There was little in the lounge other than a metal
table, a couple of folding chairs, and an overstuffed threadbare sofa.
There was an electric coffee pot and a small microwave oven on the countertop
above the row of cabinets along one of the walls. And that was it.
Not even a window. It was a small hospital, and besides, there was
nobody to go home to anymore, so this would have to do.
Artie came in with an armload of charts, put them on the
table, and poured himself a paper cup of stale coffee. He started
to think about Marie while he was waiting for the microwave to beep –
not that she was ever too far from his thoughts. They had been together
ever since he was a medical student. Twenty-seven years, just the
two of them, no children, but that never seemed important. He knew
about all the technicalities, all the jargon – ‘metastasis’
in particular – but he found it impossible to keep those thoughts in
his head at the same time as he was thinking about his wife, his Marie.
The microwave beeped.
He was trying unsuccessfully to dissolve the powdered
creamer in his coffee when the door opened. A small man in black
clothing stood there with a hopeful look on his face: “Reservations,
Monsignor McGlynn, party of one?” Artie looked up and smiled.
“Hey, come on in, Bill. Working late, too?”
“Yeah, but no offense, you can’t make any
money in this dump. I keep passing the plate, it keeps coming back
empty. Well, one guy threw up in it, but I think he was sick.”
They both chuckled. The two men, despite their respective professions
being sometimes at odds, had become quite close over the years. It
would be no surprise to anyone that they were both in the hospital at this
late hour. “Artie, have you seen the young man in 303 west tonight?”
Another doctor would’ve said something like, ‘have you seen the
pneumothorax in 303 west?’ The room number meant little to him,
and he had to think. “What’s the problem?”
“He’s feeling pretty miserable.”
Artie frowned. He wasn’t in the mood for this. He started
writing on the chart in front of him, “Yeah, okay, I’ll look
in on him in a little bit... gotta do some paperwork first.”
It was a polite cue, yet Bill remained in the doorway. “You
look like shit, you know?” Without looking up from what he was
doing, Artie said, “It’s been a long day. And night.”
He’d been at the hospital working since noon although his day started
much earlier than that, and Bill knew it. He asked softly, “How’s
“Not good. I spoke to her doctor this morning.
They’re trying to keep her as comfortable as they can. They,
uh, we, put in a DNR order tonight” Bill winced. Ordinarily,
this could’ve ignited an argument between them, but this was not the
time. ‘DNR’ stood for ‘Do Not Resuscitate.’
“I’m sorry, Art.”
“Yeah, me too.” He looked up, “Hey
maybe you can do me a favor, and make sure she gets in? What do you
think?” There was an awkward silence. Bill knew that Marie
would have no problem ‘getting in’ so he deflected the question:
“Listen, when you get through, why don’t we go out for breakfast?
I can get us a discount with the collar down at the Blue Spoon.”
Artie smiled. He had planned on taking a snooze on the couch, but
he hadn’t eaten since yesterday. “Okay, sounds good.”
As Bill was leaving, he stuck his head back in the doorway and said, “By
the way, don’t forget about the kid in 303 west. Maybe you
can do something for him.”
“Yeah, go scratch your ass, okay?”
Artie reviewed the young man’s chart as he finished
his coffee. He returned the rest of the charts to the nurse’s
station and walked over to 303 west. It was nearly two in the morning
and the floor was quiet. As he entered the room, he heard the weak,
labored breathing. There was a frail teenager lying in the window
bed. Artie asked softly, “Are you awake?” He opened
his eyes and slowly turned his head. “Hi, Doc... I’m
“How are you doing?” He discreetly checked
the arm where the intravenous needle was taped, he checked the drip on the
bags, he glanced at the monitors. “I don’t know, I was
feeling a little better before - ” he suddenly started coughing, a
deep rattling with no real strength behind it. “Well, let’s
see.” He began his physical examination. The patient was
deteriorating. “Hey, Doc, what’s that smell? It’s
awful.” Artie smiled. “That’s the Keflex, the antibiotic
in the IV. It comes out through your pores.”
“Wow, I thought I was going crazy.”
“No, you’re not crazy. A little sick
maybe, but not crazy.” He didn’t want to tell him that
in addition to smelling the antibiotic, he was smelling the destruction
of his own lung tissue – the antibiotic was not working. Not
good. “This stuff really burns on the way in. Do I have
to get it every six hours? I mean, the smell’s one thing, but...”
Artie sighed, “No, you don’t. Unfortunately, the bug you’ve
got isn’t responding to this medication as well as I had hoped.”
The young man looked frightened but said nothing. “Not to worry,
though, we’ve got some more tricks up our sleeve. I’ll
give you something for the pain, and we’ll change antibiotics in
the morning. Try to get some sleep.” Artie walked out,
wondering if he’d be able to come up with a suitable trick.
He returned to the nurse’s station. “Give
me the keys to the library, please.” The nurse shook her head,
“He’s that bad, huh?” He glared at her silently.
She averted her eyes as she dutifully handed over the keys.
Artie went to the office in the basement which they had converted
to a library. He walked past the computer terminals and the surprisingly
respectable stacks to a small cabinet on the back wall, nestled in between
some steam pipes. He unlocked the cabinet, pocketed the key and stood
there, thinking of Marie.
Inside the cabinet was a series of three leather-bound
volumes and nothing else. On the spine of the first book, it said,
‘Trauma Management.’ The second book, quite simply, ‘Oncology.’
He took a deep breath and tried to clear his head. The third book,
the one he had come for, said ‘Infectious Diseases – A Therapeutic
Approach.’ All three titles were authored by Dr. Wilfred Zeigler,
or at least edited by him. He took the book on infectious diseases
and sat down at the table closest to the cabinet.
Dr. Zeigler was a physician and scientist whose name was
recognized for the most part only within the medical community. Unlike
other people who had made discoveries which would forever change the world,
Dr. Zeigler’s discovery had cast him into the shadows, into a state
of perpetual and closely guarded anonymity. This was not because people
wouldn’t believe it, but because, ironically, Zeigler’s discovery
simply could not change anything.
The hardworking Dr. Zeigler was just a run-of-the-mill
medical researcher working for a large pharmaceutical company, mostly involved
in developing new patent processes. He was so hardworking that it
killed him. Literally. He just keeled over one morning, face
down in the Petri dish. He later explained that it was just like the
way they show it on television. After a momentary interruption of
consciousness, he sees someone slumped over a lab counter, then realizes
he’s looking at himself. His co-workers come running over.
He tries to talk to them, but they can’t see or hear him. Zeigler
isn’t frightened; he feels very peaceful and calm. A white light
emanates from above and he follows it up to what he correctly assumes is
Heaven. It doesn’t alarm him at the time, considering where he
is when he discovers it, but it certainly becomes cause for alarm later:
it seems that Heaven is, for all practical purposes, full.
There was nothing special in the Petri dish to change
Zeigler’s fate – it was his medically trained co-workers who
ran to his aid. Regardless of his preferences on the issue, collectively,
they had sufficient skill to bring him back. That’s when he
became truly frightened.
Contrary to what just about everybody in the world took
for granted since childhood, Zeigler began to claim (through channels,
of course) that the cosmos were not limitless. As his ideas gained
hushed momentum in the medical community, the doctors called for a conference
with the religious authorities. The men of the cloth reluctantly confirmed
what the doctors suspected, and the meeting nearly degenerated into a melee.
It wasn’t so much that the clergy knew of the situation, but the fact
that they admitted, when pressed, to the existence of certain arrangements.
In effect, they had all made reservations for themselves. The doctors
were furious: “What about us?”
So, in the interest of peace and harmony in this mortal
coil, they hashed out a grudging agreement, almost like union officials
negotiating a labor contract. Priests, rabbis, ministers, etcetera,
would be secure in the terms of their pre-existing deal. After all,
they argued, they did work for the company and were legitimately entitled
to certain ‘retirement’ benefits. The doctors, although
they did good deeds on a daily basis (and as they made sure to point out,
were occasionally called upon to play God), would not be automatically entitled
to entry. Only a limited amount of space would be set aside for them
as a group prior to their individual arrivals. They did, however,
gain the concession that upon appearing at the Pearly Gates, they’d
be granted an exemption from having to demonstrate past participation in
organized religious activities. The value of the medical services they
had rendered to their fellow man would be considered on a case-by-case basis
to determine if they would be allowed entry. And all were agreed.
For everyone else, though, the rules would remain the same.
This conference was supposed to have been a confidential
matter, but as with anything held privy by a sizeable number of people,
the information started to leak out. The effects were felt worldwide,
whether or not anyone could point a finger at the true cause with certainty.
On the religious side, there was a resurgence of fanatical groups; they
started cropping up all over with increasingly larger membership rolls.
On the medical side, there was an explosion of research, leading to extraordinary
new medicines and techniques for extending life – as if keeping everyone
else alive could delay Saint Peter from putting out the ‘No Vacancy’
With Zeigler in the vanguard, some doctors took this concept
to extremes, keeping patients alive long past any reasonable need to do
so. The clergy tried to warn them that these methods would not be considered
favorably upon review, but the doctors were driven by desperation. The
predictable response was new disease and pestilence against which even the
modern miracle cures were of no use. More and more doctors started smoking
Artie was aware of all this but none of it really mattered
to him tonight. No one would accuse him of immorally trying to extend
the life of the young man in 303 west. There was simply no reason
why he should be medically abandoned, unable to fight off a gang of simple,
one-celled microbes. And there could be no accusation of trying to
keep him alive long enough for Marie to die. Her case was such that
there was no point in Artie even opening Volume II of the infamous Zeigler
series. What was haunting him, tonight as every night, was the thought
of an infinitely permanent separation - that Marie would get in first,
then the gates would close forever. He opened the book on infectious
It was about three-thirty AM when Artie and Bill got to
the diner. The place was nearly empty, save for a few night owls
relocated from the closing bars. As they walked in, one of the customers
reached out and said, “Hiya, how ya doin’?” Bill
shook the man’s hand, a total stranger, as Artie looked away uncomfortably.
When they sat down in their customary booth, he whispered, “Can’t
you change before we go out?” Bill laughed, “Hey schmuck,
I told you, it’s for the discount. You thought I was kidding?”
They both ordered breakfast plates. After their
second refill, the waitress was kind enough to bring them their own pot
of coffee. Bill grinned as she walked away, comically fidgeting with
his collar. Artie didn’t react. “Doc, you alright?”
“Yeah, no, I’m sorry. It’s been
a real shitty day.” He confided in Bill about his fears that
the more he tried to avoid dealing with his personal problems by burying
himself in his work, the more he chanced crossing the fine line into medical
heroics - and thereby sealing his own fate.
“Hey, I was only kidding before about the kid in
303, it was a bad joke – I’m sorry, okay? I wouldn’t
hang around with you if I thought you made patient care decisions on a self-serving
“No, I know you wouldn’t... Ah shit,
Bill, it’s more than just today, though. I don’t what
I’m gonna do, with Marie and all, you know?” He looked
away, gazing out the window at nothing.
“Well, at the risk of sounding trite, these things
sometimes have a way of working themselves out.” Artie responded
with a humorless laugh. “Yeah, I’m sure everything’ll
be just fine.” They sat in silence. Bill sensed that his
friend was a thousand miles away. “Suicide is a sin, Art.”
“What? You know – I thought we were
off-duty. Are you still working, or what?” Eyebrows raised,
Bill smiled: “You feel like talking, I can put in for the overtime.”
“You’re a jerk.”
They had coffee and talked until the sun started to come
up. None of it actually helped Artie’s situation, although it
did make him feel better. That, and the little silver flask that Bill
brought out at intervals to reinforce their coffee. He didn’t
say it, and never had, but he was grateful for his friend’s pleasant
They were laughing at a series of off-color jokes that
Bill had told him dozens of times before when there was a crashing of dishware.
Startled, they looked up as one of the early morning breakfast patrons staggered
away from the counter and fell backward. The waitress screamed, “Is
he choking? Oh God, somebody help him!” Artie rushed
over to the man as he lay prostrate on the floor and quickly determined
that he was suffering from heart failure. “Call 911 right now,
get an ambulance. Tell them a doctor’s here and it’s a
confirmed cardiac.” The panicked counterman replied in broken
English, “The phone no good – for incoming, incoming! Is
no good!” Artie turned to Bill: “Get to a payphone.
Right now, okay? Run – there’s no time!” He
wished he had his medical bag with him as he felt along the man’s
chest. While he was doing this, the man stopped breathing. “Somebody
else, I need help here. You, come here, please!”
“Mouth-to-mouth? Not me man, no way!”
It was one of the drunks. Now the others started backing away, too.
Artie cursed under his breath as he reached behind the man's neck.
Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation was hard enough with two people and it looked
like he was flying solo. He grabbed the man’s jaw with one hand
and his nostrils with another, clamped his mouth on as tightly as he could,
and blew. He saw the chest rise, but the gift of air was expelled with
a sickeningly final tremolo. Again. He then straddled him, and
with stiff elbows, began rythmic compressions. “One... two...
three... four... five...” He spit out pieces of the other man’s
breakfast as he counted. The others stood by and watched as he changed
positions. Artie was starting to drip sweat on him.
Bill was sweating too as he searched desperately for a
phone, a passing police car, or anyone else. The streets were deserted.
He ran for blocks before he found a payphone and it was out of order.
He cursed loudly and resumed running, praying that he was choosing the right
direction. When he finally got to a working phone he was so out of
breath he almost couldn’t speak but he somehow managed to get the
message across to the operator. He hung up the phone, bent over with
his hands on his knees, and retched.
As soon as he caught his breath he started back toward
the diner. Knowing that Artie was a capable healer, he walked briskly,
confident now that everything would work out all right. He figured
the ambulance would be there before he got back. It wasn’t.
He walked in through the diner’s front door and
saw the small group standing quietly. Then he saw Artie, lying on
the floor next to the man he tried to help, eyes open, seeing nothing.
He slowly walked over and they silently parted to let him pass. “Oh,
no.” He knelt at his friend’s side and saw that he was
dead. The stranger was stirring alongside him, dazed, but breathing
on his own. Bill stood up and sagged onto one of the stools by the
counter. “What happened?” He wasn’t asking
anyone in the diner - he was talking to Artie. Someone murmured, “He
must’ve had a heart attack himself...” The waitress, crying,
touched Bill on the arm. He turned to her. “I know he was a
friend of yours, Father. I’m so sorry.” Bill looked
at her, smiled weakly and said, “Thank you, dear. It’s
all right, I think he’s in, now.”
© 2002 Bob Cohen
Bob Cohen is a Captain in the New York City Police Department. He
has written stories and articles for SCR and print publications.