Dr. Jack Maebee bounced in through the doors of the ICU. He caught the eye of Floor Nurse Traci McConnel and flashed her a grin. She smiled back, but continued to talk to the new RN, Angie Poul. The doctor glanced through the ward’s charts and picked out a few. He padded down the hall in his rubber soled western boots.
Frank Schnatzer was awake. His eyes sparkled bird-like from among the tubing, wiring, and machinery that kept him alive. He smiled around the various tubes in his mouth and weakly waved his free hand--the left one.
Mabee smiled at the frail, yellowish old man. “So, how’s it going by you today, Frank?”
Frank gave him a thumbs up. Maebee kept his grin as he looked at Frank’s chart. He blessed his ability to keep his thoughts from his face. Not only had it enabled him to put himself through med school on his poker winnings, it also allowed him to keep a smile as his heart sank. The cancer was progressing about as fast as one would have expected—like wildfire. Maebee closed the chart and, glancing at the IV on the back of Frank’s right hand, remarked, “Okay. ‘Steaming as before’ like they say; right, Frank?” He was rewarded with a grin and a nod. “Is the drip working okay?” Another nod. “Fine. Anything I can get you?” He watched as the old man clumsily crossed himself with the wrong hand, then reached behind his neck and moved the hand around the collar of his gown and down his front. Frank attempted to do the same on his right side with the free hand. The doctor wrinkled his forehead--then the penny dropped. “Oh, you want to see a priest. You want me to get Father Carl over to see you?” Several nods. “Okay, no problem.” He headed for the door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go see the people who actually are sick.”
Maebee almost collided with Nurse Poul in the hall. “Oops, sorry. Are you doing anything at the moment, Nurse?”
She gave him a deer-in-the-headlights look and shook her head. “No, Doctor. I was just heading back to the nurses’ station.”
He grinned. “Okay, good. When you get back to the station, I want you to call Our Lady Of and tell Father Carl that Frank Schnatzer wants to see him and that he better come as soon as possible. I think tonight might be the night. Got that?”
She nodded. “Yes, Doctor.”
He flashed her a grin. “Good. Thank you.” He walked on down the hall to Betty Freegood’s room, thinking about gallbladders.
A couple of hours later, he re-entered the ICU and wearily dropped onto a chair at the nurses’ station. Traci McConnel looked up from some paper work, curious. “I thought you went home.”
Maebee held his thumb and index finger about an inch apart. “I was this close to making my escape when Mel Goldstein grabbed me for the ER.”
She looked at him with sympathy. “Rough night?”
Maebee rubbed his hands over his face. “You know, I was watching a movie the other night and this alien invader wails, ‘I’m trapped on a planet with seven billion morons!’ I think those morons all showed up tonight.” He began to count on his fingers. “Let’s see, there was the drunk and the glass door. The guy who thought chainsaws are for auto body work. The kid who wanted to see if the James Bond trick with the lighter and the spray can really works. And my favorite of the night, the tourist who rode his mountain bike downhill into a barbed wire fence in pitch darkness. Is it a full moon tonight?”
Traci examined her watch. “Nope, four days to go.” She pointed at the coffee maker. “Coffee?”
He shook his head, then put his hands behind his neck and cracked his knuckles. “No. But I would be eternally grateful if you’d hand me one of those Diet Dr. Peppers you keep squirreled away in the specimen refrigerator.”
She assumed an expression of mock horror and put her hand to her chest. “My personal stock?” As she handed the soft drink to him, she remarked, “You realize of course, sir, that this exchange constitutes an act of betrovement?”
The doctor unscrewed the bottle’s top, took a gulp, and sighed happily. “‘A,’ I don’t think that’s even a word, and ‘B,’ I could think of a heck of a lot worse things.” He took another drink. “Like maybe that large and muscular husband of yours detaching my head from the rest of my body with his bare hands.”
She looked thoughtful. “As long as it’s not on the new carpet, I suppose,” she mused.
He grinned tiredly, then became serious. He glanced at the patient readouts. “I see Frank’s still holding out… That dirty…”
“What, Frank?” she said, her eyes wide with surprise that he would say something like that about poor old Frank.
He smiled ruefully, “No. Sorry. The cancer. I’ve hated it ever since it took my mom…breast cancer.”
Traci looked at him. “I’m surprised you didn’t go into Oncology if you feel that way.”
He shook his head. “Naw, I like seeing all kinds of things. All kinds of people. That’s why I became a GP--” He held up a hand. “I mean ‘Primary Care Physician.’ Who knows what they’re going to be calling it next week.”
Her face was sad. “I was just thinking about Frank. He had such a beautiful voice. He was a tenor. You should have heard him at Our Lady Of. He carried the whole choir.”
Maebee grinned, “Yeah, and if I’d been there, the roof would’ve fallen in.” Something occurred to him. “What time did Father Carl blow though? I missed him. Usually he wanders through the ER when he comes.”
The floor nurse looked at him in surprise. “Father Carl? He hasn’t been over tonight. Why?”
Maebee was suddenly wide awake. “Frank Schnatzer wanted a priest and I gave instructions that Father Carl be called.”
Traci looked at him mystified. “Nobody called the church from here tonight.”
He grabbed the phone and punched in a number. A gravelly voice answered, “Sheriff Ritter.”
“E.D.? This is Jack Maebee. I’m in the ICU at Danube County. I need Father Carl here pronto. Frank Schnatzer’s going fast and he wants a priest.”
E.D. Ritter paused then said. “Okay. I’m over at the Rebel Bowl. I’ll jump in my truck and get over there. Let’s see…yeah, he should still be up.”
Sweat beaded Maebee’s forehead. “We need him yesterday, E.D.”
“Don’t worry, Jack. I’ll arrest him if I have to,” Danube County’s sheriff assured him.
Ten minutes later, the pastor of Tolz’s Catholic church fast-walked through the ICU doors. Maebee pointed down the hall and said only, “Left side, Room 31.” Father Carl nodded once and, without breaking step, began unfolding his stoll. He turned into the door of Frank’s room.
Maebee sat back down at the nurses’ station. Rubbing his hand over the stubble making an appearance on his jaw, he asked, “Traci, where is Nurse Poul?”
The floor nurse thought. “Well, she’s on her dinner break. I’d guess the cafeteria.”
He pulled himself to his feet reluctantly. “Okay, thanks.”
Angie Poul was seated by herself in the near empty dining room which suited the Westerner just fine. He dropped into the seat opposite her. Without introduction he asked, “Did you call Our Lady Of as I asked?”
She looked at him a moment, then slightly shook her head. “No.”
“Why not?” he asked in a mild voice.
“I had more important things to do.”
She began to fluster. “Well,well…filing. And 209 forms…and Mrs. Black’s bath…”
Maebee’s voice dropped a notch and the nurse leaned forward, better to hear, “Nurse Poul, I told you to make that call.”
Her voice shrilled slightly in defense, “Doctor, I had important things to do. I don’t believe--.”
His voice was a low and deadly purr, “It doesn’t matter whether you or I think it’s real. What matters is the patient asked for something that was important to him and was in no way injurious to him, the other patients, or the staff of this hospital. But that’s not the problem--whether you or I believe. That poor, dying little man in there believes. And that has an effect on his life, his treatment, and his happiness. That’s important stuff!”
Face flushed, she opened her mouth to reply. He held up a hand. “But that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that I gave you an instruction and you blew it off. Traci’s been around the block often enough that she can second-guess me. You can’t. You’re new and still green. You put in the time she has and I’ll think about it. Now, from now on, I give you an instruction about a patient or their treatment, you will do your level best to get it done. If you think there’s something wrong with the instruction, see the floor nurse on duty.” He paused to let it sink in. “And now the club. If you ever do that again, I’m going to march into the administrator’s big luxurious corner office and ruin Marion Field’s whole morning and, shortly thereafter, your butt is going to hit the sidewalk. Do we understand each other?” He noted with some surprise that, throughout, he hadn’t raised his voice.
The nurse looked down at her dinner tray for some minutes. She looked back up at him and answered simply, “Yes, Doctor.”
He stood. “Good. I see no need for us to ever have to talk about this again. Good evening, Nurse Poul.”
Father Carl was walking out of Frank’s room as Maebee reached the ICU. The doctor noted that the readouts from the room were flat as he walked past the nurses’ station. “I take it that he’s gone then. Were you in time?”
The large, square priest sighed, then nodded. “Yes, I was in time. Frank received a proper send off on his voyage.” He was silent for a moment, then smiled lopsidedly. “You know, of course, it’s likely he’s going to be out of Purgatory far sooner than either of us?”
Maebee returned the smile. “Maybe yes and maybe no, Father. I try to keep an open mind on such matters.”
“Want to stop over at the Rectory for a beer?”
The doctor shook his head. “Appreciate it, but another night. Right now, I just want to go home and collapse.”
Father Carl nodded. “Okay. The offer’s good whenever.” He raised two fingers and made the sign of the Cross over Maebee. “Anyway, bless you, my son, need it or not.”
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