Ann slept poorly and woke up the next morning feeling ill. She had a pounding headache and her throat felt sore. She was coughing up yellow phlegm and her voice sounded raspy. Before this year, she would have called in sick. But she knew that her team expected her to show up and a sore throat was no excuse. She covered up the circles under her eyes with make-up and dragged herself to rounds.
She managed to pre-round on her patients and she got a drink of water after she was done, hoping her throat wouldn’t give out on her while she was presenting. She sat down in a chair at the nurse’s station to wait for the rest of her team, but dropped off to sleep before anyone else had arrived.
She woke up when she felt someone shaking her arm. She struggled to open her eyes and saw Joel peering at her with concern. “Ann, are you okay?” he asked.
“Just a little sore throat,” she tried to say, but her voice was much more hoarse than she had thought and the words barely came out.
“You look terrible,” he commented with furrowed brows. The concern in his eyes seemed genuine.
“I’ll be okay,” Ann swore.
“Do you want me to take a look at your throat?” he asked.
Joel took a penlight out of his pocket and Ann obediently opened her mouth for him. He frowned, “Looks pretty red, but I don’t see any exudate.” He gently palpated the sides of her neck, “Any tenderness?”
She shook her head.
“I think you’ll live,” he said, with a smile. “Probably just a virus, but I want you to go home and get some rest.”
“I’m okay,” she insisted.
“I mean it,” he said. “I don’t want you infecting the patients. Or the rest of your team. We’ll survive without you, I promise.”
Ann looked into his light brown eyes. She knew she shouldn’t say anything about last night, but she couldn’t help herself. “Who was that woman you were with yesterday?”
“An old friend,” he told her. He gently placed his hand on top of hers. “Okay?”
Her breath caught in her throat. There was something about the way he was looking at her… she knew he still wanted her. She thought about asking to come over tonight, but she was pretty sure knew what his response would be. He felt too guilty about the idea of having an affair with a medical student. She couldn’t face being rejected by him right now.
She carefully turned her hand so that her palm slid into his and they were holding hands. She gave his hand a squeeze and she could see him shaking his head almost imperceptively, but he didn’t pull away.
“Go home, Ann,” he said. “Don’t make me worry about you.”
The rest of the team was arriving and Ann struggled to her feet. Joel spun his wheels back to give her room to exit the station. She was already feeling a little bit better.
Joel found that he missed Ann during rounds that morning. Of course, the rest of his team was great, but he loved Ann’s eagerness to learn. Teaching was always more fun when there was someone there who was really interested. He could tell that whenever he went off on a certain topic, she was always hanging on his every word. He was flattered, to say the least.
Every time he thought about what had happened between the two of them, he felt very ashamed. He had no intention of letting it ever happen again, yet he couldn’t deny that he was attracted to Ann. Still, when he set his eyes on Kyra last night, he found that the young med student paled in comparison. Kyra was… amazing.
But for some reason, every time he opened his mouth, he found himself on the offensive. It was like he had some deep desire to hurt her. Or at least to prove to her that even though he was in a wheelchair, he was the better doctor. She started it, he told himself. It was true—after Kyra’s comments about him needing help to feed himself and the way she stared at his legs, he felt like it was obvious what her feelings were toward him. Suddenly his goal became proving to her that he too felt nothing for her anymore.
Seeing Mrs. Brewster on rounds was a reminder that Kyra wasn’t the surgeon that she used to be. Mrs. Brewster was a nice older woman and she didn’t deserve to be treated like a piece of meat on the operating table. Nobody did.
“Well, hello, Dr. Dergan,” Mrs. Brewster said cheerfully when he wheeled into her room. Her smile was a stark contrast to the exhaustion on her face. He knew she felt terrible. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, Mrs. Brewster,” he said, wheeling closer to the patient. He had become skilled at squeezing into the space between the bed and the IV pole without running over any wires. “How are you?”
“I should ask you the same question,” she retorted. “How am I?”
Joel looked up at Cody Hwa, who had quietly followed him into the room and was standing in front of Mrs. Brewster’s bed. He mouthed the words: “Do you want me to tell her?”
Cody nodded gratefully.
Joel shifted his weight, knowing he wasn’t going to be able to do it once this conversation got started. “Mrs. Brewster,” he began, “we think we’ve figured out the source of your fevers. During your recent surgery, we think that the surgeon might have left a… a towel behind in your belly.”
Mrs. Brewster’s eyes widened. “What?”
“The surgeon left behind a small towel and we think it’s become infected,” Joel said. “I’m afraid you’ll probably have to undergo another surgery to have it removed.”
“Oh god,” Mrs. Brewster murmured, tears springing to her eyes. Joel reached over to a box of tissues on the dresser by her bed—it took him two tries before he managed to dislodge one and hand it to her. He was glad Cody was there—the intern placed her hand on Mrs. Brewster’s shoulder to comfort her.
“It could have been worse,” Joel pointed out. “At least we know what’s causing your fever and it’s something we can fix.” Hopefully.
“I never trusted that surgeon, Dr. Manning,” Mrs. Brewster said. “She just rushed me right in and out, didn’t even examine me. I never liked her.”
Joel felt an urge to defend Kyra, but he held his tongue. Mrs. Brewster was right; Kyra had done a terrible thing. And he was concerned about what sort of doctor she had become.
“Will you be doing the surgery, Dr. Dergan?” Mrs. Brewster asked hopefully.
Joel laughed in surprise. “I’m not a surgeon, Mrs. Brewster.” He winced at the truthfulness of his words. It’s not something he had thought he’d ever be saying. He wished he could be the one to go in and repair the damage in Mrs. Brewster’s abdomen, instead of just talking about it.
When they left the room, Joel felt a wave of depression come over him. He locked his wheels at the nurse’s station, took a deep breath, and tried to push away his negative thoughts.
“You okay?” Cody asked him. She pulled up a seat next to him.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Joel said. “Next time you should be the one having these conversations with the patients, Cody. You don’t have to wait for me to be around. You’re not a little third year med student anymore… you’re a doctor now too. You should act like one.”
“Sorry to be such a pain in the ass,” Cody joked. She raised her eyebrows at him, “I don’t see why you gave up being a surgeon, Joel.”
“I have zero dexterity, that’s why,” he said. “Here, give me your hand.” He slid his hand into hers. His slightly curled fingers curved around her palm as he made a feeble attempt to show her his grip. “That’s the best I can do. You think I can operate like that?”
“But you’re really good with your hands,” Cody said. “Ann didn’t even realize you couldn’t move them.”
Joel looked up at her sharply. Ann and Cody were talking about him? And not just about him, about his hands? He didn’t like the idea of that, not that he should have been surprised. He could imagine the conversation between these two young girls about their crippled attending. He immediately regretted having just demonstrated to Cody how poor his grip was.
Cody realized her mistake and blushed. “I mean, she just… was wondering…”
“It’s all right,” Joel said, “it’s not like I didn’t talk about my asshole attendings when I was a resident.”
“Come on,” Cody said. “You’re not an asshole… you know we all adore you.”
“Is that why I made our medical student cry three times?”
Cody laughed, “Well, you can be a tiny bit intimidating at first. But we know you just torture us because you love us. Ann worships you, you know.”
He didn’t know that, but it pleased him to hear it. He didn’t get how anyone could worship a general medicine attending, but he supposed it was impressive from the perspective of medical student. Back when he was a med student, he quickly found role models in the surgery attendings.
“Is that your last patient?” Joel asked her.
Cody nodded, “Are you releasing me?”
Joel smiled. “Hmm… I’m not sure. Have I tortured you enough yet today?”
“Not really. I think you might be going soft.”
“I’ll make up for it tomorrow,” he promised. “How about tomorrow you give a presentation on the differential and work-up for a fever of unknown origin.”
Cody shook her head. “Aw, just when I get a hot date…” Joel raised his eyebrows at her and she laughed, “Just kidding, Dr. Dergan.”
Joel was sitting in his office, going through some paperwork, when the phone rang. He pressed the button for the speakerphone with his thumb. “This is Dr. Dergan,” he said.
“Hello there, Dr. Dergan,” a husky voice said. “This is Dr. Manning.”
The flirtation in Kyra’s voice was unmistakable. He swallowed, “Hi Kyra, what’s up?”
Joel vividly remembered the day he heard about Kyra’s engagement to Paul. He had just gotten out of rehab and was living at his parents’ house. His mother had suggested he try the crossword puzzle in the paper in order to hone his writing skills. He had still been using his hand splints back then and he dropped the pen three times before he gave up. He had been ready to throw the paper on the floor when the marriage announcement caught his eye. For the first and only time since he had been injured, Joel buried his face in his splinted wrists and started to cry.
“I was just wondering if you might be free for dinner again this weekend,” she said. “This is the one weekend I’m not on call for about two years.”
He did want to see her. Badly. But he knew this wasn’t going to end well for him… she was just toying around. He refused to give her the opportunity to hurt him again. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he said.
Kyra was nothing if not direct. “I’ve got a busy schedule,” he lied.
“Kyra, what the hell do you want from me?” Again with the offensive.
“Listen, you’re the one who left me,” Kyra pointed out. “Don’t act so high and mighty.”
“I only did it to save you the trouble,” he said. “You’re the one who got married less than a year after we broke up.”
“Yeah, like you still had any feelings for me…”
“Come on, Kyra, you know I did.”
There was a long pause on the other line and Joel wished he could take back what he had just said. He didn’t want her to realize how badly she had hurt him. He had always worried about seeming vulnerable in front of Kyra. He always had to be the Great Surgeon who could do everything. When he first faced her in his wheelchair, he felt like he was unworthy of someone like her. He had broken up with her before she could humiliate him by doing it to him first.
“I’m sorry,” Kyra finally said. “I didn’t know.”
Joel stared at the red light for the speakerphone. “Yeah, well… it’s all in the past now.”
“Do you ever miss me?” she asked in a small voice.
He hesitated for only a few seconds. “Of course I do, Kyra,” he said. “I… I loved you.”
It seemed like the silence on the phone lasted for hours. Joel looked down at his hands, at his curled and useless fingers. Finally, he heard Kyra’s voice: “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s better we don’t meet again.”
He wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or try to argue with her.
To be continued...