Irene dove into my chart again.
Frowning, she flipped through the tabbed pages a second time. She seemed to find whatever number, ailment or past injury she wanted and hummed, a long sound full of speculation.
I squirmed on the examination table, the paper sheet crinkling against the cloth of my scrubs and the curves of my naked body underneath. She’d already inspected me inside and out, but at her thoughtful grunt, I suddenly felt exposed.
Glancing up from the pages, Irene collected herself with an apologetic smile. “Do you have a second?”
“Sure,” I said, in no rush to return to the blueprints and to-do list waiting for me at the firm, “what for?”
“I need to check on something.” She drifted to the door. “But I’ll be right back.”
“Okay.” I gulped and forced my tongue to ask the question no one wants to ask their physician. “Is everything all right?”
“I think so.”
Her half grin failed to reassure my heart which started sprinting as if to attempt my first attack.
“Go ahead and get dressed,” said Irene.
She swept through the curtain and then the door and I jolted when it closed with a snap, like the bars of a cage. The curtain hushed into stillness and I tried to mimic its drooping calm.
Hopping off the examination table, I focused on my pile of clothes and in sequence began donning on each layer meant for the snowy outdoors rather than the sterile interior. The turtleneck and corduroys provided a snug defense and, after lacing my boots, I plopped back onto the dented paper seat marked with my backside.
Swinging my legs, I perused the brochures about ailments I hoped to never contract, the labeled drawers, the biohazard box, the lamps and jars of swabs, anything to avoid letting my thoughts wander.
“You’re fine,” I whispered, wishing speaking to myself sounded less crazy.
Smoothing the wrinkles from my shirt, I homed in on every passerby striding past the door with the squish of thick soled sneakers, clomp of snow boots, or clack of heels. The scale outside squeaked when someone’s height and weight were taken, the scribble of the nurse’s pen overriding their hushed discussion. Another door slammed. Someone laughed. Computer keys tapped with information being input into their new electronic system. All of it seemed to spin around me like a top, with me in the center, watching the world going by and waiting for it to stop.
I jumped again when Irene knocked.
“Come in,” I said and folded my hands demurely into my lap lest they reach out and shake the words from my Doctor’s mouth.
“Sorry about that,” said Irene, pushing through the curtain.
Her eyes were on my chart but when she closed the cover she set it down on the counter beside the monitor with its login screen.
I wet my throat with another long gulp. “What’s going on?”
“I noticed your blood type,” said Irene, laying her manicured hand on the manila file, “and that you had put yourself down as an organ donor as well.”
I shrugged. “If I’m not using them anymore someone should.”
“Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about. We have a patient here who’s in need of a transplant and I wanted to see how you felt about it.”
I laid a protective hand on my belly. When I’d ticked the box I’d expected to be a mess of gooey parts to be passed around in the hopes of helping others, but I never imagined myself conscious for their distribution.
“What kind of transplant?”
“Whoever might be compatible and willing to undergo the procedure. I’m not sure you are but I thought I’d ask. We’ve been having trouble finding a viable donor.”
“Biology can be fickle. Just because people share the right blood type or history doesn’t mean their cells are going to cooperate.”
“So…what would I have to do?”
“There are a few tests to run, to check and see if you’re a good candidate.”
“Let me guess—”
“Yes, there will be needles involved.”
I shuddered. A sledgehammer or a saw I could probably deal with, but the idea of those damn pointy little things sliding under my skin, into my veins, sucking out bits of me through my flesh sprouted goose bumps across my body.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have brought this up.” Irene collected my chart and shoved back the curtain. “I’ll see you—”
I held up a quieting hand and tried not to notice the trembling in my fingers. “What’s wrong with them?”
“Leukemia. He’s been going under radiation therapy and it’s taken a toll on his ability to generate new red blood cells. I’d hoped we find another way to get him back on his feet, but we’re running out of options.”
“It’s that bad?”
“Yeah.” She clutched the folder to her chest and her shoulders sloped beneath her lab coat, the weight of this man’s life pressing down on her petite frame. “He’s here if you want to me him.”
“Just down the hall in the lab.”
I felt embarrassed for my hesitation. Whoever this was, they needed help, help I might be able to give, and here I was shy about even saying hello.
“You really think I can help him?”
“I don’t know,” said Irene. “I probably shouldn’t have divulged as much as I have to you but his situation’s getting kind of dire. I’m finding myself grasping at straws.”
“Maybe I should think about it first. Read up on what it means. I don’t want to get his hopes up or anything.”
“He’s pretty levelheaded, but I understand.” She fetched a business card from the rack on the counter and scratched a number on the back. “This is my cell. Call it if you decide to try.”
I took the card in both hands and stared at the scrawled digits. My gut grumbled again, mixing my anxiety with guilt.
“He’s really important to you?”
Irene looked down, but not before I caught her blinking rapidly. She brushed at her eyes, where I imagined tears had been about to fall. My stomach twisted.
“He’s my step brother.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize.”
“How could you?” Irene sniffed and lifted her chin. Her eyes glistened but she smiled and stuffed away whatever emotions had threatened to boil over. “We’ve gotten pretty close since my mother’s death and well…I’m the doctor in the family. I’m supposed to make things better.”
“Sounds like you need a magic wand.”
“If only.” With a weary sigh, Irene laid a hand on the knob. “I’ll walk you out.”
Sliding off the table, I collected my coat from the rack and shoved my arms through the sleeves. Warm and bundled, I had a sudden impulse to give Irene a hug, to try and make things better.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I just need a little fresh air.”
“You’re the doctor.”
“Right,” she said, the sarcasm in her tone biting.
I followed her from the room and we dipped into more pleasant banter about my holiday skiing plans, and the presents she’d found for her kids and those on the list. Wending the hallways, we passed by the laboratory with its large windows covered in closed blinds and framed by brightly painted molding. A laugh slowed me, and I peered through the open door.
Charlie beamed at one of the nurses, his apple-red cheeks as round as his bald head. Weary bags drooped beneath his eyes, a darker purple than all our nights cramming for finals. He’d lost the muscle mass from his years playing of basketball, his frame almost brittle beneath a woolly sweater and baggy jeans.
He noticed me staring, and the nurse, about to dab at his exposed arm with its tourniquet band, turned.
“Can we help—” She cleared her frown when Irene came to my side. “Dr. Maven.”
“Hey sis,” said Charlie, waving with his free hand. He raked his fingers over his scalp and then the lopsided smile, the one that pinned a dimple onto his cheek and started my pulse galloping, appeared. “Hayley.”
My stomach flipped flopped and nearly bowled me over. Of all the people in the whole damn world, it had to be him.
“I’ll do it,” I whispered.
Irene touched my shoulder, medical professionalism succumbing to her empathetic bedside manner. “You’re sure?”
“Yeah,” I whispered, returning Charlie’s wave, “I’m sure.”