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Volume 2, Issue 4
Winter 2006:

An Innocent Tale

Michael A. LaCombe

Cell 2 Soul. 2006 Winter; 2(4):a3

The hospital was his. He could click down the long corridors and imagine the good old days, those times of running to get to the bedside just in time, the moments of electric thought, of right procedure, of kinship felt with fellow house officers. On this night he could be back there long ago, feel young, bold, and quick of mind. Once more he could be doctor to these kids.

Why did it seem that his internship was only yesterday? Why was his long marathon to the academic peaks now a mere sprint in time? From where did this feeling of poignancy arise, this sense that tonight's brief role fit him best? Certainly he prized his present administration and teaching position and the spark of power it gave to him. But why, each year, at Christmas time, when the house staff looked to their seniors for coverage, was he always the first to volunteer? Certainly for Shulman the atheist Christmas Eve meant nothing. But to be a house officer! That filled him with excitement at this time of year. Weeks before, he would dive into the manuals of critical care, feeling his excitement build.

He loved the closeness of patient care, the intimacy of families, the nursing staff. The rest of the year, reams of paper, hours of meetings, legions of doctors, consultants, and residents came between him and patients. But every Christmas Eve he could be alone again with them. Yet more than loving patients, he loved children. At a time of terrible illness it was they who showed consummate dignity, utter honesty, and a beautiful simplicity as an example for the rest of us. They were, these little people, humankind at its very best. And Shulman adored them.

Shulman rounded a yawning corridor as his beeper sounded. Eagerly, he answered the page. A request to come to Widener-Seven...could he come right away? The oncology wing, he thought — an IV to get started, or chemotherapy to be pushed, possibly an opportunistic infection to diagnose and treat... or worse.

"Thank you for coming so quickly, Dr. Shulman," said Miss O'Sullivan. "We have a patient with Ewing's in 727 who's asking to see a doctor." The nurse hesitated before the senior scientist, then continued, "She hasn't very long, Dr. Shulman."Shulman and the nurse entered the girl's room. She looked about eleven years old, 'once-pretty' thought Shulman, ravaged now by her disease, ravaged by Medicine. He saw her dull, listless eyes, her dry, chapped lips, the bony, ecchymotic arms. Her parents sat at her side, her father's fists clenched, her mother biting her lower lip, sitting erect in her chair.

"What...how can I help?" asked Shulman.

"Lisa has asked to see a doctor," her mother said. "We told her we'd call a minister, but Lisa wanted to see a doctor."

"Doctors know more than ministers," said Lisa quietly.

Shulman glanced at the mother's imploring eyes, nodded an assent, and pulled a chair next to the dying girl's bed. The girl let him take her hand. Shulman looked at her, suddenly saw his own daughter, saw a million healthy girls, vibrant, active girls pirouetting before mirrors, girls with dreams, with boyfriends, with dances to go to, with hair to brush, a million healthy girls with futures full of wedding gowns and children of their own. He saw this girl with no future at all, felt his own emotion begin to drown his intellect. He looked down, away, swallowed and struggled within himself. Then he said to her, "Well, I'm a doctor. I admit I am an older doctor, older perhaps than you are used to, but still I'm a doctor."

"Older doctors are smarter," said Lisa.

What was her game, thought Shulman? She was too young to be desperate for cure at this stage in her illness. Her parents might demand the best and brightest for just one last chance, but certainly not the child.

"Why are you looking for a smart doctor?" asked Shulman.

"I wanted to ask what it's like to die," said Lisa.

Shulman shifted uncomfortably in his chair. How to approach this, he wondered. The child is frightened of dying, of the nothingness beyond, and old enough to begin to wonder. Should he begin by talking about the absence of pain, about the gentle sleep to come?

"Are you...do you have a religion?" asked Shulman.

"We're not a religious family, Doctor," answered the girl's father. "We have never been much for churches."

Neither had he, thought Shulman. Well, that made it easier.

"Will I see God soon?" asked the girl. Shulman the atheist shifted again. There was no pleading in the girl's eyes, no desperation, no panic. Only her immense fatigue. That and her questioning. She wanted some answers from a smart doctor.

"Well," said Shulman, "I really think that it's better to think of it as..."

"What I mean is, will I see God first or Jesus first?" asked the girl.

Shulman looked at the girl's parents, then at the charge nurse, saw the tears welling up in O'Sullivan's eyes. He licked his own dry lips, hesitated, looked away, gathering his thoughts. Where was his science now? In which manual lay the solution to this clinical problem? How could he paint in pastels a picture of nothingness for a hopeless little girl? Shulman began his answer.

"You always see Jesus first. That's the way it works in Heaven. I know about these things. You see, Jesus will be so happy to see you that he can hardly wait. He rushes right out as soon as you get there, to give you a big hug."

The girl smiled faintly. "What is he like...Jesus, I mean?"

Shulman was into it now. He caught the girl in his own glow, mesmerizing her, elevating her, washing her with dancing colors.

"Have you ever been lost, or out in the cold, or away on a long trip and very tired, and you finally come home and walk in and there's your dad or your big brother..."

"He's like my big brother?" Lisa asked.

"Well, yes, Jesus is just like that, just like your big brother, and there is this feeling around him, that you are home and safe and he will protect you and everything's fine now."

Lisa shifted in bed. "What's Heaven like? Is it really all clouds or is it a big building like a hospital or what?"

Shulman the agnostic leaned forward. Momentarily distracted by O'Sullivan's quiet sobbing, still he managed a chuckle.

"Heaven's not like a hospital! Heaven's a wonderful place. You just can't believe the grass, how green the grass is, and how perfect the weather! The sun always shines there and gives everything a golden color. It's warm and you can always go outside. You never need a coat. And everybody is your friend, your very best friend....

"In fact, I wish I could go there with you right now."

Shulman sat back in his chair, utterly drained. O'Sullivan had turned to the window. The girl's parents sat with heads bowed. Lisa smiled to herself, shifted again in bed, and fell asleep, leaving the adults to themselves.

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