, so I have to order some tests, such as x rays, urine test, and blood draws. I sit down at the nursing station to enter the orders. Before I finish, I hear someone calling my name, “Hi, Dr. Lin.”
I turn my head and see Pat standing beside me again. I feel something crawling under my skin and realize that she is back from Frankfurt already. “Hi, Pat, how’s Erik?” I want to know.
“He’s the same, still in ICU. I call him every day. The nurse said that he seemed to recognize my voice.”
“Can he come back here for treatment? Would that be easier for you?” I see dark circles under her congested eyes.
“He’s not stable enough to be transported back. His dad is there now.”
“Poor dad. How old is he?”
“It’s hard for a parent to see his child being sick like this.”
“I’m going there this weekend again.”
“Good luck,” I tell her.
On Monday, I work in my office after making rounds on the unit. My office doesn’t have a window, and as a habit I leave the door ajar so that I won’t feel that I’m suffocating. I type patient notes in the computer and make treatment plans. Suddenly without a knock, I hear Pat’s voice.
“Hi, Dr. Lin.”
I raise my head and am shocked to see Pat standing in my very own office. My office is my safe haven, where I have peace and privacy. Up until now, Pat would be the last person whom I wish to see in my space. What if she were to come later and scream?
“Hi, Pat, do you need me?” I stay cool.
“I brought a gift for you from Frankfurt.” She puts an elegant pink gift box laced with a white ribbon on my desk.
“For me? Why?”
“For listening to me.”
“That’s too generous of you,” I tell her, dreading to have anything to do with her.
“I mean it,” she insists.
“Thanks.” I feel guilty. I remember I, among others, have been avoiding her since she came to this unit. I don’t deserve her gratitude for my absent-minded listening and self-indulgent interest. I notice that Pat has lost weight. Her double chin is gone. Her eyes are bigger and the dark circles under her eyes are more obvious. I ask, “Is Erik better?”
“No. He’s not doing well. It’s strange that his family asks me to make decisions for him.”
“His family? You mean his dad?”
“Yes, his dad and his older brother.”
“They asked me whether they should pull the tubes. I don’t know why. We’re not married. I guess it’s because I’m a nurse and supposed to know about medical stuff.”
It’s been several weeks now, and Erik is still in the coma in ICU. Even if he survived, his prognosis would be bad. I can see that it’s a tough decision for the family, especially since Erik is still young.
Pat calls the hospital every day. One week later, she goes to Frankfurt again. Apparently, Erik’s dad has paid for all of Pat’s trips, hoping that her presence would hasten his son’s recovery and bring Erik back from the abyss.
Two weeks after my last conversation with Pat, I see her on the unit again. This time, she looks rather relieved. She says that Erik has passed away and she is doing fairly well herself. “I knew this would happen.”
“I’m glad that you’re doing well,” I say, but I start to worry that without a steady relationship, her explosive temperament will likely return.
“His dad has been calling me,” Pat volunteers.
“He must be lonely now.” I imagine him losing his wife, then his son in such a short period of time.
“He feels comfortable talking to me.”
“You’ve given them a lot of support during this time. Not many people could do what you’ve done. I know I couldn’t,” I admit.
“He wants to move to Rhode Island.”
“Move to here?”
“Yes. To live with me,” she adds.
To everyone’s surprise, in the next few weeks, Pat even comes to the birthday and baby-shower parties on the unit and brings her favorite chocolate and red velvet cakes. She pulls out her cellphone and shows to the unit staff a picture of herself with her new boyfriend, Erik’s dad. “Ed and I are engaged,” she announces.
The picture draws unprecedented attention from the staff. “How nice.” People congratulate her.
I am not surprised. Her commitment to Erik has moved his dad. I give her a congratulations card. Yet, I have another secret wish: if they get married, they might move back to Houston. The man is sixty years old and would prefer a warmer place. I keep this idea to myself. I am afraid that if I tell someone, the opposite might happen.
The unit has been quiet for two months. Then Pat is on leave again. People say that Ed has had a heart attack and is in the ICU. I start to pray for his recovery. After all, he is only sixty years old. Plus, Pat stays at his bedside every day. She is a nurse and must be a great comfort to him.
One week later, more news comes. “He’s in a coma now.” Apparently, Ed has other medical conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney disease. “He went to the hospital too late.”
After another couple of days, I hear people say that Erik’s brother is here. I sense something bad is about to happen. Two days later, rumor says, “Ed passed away.”
My heart sinks, this time for Pat. I truly believe that she has done her best, again. Somehow I anticipate seeing her return to work. Maybe she will tell me all about Ed. Then, I have to go to an educational conference out of state for a week. After I come back, I notice that Pat has not returned to work.
A couple of days later, I meet Lauren in the hallway. “Hi, Lauren, have you heard anything from Pat?” I ask with a surge of curiosity.
“Yes. She called two weeks ago and said that Ed passed away.” Her low voice has a touch of pity in it.
“That’s unfortunate. It’s really bad luck.” I shake my head.
“Well, we can only hope for the best.” Lauren raises her voice a little.
“True. I hope she’s not alone at home.” I remember what she said to me when she gave me the gift.
“No, actually she’s in Houston.”
“Erik’s brother invited her to his father’s funeral.”
“That’s what Pat told me.” Her soft voice appeases me. I thank her and go on to my rounds.