It is getting late. My feet are sore and my back is aching. I glance at my friend Sophie, trying to catch her eye, but she is too busy looking through her ER handbook. I roll my eyes - I've always wondered how she expects to learn something from that cheap shit. I mean, it's got a freaking caduceus symbol on its cover instead of a rod of Asclepius, for fuck's sake.
"Girls, why don't you go check up on box 5?"
I blink. "You mean the patient in box 5?"
Marc rolls his eyes at me and I grin. "Sure, whatever. Just go and check his constants..."
I push myself up from the wall and make my way to box 5, Sophie trailing behind me as she sighs. We hate ER shifts. After all, we are still med students even if on our last year of college, so our job right now is basically watching others work while keeping our hands to ourselves. Five months from now, however, we will be doctors. Actual doctors, physicians, MDs, you name it. But five months are a long way away.
I pause when we arrive at the door to box 5. It's closed, which can only mean that someone from the medical staff is inside. With our luck, it will be a nurse.
"Soph, you go."
She raises her eyebrows at me. "You know, one day you are going to have to visit your patients on your own, no Sophie by your side..."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it." I give her my best puppy dog eyes and she laughs.
"You know I can't resist you when you do that..." She is mocking me, but I don't mind, because she moves forward and slides the door open anyway.
I breathe a sigh of relief when I see there is just a nursing student inside the box. As horrible as I find nurses, their students are adorable human beings. I can't help but be jealous of them. After six years of med school, I still feel like a med virgin: someone who knows absolutely nothing regarding how to get their hands dirty in the medical field. That's why nursing students are pros to my eyes: they're handy because they learn their job soon: they know how to hook IVs, how to draw blood, how to clean an open wound, and a long list of etceteras, since their first student shifts. Me? I know practically nothing about prescribing meds nor going into surgery after four years of "watching" shifts. Med school is so very unpractical.
The boy grins at us as he draws blood. "Give me a second, and you'll have your patient to yourselves."
Once we check on Mr. O'Connor, we step out of the box. I am so busy convincing Soph it is time to leave (it is freaking 9pm, and our shift should have ended at 8) that I don't notice there is someone blocking my path and bump straight into them, almost knocking us both to the floor. Luckily, whoever I assault has good reflexes and steadies us both. I find myself staring at a strong chest, clad in green scrubs. I swallow. Just my luck.
Looking up, I meet those green eyes, and sigh. "Hey, Benji..."
"You gotta look where you're going, Thea. One of these days I won't be around to catch you..." He trails off, chuckling. I blush, and I hear Sophie laughing behind me. I have to remember to smack her over the head later.
Ben is a fourth-year Trauma resident – essentially, a junior surgeon. We met last year, on our first day at the Trauma OR. I tripped over one of the catheters hooked onto the patient and would have crashed into something (and probably ruined the surgery) if Ben hadn't caught me. I was mortified at the time. It was the same day I decided I wouldn't be a surgeon. The rest of my days in the Trauma Ward I couldn't hear the end of it. It didn't help that my next time in the OR, I almost fainted on top of the patient, and Ben had to carry me outside. An anaesthesiologist came to check up on me and even hooked me onto some saline. I had to endure people laughing behind my back for a long time. Then it turned out that Sophie had a stupid epiphany where she realised she wanted to be a Trauma surgeon, and thus made me stay over-hours. This resulted in us spending lots of time with Benji, because he was the only junior patient enough to be our tutor. Oh Ben. We spent two months under his wing, and though I would never admit it to any of my friends at the time, not even to Soph, I was crushing on him like a lovesick high-schooler ever since he picked me up that first time in the OR. How pathetic was I?
"Thea?" I feel Ben's hand brush my upper arm and I meet his eyes. "What are you doing here so late?" He glances behind me at Sophie. "It is your doing, isn't it?" I grin at him.
"Maybe... But we were just about to leave, right Dodo?" I cringe at Sophie's nickname for me. My name is Dorothea. Everyone calls me Thea, but for some stupid reason I once mentioned to Sophie that one of my favourite books was 'Middlemarch', because its main character was also called Dorothea. Sophie found out that in the novel her sister called Dorothea "Dodo", aaand cue me and the stupid nickname.
Ben laughs. "Sure, Sophie..." He then grins down at me. "C'mon, let's find Marc so you girls can leave..." With that, he leads the way towards the station, where Marc is sitting typing up stuff on his comput
He hears us approaching and raises his head, wiggling his eyebrows at us while his dark eyes glance from Ben to us and back at him. I roll my eyes. Marc, or Dr Marco Laguna, is our assigned tutor - that is to say, we only have ER shifts whenever he is on a 16-hour shift, and he is supposedly the only person who can boss us around. According to the middle-aged female nurses, Marc is THE hottest doctor working the ER, and in pure Grey's Anatomy fashion, they call him Dr McSteamy behind his back. He is indeed something to look at, I won't deny it. One year short of turning 40, he has smooth and flawless dark skin, has really toned arms, and his chest is perfectly well-sculpted, almost visible through his tight-fitting t-shirts, which he wears deliberately – in his own words, "someone has got to keep the ER interesting". He is (obviously) single, and probably the most eligible bachelor in our (small) hospital. Quite unexpectedly, we've come to find out during our long shifts that he is actually really sweet, always cracking jokes or talking about his mother, whom he's left back in Guatemala.
"Marc, the girls are leaving..." Ben says, resting his forearms on the counter before Marc.
Marc raises his eyebrows at us. "And who actually gave you permission to release my girls? They are MINE! Right, Soph?" Sophie grins, nodding. "Sorry, kid, but I've taught them how to be immune to your charms…"
Sophie bursts out laughing at Marc's comments. I, however, feel extremely self-conscious and can't help but sneak a glance at Ben. If only Marc knew I already succumbed to Ben's charms. Six months ago. I had just broken up with the redheaded mess that was Lachlan, and we were invited to the annual residents' summer party, in June. I was pretty drunk, and halfway through the night stumbled into Ben. He was quite out of it too. We ended up almost having sex in a closet - we didn't, though, because I literally passed out in his arms. Again. We never speak about it. I only know through bits and pieces I have picked up from Tammy and Sarah. They are Haematology residents, and two of the best people I've met at this hospital. They were the first people Ben found upon walking out of the closet with me in his arms. They nursed me back to consciousness while he slept away his drunkenness. I didn't see Ben again until one of our first ER shifts in September. Thankfully Sophie was there to ease me out of my awkwardness. Now, we keep meeting Ben in our shifts. He likes it when Marc is Emergency Chief, so he has most of his overnight shifts with Marc, and, therefore, us.
I feel something poking my waist and I look to my left to find Sophie's eyes, giving me a meaningful glance. I shake my head to clear my mind and turn to face Marc. "Aw Marc, you know we're Laguners," I say, smirking.
"Thea, you kill me!" He manages to say between laughs. His eyes are almost watering and I raise my eyebrows. He always finds me extremely funny. I'm not. "C'mon, leave!" He mock-glares at us, and then grins, raising both his palms so that we both high-five him.
We turn around and I smile weakly at Ben. We quickly make our way out of the ER, Sophie throwing over her shoulder, "have a good nightshift!" to Marc and Ben.
I am standing in jeans and a bra rummaging through my bag when the door to the locker room is opened abruptly. I wince when it bangs against the wall, and quickly grab my shirt to cover myself up. I bit my lip as I look at Ben. From where I'm standing, I can see his eyes look darker, more brown than green, frantic. I feel my insides twist. "What's wrong?" I say, taking a step towards him. I reach out for him and he takes a step back, standing beneath the threshold.
"Thea. Where's Sophie? Has she changed? We need you in scrubs." He is nervous, and I can't help but feel scared.
"What- what, why?" He stays quiet, as if paralysed, his gaze unfocused. I touch his arm and his eyes turn to watch how my fingers lightly trace around his elbow.
"What is going on?" I turn around to see Sophie adjusting her pink shirt as she walks out of the stall, one eyebrow shooting up as she takes in Ben at the door and me in my Garfield bra standing before him.
Ben is startled again and suddenly a sense of urgency overtakes him, and he starts talking quickly. "Shit. Girls, come with me, I'll get you new scrubs. There was an accident -at the port- and, and just. The emergency units have all been mobilised. We need as many hands in the ER as possible. Let's go."
He starts leading us out of our locker room and down hospital corridors, towards the "Resident Ward" - where junior doctors have their lockers and beds for when they are on overnight shifts. I frantically slam my locker closed and follow him, not giving a shit that I'm parading around the hospital in an embarrassingly childish bra.
He starts running and we struggle to catch up with him. When we walk inside their locker room he is standing in front of the scrubs machine, punching in his code and retrieving two green disposable sets of scrubs. This must be serious - students can never wear green scrubs; instead, we have our own disposable blue scrubs (made of a much more flimsy material than the surgeons' green ones and the physicians' white ones).
Sophie shoves Ben. "What the hell is going on, Benji?! What do you mean, accident? Why do we have to change? It's December fucking 29th, our LAST day at the hospital until January 8th! Aren't there actual doctors in this hospital?"
Ben runs a hand through his hair again, and I know he is suddenly stressed. "Look, Soph. There was an accident in a ship, a fucking SHIP, with over a hundred passengers on it, so just, just PUT ON THE DAMN SCRUBS BECAUSE WE NEED PERSONNEL!" I audibly gasp and Ben turns to look at me. I see a hint of tenderness in his eyes, but they are mostly plagued by things I don't like seeing and I feel the urge to hug him, but restrain myself because I am not that inappropriate. I nod at him. I know what he is saying. We live on a small island. The closest hospital is over two hours away, provided you have a personal yet or helicopter that can fly you over to the mainland. I grab the green shirt he is offering, and pull it over my head. Ben shakes his head and looks at Sophie. "Be quick, Soph! The ambulances will be arriving soon and we are really short on staff."
I speak up for the first time. "But Ben... We are not actual physicians nor surgeons, you do know that, right? How many actual doctors are there at the hospital right now? Can't any be summoned from their homes?"
Sophie has quickly changed, and Ben opens his locker for her to throw her clothes in. He starts talking as he breaks into a fast walk and motions for us to follow. "It's fucking Christmas, New Year's is this weekend. Everyone's away! There's Marc, Jen and Thomas in Gen-Med, and four first-year residents. Then there's Tammy and Oskar, the German dude, as older juniors. There's me for Trauma, Gemma for OBGYN and Cordie for Surgery. There's no junior for Cardio though I think Dr Martin is somewhere sleeping. But that's about it..."
He finishes just as we enter the ER. It's hectic. There are nurses and their students running around. We quickly walk towards the station, where Marc is busy on the phone. He glances up as he hangs up, and beckons us forward. "Girls, thank God you hadn't left. We need your help. Ben, I just phoned Dr Richards, he was on call. He said he was coming, and trying to call in any other Traumas who haven't fled the place for their holidays." Dr Richards is the head of the Trauma Department. Him coming in is good. Marc shifts his gaze to assess Sophie and me. "Girls, you need to call in any friends you may have here, okay?"
"Fuck Marc, they're all away for the holidays… Why do you think we're the only students in today? We're the only people who actually fucking live in this fucking small town, island, hell-hole!" Sophie is yelling and I think she has anger management issues.
Marc sighs. "I guessed as much."
He suddenly turns around and whistles, commanding everyone's attention. "DOCTORS, OVER HERE!"
All junior and senior doctors follow Marc into an empty box. Ben gently pushes me towards it, and were we in any other situation, I would be fretting over the fact that his hand is quite low on my lower back.
"We've called everyone in. There's currently three attendings for General Med," Marc points towards Jen, Tom and himself, "and we're expecting two more to show up, Jake and Virginia. Joe said he called in a couple more first-year residents, but we'll have 10 at the most, right?" Joe, a tall blond guy I vaguely remember being a Dermatology resident nods shakily, his face probably mirroring ours. "Tammy, have you contacted anyone?"
"I called everyone on my phonebook and asked around, but most have gone home for New Year's... I could only locate those who have shifts tomorrow and those who live here - which is like, four people. Sarah is definitely coming. Tomorrow Ollie and Margot, from Gastroenterology, had shifts, and they said they'd come in now too. Ollie said his boyfriend might be able to come in too, though he's Jack Cavanaugh, the Psychiatry junior, so I don't know if he'll be much help..."
"Well of course he'll be! He's a damn doctor too, isn't he? What about you, Oskar?"
Oskar sighs. "Lachlan, from Respiratory, was on his way to the airport, but I managed to sway him back. Also, Valerie, from Oncology, is coming in, and so is Jamie from Anaesthesia."
"Good, good! We need people in Anaesthesia. Did you manage to get anyone else in, Rob?"
Robert Yale, one of the attending Anaesthesiologists on call today, blinks. "Susan is coming in. But that's it. Me and John were on shifts today, and we'll have Susan and Jamie. We could probably manage to split between more than four surgeries at a time though, but a little help might be needed..."
Marc nodded. "Okay. So four anaesthesiologists, we'll probably need Gemma from OBGYN helping them. Can you do that? If something OBGYN comes in, of course you'll be sent back down to the ER... There are two intensivists upstairs in the ICU, and we've agreed that anything serious which needs immediate care and monitoring will be sent up there immediately. It being a special weekend, there are no doctors in hospitalisation, the Chief's orders were for us to oversee that while the ER was on the down low. Sounds great now, huh?" This comment earns a chuckle from most of us, easing a bit of the tension in the room.
"At least we've got a couple of nurses up there, and Joanna here," he motions towards the Head Nurse, who is explaining the drills to her fellow nurses, "has mobilised a couple of nurses from upstairs. She says they are more than enough. We're not so lucky... There's two Radiologists on call. Dr Martin is here for Cardio, and he will have to do. Dr Smith and Dr Suárez were on call today, so I just called them in, in case we need Cardiothoracic surgeons. Dr Jamison and Dr Flanagan are coming in for General Surgery, but Cordie's their only older resident, so we'll have to send a couple of first-years in with them so they can set up at least two ORs. Dr Bryson from Neurosurgery said she was coming. Dr Martínez is here for any vascular surgeries..." He stops and checks his cell, then adds, "Okay, I just got a text from Dr Richards, we'll have only four Traumas here, AND that is including Ben and two other residents, so we are quite fucked. And we have no paediatricians. How do we want to go about this?"
All attendings start discussing amongst them. In the end they decide: patients will be received by Jen, Tammy, Oskar and whichever other older residents arrive – in the meantime, Sophie and me. We will all be in charge of performing basic ABCDE procedures and performing triage assessments so we can liberate nurses. All GM physicians (sans Jen) will be in charge of boxes, each with one first-year resident to help. Dr Martin will be overseeing the whole of the ER, as he is the only Cardiologist on sight and will have to be at hand in case anything is needed from him. It is decided that Cordie and Dr Flanagan will set up one OR, while Dr Jamison will be aided by two first-years in another. Dr Bryson will be needing help for any emergency neurosurgery, though those surgeries should be delayed until another neurosurgeon can come in. Dr Richards will be in one Trauma OR with Maggie, a second-year Trauma resident, and Ben will be in another OR with Alberto, a third-year. Sophie and I are to help in the Trauma ORs as soon as they are set up.
It's just our luck that most surgery residents are out of town. Not to speak of the attendings... It's normal though. It's what happens when you live in a town (and island) that has been built around its university. Whenever holidays roll by, it becomes a ghost town. Our actual population during the summer is less than a couple thousand. During each school year it is multiplied by more than ten. People move in to town for their four-six years of college, then flee the place to work elsewhere. Us locals are used to it. My grandmother complains about how her little hometown is spoiling because of the excess people. I appease her by telling her were it not for the university, she'd only get to see me two times a year.
I am brought down from my thoughts by Ben commenting on my horrible habit of chewing my lip. I look up at him, and I know my eyes must show fear, for he gently squeezes my arm. Around us, everyone starts bustling around, and I feel out of place for a second.
"Hey, loverboy, go set up your OR!" I quickly step away from Ben and turn around to find Tammy grinning cheekily at us. I glare at her while Ben leans forward and ruffles her hair. He turns to look at me, winks, and runs up the stairs, taking two at a time, towards the Surgery Ward.
"Are you alright?" I feel Tammy's hand on my shoulder and smile at her, allowing her to lead me towards the front of the ER, where Sophie is standing with Oskar.
Jen walks up to us and starts running through the drills, explaining what we are to do. Apparently the Chief has rounded one of the Traumas who was coming in and has managed to call in another resident, taking them with him to the accident site, to oversee immediate care and help relocate patients - some will be flown over to the mainland.
Suddenly the sound of an ambulance is heard in the distance, and the whole ER becomes quiet. We gear up, and prepare ourselves for what is to come.
The first hours pass by me in a haze. I'm barely aware of receiving patients; helping lift them off the stretchers onto beds while Jen checks their spinal processes; quickly going over their ABCDE, intubating some, placing oxygen masks on others, checking for distal pulses and signs of internal haemorrhage, calling for nurses to hook IVs, making sure neck brace collars are correctly fitted. We have to call in some help to aid in stabilising some pelvises with external fixators after removing the blankets used by the paramedics, calling in for emergency blood transfusions and CT scans for those who are going into hemodynamic shock. We roll off a couple of patients with pneumothorax from punctured lungs so that they can be drained by the cardiothoracic surgeons. Thankfully, paramedics have done a great job at the scene and only bring in two patients still in cardiorespiratory arrest despite CPR – one of them gets going after intravenous noradrenaline, yet the other is declared as deceased after over half an hour of CPR. However, all throughout this time, my actual involvement is little to none: I am in charge of doing all the horrid bureaucracy proceedings so that the Radiologists on call can perform ecoFAST and CT scans as requested without their machines closing off.
We are waiting for the next patient to be rolled in when I catch a glimpse of a mass of strawberry blonde curls making its way through the personnel door. I smile weakly at Lachlan, who quickly latches onto my forearm and meets my eyes. "Thea, how are you?" His eyes are boring into mine and I have to shake my head. He doesn't deserve to sound concerned about me. I brush his hand off while Tammy asks if he came alone. Answering her question, a couple more juniors stroll in, all wearing their scrubs, and Jen quickly takes charge and distributes them around the ER.
Instead of listening, though, Lachlan moves forward and grabs my arm again, and I feel exasperated. We're surrounded by a horrible catastrophe and he chooses this moment to show concern? I am saved from him by a large presence behind me. "Thea, the OR is all set and the anaesthetist said we can start our first procedure. There's a woman with a 9cm wound on her upper arm, it appears her circumflex humeral artery might be damaged. The most urgent patient -a young man with a bar through his right thigh- has been wheeled into the other OR, and Dr Richards and Maggie are in charge..." He motions towards Sophie, "are you up for helping them?" She nods and turns, running towards the stairs. "Marina showed up, and she was going to help us in our OR, but Chief took her with him to the port to help coordinate everything, so it's just going to be Alberto, you and me, as initially planned. You up for it?" He speaks into my back, and by the way Lachlan has tensed and released my arm, I can tell Ben's gaze is probably directed at him.
I turn around and smile at Ben. "Lettuce go", I say with as much confidence as I can muster, and Ben chuckles.
He leads me quickly up the stairs towards the Surgery Ward, where I find Sophie already putting on a green disposable surgery hat. I do the same, also grabbing a disposable paper mask to cover my mouth and nose, and cladding my feet in disposable paper shoes.
"Good luck, Soph..." She looks at me before going into the OR hallway, her eyes probably reflecting the same uneasiness mine are showing. She nods and makes her way towards OR1, where the patient Ben referred to is currently being intubated.
A surgery nurse walks up to me, and asks if there will be any more immediate surgeries. I recall there only being less than a handful of patients (I inwardly grin at my professionalism and ability to remember a number) with open wounds and neurovascular lesions, so we will probably only perform around three more surgeries, all of them mild in comparison to what will be going on in OR1.
"Let's get sterile, Thea!"
I quirk an eyebrow at Ben's word choice and he chuckles, as a woman clad in scrubs walks up to him. I recognise her as Dr Bryson, the neurosurgeon, when I hear her mention she has three pending immediate surgeries for which she will need help from Trauma: fractures invading the spinal cord, swelling of lumbar vertebrae and nerve lacerations at the brachial plexus. I sigh. This is going to be a long night.
I follow Ben into the small lavatory adjacent to the operating rooms 1 and 2. It is a small room with two sinks and a lot of storage room, where surgical equipment is kept. We normally call it "the sterilising room". I open a sink and let water run from my hands down to my elbows, and then press the soap pump and wash my hands and forearms. After rinsing myself once, I repeat the process a second time, and then a third time, this last time making sure the water always runs from my hands and down to my elbows, dripping from there to the sink. I wait ten seconds as the last drops of water fall down to the sink, and then carefully grab two pieces of paper from the dispensator to my left, drying up my arms and forearms carefully. Once that is done, I press with my elbow on the pump atop the antiseptic lotion dispensator, extending it up my forearms and to my elbows. Again, I repeat the process two more times, making sure to extend lotion in between my fingers and on the end of my fingers, beneath my nails.
I walk into the OR after sterilising myself, just as an orderly wheels in our first patient. As the propofol works its way through our patient's system, Alberto starts small talk with me. He is a really sweet guy, a bit awkward, and I can't help but laugh when he asks me what I got for Christmas. He grins, knowing it has helped me relax, just as Ben kicks his way in. The three of us stand facing the gurney, our arms raised in front of our chest, so as to not contaminate ourselves, while James, the nurse, goes about helping us dress in the sterile gowns and then helps us into a pair of gloves. Once sterile, he hands us each another packet of gloves, and I can't help but moan as I remember that Trauma surgeries require personnel wearing a double layer of gloves. Ben chuckles, and then smiles at Ruth, the walking nurse in our OR. "Let's go through the checklist, and then we'll start."
Almost three hours later finds me running out of the OR. I rip off my face mask and rest my back against the wall, breathing heavily. I can't help but end up doubling over, trying to get as much air into my lungs as possible. The first surgery went great. I didn't have to do much assisting, just help holding limbs in place and draining blood from the patient's arm wound with the aspirator, as Ben and Alberto worked their magic. However, not long after we had finished, and just as we were calling for our second patient to be rolled in, Marc called the pager, saying there was a patient in need of immediate vascular surgery. Dr Martínez was available, but he had no help whatsoever as all other ORs were busy, so it would be our job. We quickly sterilised ourselves as Dr Martínez showed up and did likewise. The patient was soon rolled in and prepared for surgery, and we went in. I didn't have much of a job, just holding whatever Dr Martínez thrust in my hands. The patient had been brought in with an unstable pelvic fracture, and had been stabilised with an external fixator. However, his BP had started to decrease while in observation at the ER. A quick CT scan had revealed a laceration of his sacral artery, which required immediate surgery to stop the bleeding, and that's why we had been called. The surgery had started all right. There was a lot of blood held in the pelvic cavity, and it was all drained before Dr Martínez could start repairing the artery. Three blood bags had been hooked into the patient to compensate the bleeding, but I could see it wasn't enough. The patient's BP kept going down while his heartbeat kept going up, and suddenly all machines had started beeping. The anaesthesiologist had tried injecting more noradrenaline, but it was no use. The patient was in severe shock, and wouldn't revert. The blood transfusions and vasoactive drugs hadn't worked. As the monitors went into a non-stop beeeeeeeeeep, Ben quickly jumped onto the gurney, and started performing a heart massage as the anaesthesiologist tried increasing the ventilation flow through the tracheal tube. It was no use. Not long after we had to pronounce the patient as deceased. I had been standing two feet away from the surgical field - effectively contaminating myself in surgical terms. I hadn't been able to pry my eyes away from the man lying on the surgery bed. My eyes were wide. I felt a knot in my throat, and had quickly left the OR, fighting to breathe.
I am hugging the wall in the corridor when Ben walks out of the OR. Upon seeing him and his face, I can't help but collapse to the floor as I begin to feel the tears fall. He bends down and picks me up to a standing position against him, just as Alberto leaves the OR. He walks up towards us, ruffles my hair and smiles sadly. He turns towards Ben and says, "I'll call for the next patient to be brought in while you..." He trails off, and walks away towards the station right by the swinging doors of the Surgery Ward. Ben is running his hand up and down my back as I try to calm myself. He walks me over to the staff room, and sits himself on the small couch, letting me collapse against him.
I don't want to cry. There is something incredibly unprofessional about crying in the Surgery Ward. I look at Ben.
"You know," I begin, pausing to sniff, "in my third year at med school, we were told we couldn't take things personally at the hospital. Are we supposed to walk into patient rooms and ORs as if the patients aren't actual human beings?" I snort and can feel that my nose is about to start running. "This is a beautiful profession. There is something wonderfully human about knowing you can help someone, make them feel better, help them live longer..." The knot in my throat stops me from continuing. I had never before seen a patient die, and now I refuse to think about the deceased man who is being wheeled out of the OR as 'something'. He is -or was- most definitely a human being. "I don't know how I have to go about this, Benji. That man wasn't an object. He was a man. How does one cope with that?" I tear up as I say the last part, and bury my face in his scrubs.
Ben sighs. "You just have to learn to live with it. This won't be the last death you face while working in a hospital. You have to acknowledge it as something normal. Sometimes, even if you do everything in your power to prevent it, a patient ends up dying anyway. And you can't blame yourself for that, nor can you invest yourself so much in your patients that each death will be such a big blow. You have to accept death as a part of Medicine. We are here to help people, but we are no supernatural beings capable of injecting life into someone who is running out of it..." He sighs. "It will get better..."
"How can it? How do you face knowing a man died in your hands and you couldn't stop it from happening? How can I laugh at your jokes now? How can I be anything but serious, sad, depressed? Anything else would feel disrespectful… I can't handle this. I can't…"
"No. You can, and you will. A man died in that OR, sure. But, so what? You HAVE to feel and no-one expects you not to, because you, too, are a human being. But you have to keep on going. You can't let a death deter you from continuing with your work, because you probably WILL save the next patient's life. Okay?"
He pulls me back so he can look at my face, and smiles when he sees I am no longer crying. I give him the biggest smile I can muster, and he chuckles, brushing his lips over my forehead before motioning for me to get up. "C'mon. It's not even 3am yet, but we have a pending surgery with the Neuros, and you know Dr Bryson has a temper so we don't want to upset her by delaying her surgery..."
I grin, and before I can talk myself out of it, lean in and press my lips to his cheek. It is quick, barely lasting two seconds, but I immediately regret it. Can't I get a grip? Unprofessionalism everywhere I look. I duck my head and quickly get up. "Let's go, Benji!", I throw over my shoulder, leading the way towards OR2.
The next couple of hours pass without me realising it. Once we're in the OR with Dr Bryson, everything changes. Ben is more relaxed, knowing he is not in charge. Alberto is as sweet and easy-going as ever. They both keep throwing glances at me and asking if I'm okay. While I appreciate their worrying, all this concern has me a bit on edge, but I don't let it show. Instead, I focus solely on Dr Bryson and her orders. It's funny – Dr Bryson is one of those surgeons who hate having students in her OR, because she believes we'll crash the surgery. Today, though, she is very glad I am here, as she keeps asking me to do stuff while her, Ben and Alberto are in deep concentration. When we are working on our second patient with her, she requests I go to OR1 and ask for Dr Richards to swing by as a consultor. I quickly obey and cross the sterilising room to open OR1's swinging doors. I meet Sophie's eyes upon entering. Her gown is partially covered in blood, and she has the patient's leg resting against her arm, his foot propped up on her shoulder, carefully balanced so it won't touch any part of her face not covered by sterile materials. I inwardly smile - I am sure this is Sophie's calling.
Dr Richards asks me what I want in a rather unpleasant way. I want to tell him to go to hell because I can't deal with his hostility, but instead I relay the message. He nods, and five minutes later he strips off his sterile gown, leaving Maggie and Soph alone with their patient as he follows me into the other OR. He quickly explains to Dr Bryson how he would proceed, and after she agrees, he quickly retreats to his OR, leaving us alone. After that, the rest of the surgery passes by in such a methodical way that I don't even realise it is an actual surgery on an actual patient. Before, when I was alone with Ben and Alberto, or even when Dr Martínez joined us, we made small talk throughout the surgeries. Dr Bryson however expects total silence throughout the procedure, and it feels almost eerie. Ben's constant gazes my way, with eyes that show me he is concerned about me still, keep me focused solely on the surgery, and I even let myself enjoy the quietness while I continue to obey Dr Bryson's orders.
I yawn. I am sitting on a chair in the staff room at the Surgery Ward, Sophie sitting next to me, her head propped on my shoulder. I glance at the clock on the far away wall, perpendicular to the windowed wall on our left. 6:12am.
"Girls, how are we doing?" I glance up as Sophie raises her head from my shoulder and we both smile at Alberto.
"Tired. Sleepy..." Sophie sighs, slumping back on the chair.
Alberto quickly updates us on the situation. The hospital will soon be swarming with professionals. Even though it's December 30th, most doctors who had left the island for New Year's weekend are flying back. The first will start arriving at 7. Our job is to stay on call, in case anything happens until our relaying doctors arrive. And then, we can go home.
Sophie and I decide to go down to the ER, and ask Marc if they need any help. Alberto agrees and decides to tag along, seeing as there is nothing for him to do at the moment – no more surgeries will be undertaken until other surgeons get here; the only surgery taking place right now is in OR1, where Ben stepped in to help Dr Richards and Maggie finish working on an open knee wound which arrived barely two hours ago.
Down in the ER, Marc envelops us in a huge bear hug as soon as he sees us. "Ah my girls. I'm so proud of you for staying and helping out!" He quickly updates us on the situation. The Chief, who was on site at the port, ordered some patients to be flown by helicopter to the mainland – especially those with severe burn injuries (in a stable situation, after stripping them of their clothes and hooking them up to saline). The firemen took some time freeing passengers from the destroyed ship, which is why, almost 10 hours after the accident, some patients are still being driven in. Apparently, there was a problem with one of the ship's machines, which overheated and exploded, resulting in the ship, being covered in flames and almost splitting in half just as it was about to leave the harbour. I shiver. So much for living on an island.
I decide to tune out Marc as he starts speaking about how many passengers were declared dead on site, and how many arrests they had to resuscitate during the night. I let my eyes wander. The ER is full. There are gurneys in the corridors. There are patients sitting in the waiting area, not because they haven't been attended yet, but because our hospital doesn't have enough free beds in the ER. Some patients are better than others; some just have an arm in a cast, or stitches up wounds. Others are in a medically induced comma to deal with the pain from their multitraumatisms. The whole ER looks chaotic, even though I'm sure there is an order within it all - Joanna, the Head Nurse, would never run her ER in any sort of chaos. I start to feel an all-too-familiar knot inside of me, one which appeared last night and has been bugging me ever since. I can spot scattered personal belongings, scarves and coats draped on chairs in the waiting room, some purses hanging off gurneys, a green Marks & Spencer bag abandoned on the corner right by the elevator.
"YOU!" I am brought out of my stupor when Soph starts to shake me. I glance up and notice Marc has both his eyebrows up, regarding me sceptically. "Do you wanna go down for a coffee?"
"Huh?" I blink. Marc repeats what he apparently said while my mind was elsewhere: the ER is stable, he can handle it all with the seniors, so they are prompting us to go down to the personnel cafeteria for a coffee with the juniors, who have already been shooed downstairs.
After ordering our coffees at the bar, we make our way towards the table at the back, where Tammy is motioning with her hands for us to join her. We manoeuvre our way over, and before I know what is happening, I find myself sitting on a chair, Sophie across from me, and Lachlan to my right.
Before anyone can speak, Tammy commands our attention, asking about the OR. I can't bring myself to speak; last night's second surgery is still fresh in my mind, and even though Ben helped ease me a bit, I can feel again the tears start to well up as soon as I recall everything that happened. Thankfully though, Sophie, Alberto, Jamie (the Anaesthesiology resident) and Cordie (the General Surgery junior) quickly start describing everything that went on up in the Surgery Ward, and then soon Tammy and a couple of first-years start going over what happened in the ER. I glance around the table. Ollie and Jack are holding hands, Ollie's head nestled against Jack's shoulder as they listen to the conversation. Sarah looks exhausted, her eyes drooping as she stirs her coffee. Beside her, Valerie, the Oncology resident, has her arms crossed on the table, her head resting on top, as Joe, who sits on her other side, lazily draws patterns on her elbows. There are a couple more residents sitting around. I don't recognise them so I guess they are first-years – they are the only juniors who are normally too busy trying not to fuck up to actually socialise with students.
I notice Lachlan turning around in his seat, and I'm sure he wants to strike up a conversation with me. Before giving him the opportunity to do so, I bolt from my chair and hastily make my way to the restroom.
I splash water on my face and glance up at the mirror. There are bags underneath my eyes, my ponytail is extremely messy, with loose tendrils here and there, and my green scrubs look a bit too big on me. I am about to turn around when through the mirror I see the door opening. Lachlan walks in. I blink. "What the hell?"
"You forget, Thea, that this is not 'the women's restroom', but actually THE restroom," he says, smirking. I fight the urge to roll my eyes, as I remember that he is right and this is the only restroom for staff at the cafeteria, male or female. He smiles, then. "Are you okay? The ORs are tough…"
I roll my eyes, exasperated. After the emotional rollercoaster that has been the last hours, I don't need this. "What do you care? You have no right to be concerned about me, no right to even be speaking to me."
"Hey, don't say that... You know what happened with Martha was a mistake-"
"What? No, Lachlan, no. It might have been a mistake if it had only happened once. But tell me how many times did it happen exactly?" I can feel all the emotions from last night turning into anger, and I clench my fists.
"You're not free of blame! You spent your time flirting with Benjamin!"
I scoff. "Dammit Lachlan. I don't care. It's been months. Get over it."
"Ugh Thea, don't you understand..." And suddenly he is trying to pull me towards him, and I find myself pressed against his chest, my arms against my body as his encircle my shoulders. I push at him, and he releases me at the contact. His eyes seem sad, regretful.
"Please, Lachlan. This is not something we need to discuss here – it actually is not something we need to discuss, period. The last ten hours have been difficult enough, I don't need this right now." I walk towards the door, pausing to face him again. "I'm sorry, Lachlan, but please, just let me be..."
I feel the tears welling up. Instead of sitting down at our table, I walk out of the cafeteria in a haste, covering my eyes in an attempt to stop the tears. I run out the back, onto the personnel parking lot, which is practically empty except for three Mercedes, two pick-up trucks and a couple of second-hand cars here and there. I crouch down next to a wall, allowing the tears to fall freely. All the pent-up frustration from the last few months, all the events from last night... It all pours out of me at that very moment. I am too caught up in myself to notice the green pair of pants that stops in front of me, before coming to sit down beside me. It isn't until I feel Sophie's arm surround me in a hug that I realise I'm not alone. I look at her, and she brushes away stray hairs from my face before asking me what is wrong. I sigh, and then proceed to empty my heart and brain. I tell her everything, though half of it she already knows. I start by Lachlan cheating and the incident with Ben at last year's party, to which she nods, then continue with the friendly flirting we have kept up this past months, and finally tell her everything that went down last night, the death in the OR, Ben in the staff room, and me and Lachlan right then in the restroom. She sighs, pulling me close, and we remain like that for a long time.
My tears have stopped, and we are just sitting in the parking lot, hugging each other, when Ben finds us. He smiles lopsidedly, and holds out both his hands for us to take, swiftly lifting us both up from the floor. He rubs my back, and I catch some of his silent conversation with Sophie.
"Girls, our relay is here. We are free to go home." He smiles, and for the first time since last night, I feel relieved. "You are both true champs, you know that, right? I would have fled this place so fast last night if I had been you..." He laughs. Sophie starts walking back towards the building, leading the way back to the Residents' Ward. Ben gently rests his hand on my lower back, guiding me, and I can't help but hug his side. I feel spent.
We arrive at his changing room, where he opens his locker and gives us back our clothes. We both walk back to the students' changing room and take off our scrubs, dumping them in a bin. When we are both dressed up, we walk out, towards the hospital's main entrance, the only door which remains open on Saturdays before 9am. There we find Ben, again. He is lounging against the wall, dressed in jeans and a green t-shirt. His messenger bag hangs from one shoulder, while on his other hand he holds his helmet and his bike's keys. Sophie suddenly hugs me, saying she sees her bus rolling around the corner and she can't miss it. She throws a 'see you for New Year's!' over her shoulder as she bursts through the door. Right. I sigh. There is the NYE party tomorrow: on New Year's, it's a tradition that the interns who are stuck on the island because of having ER shifts all meet up at night and celebrate the new year. And, of course, any students who live on the island get invited (including Sophie and me, it amounts to about 10 people, most of them still on their first few years of med school).
Ben is chuckling. "Well, that was subtle…" I can already feel a blush creep up my neck, and silently pray my natural tan is enough to hide it. "You want a ride, Thea?" He asks, motioning towards his helmet.
I normally walk home, though I live almost half an hour away. Riding with him, on his bike, would mean I could be lying in my bed in less than fifteen minutes, all warm and cosy in my fluffy comforter, ready to put the last ten hours behind me… But there is something I find so pleasurable about walking home during winter. The cold wind on my face does wonders at helping me collect my thoughts and ease my mind. So I bite my lip, and reject his offer. He momentarily looks dejected, and I have half a mind to tell him I was kidding and I would love a ride, but before I can his smile reappears and he leans forward.
"Very well, then. In that case, I'll be subtle too. Can I pick you up tomorrow for New Year's?" He grins at me, running his hand up and down my arm, and I can't help but smile back.
"I suppose you could do that..." I shrug.
He turns around, opening the door for me. Once outside, he touches my arm, and I turn to look at him. He reaches down, kissing my cheek, and before I can react, he has said, "see you tomorrow!" and is power-walking towards the parking lot. I blink, raising a hand to my cheek as I begin my walk. "See you tomorrow", I whisper, and then I let my mind float far away into the chilling winter air.