Sunday, November 10, 2013
Night Clinic Artist
“I’m here again, ready for another adventure into Never Never Land,” I announced as I blasted through the door which led to the clinic work station.
“You have some nerve showing up here,” Miss James remarked. “I waited for two hours outside the concert hall. It’s too bad, you missed a great show.” There was a touch of venom in her voice.
“Didn’t you get my message? I’m sure I sent one. Dr. Mercal sent over a sick lady from his office. It was too much for the intern to handle. So I was stuck.”
“No, I didn’t get any message. And then I expected you to at least show up at my apartment afterwards.”
“I didn’t finish with that patient until two am. She turned out to have Legionella and a perforated ulcer. Couldn’t find the surgery attending for two hours. It was Bastrock, of course, probably off with one of his floozies. I wouldn’t mind so much if he was a better surgeon, but his patients always have problems. I wish they would take him off the call roster. I’m sorry. Love. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
“And, one more thing. Have you made a decision yet? My lease is up in six weeks, you know. They’re pestering me to renew.”
“You know I wouldn’t stay in that apartment any longer, no matter what. It’s too small and drafty and all the appliances are pretty much on their last legs.”
“True, true, but the price sure is right. Anyway, it’s time to get to work. Caleb, the artist is in two, severe headache.”
“Caleb the artist? Should I know him?”
“Probably not personally, although you probably know his work. He’s a street artist around here; he’s done murals and such on the sides of most of the buildings. I think he’s quite talented. He did this sketch for me while he was waiting.”
Miss James held up a drawing in pencil of our clinic, the light over the door, the neon word “Clinic” in the window along with the red cross symbol for hospital. Our storefront clinic stood out from the buildings around the neighborhood. Even in that sketch there was something that shouted “Come here and be made whole.” I looked forward to meeting this Caleb.
I knocked on the door and went into exam room two and announced my presence in the usual way.
“Good evening, Mr….” I glanced at his chart. The only name was Caleb, no address, no phone number, just a single name.
I stumbled a bit, “Uh, Caleb, I’m Dr. Barnes. What brought you in here today?”
He didn’t reply immediately. The room was darker than usual. The only light was from the X-ray box, which provided a soft illumination. Caleb was facing the far wall, his arm dancing back and forth. I noticed a long pony tail, leather jacket and blue jeans. He ignored me and kept on working, creating a mural on our blank exam room wall. After about a minute he turned around.
“Hello, Dr. Barnes. I’m Caleb. I hope you can help me.”
“I will certainly do my best,” I responded, doing my best to put some concern in my voice, while trying to get a glimpse at the newly created art work which now adorned are previously sparse exam room. Caleb wore dark glasses and a white bandana around his head. He put out his hand which I took, receiving a strong handshake. I glanced down at his fingers which were long and smooth.
“What is the problem you are having?” I asked.
“I’ve had this headache for about two weeks. I assumed it was nothing, but it hasn’t gone away.”
“Where do you feel it most?”
“Right in front, like someone is boring into my brain. The light makes it worse.”
“Have you tried taking anything? Tylenol, Motrin?”
“I’ve taken some expired Ibuprofen which helps a little bit, maybe for about an hour, but then it comes back. It seems better in the mornings when I first get up, but by afternoon I can barely move, it’s so bad sometimes.”
“Any other medical problems? Heart, kidney, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, weight loss?”
“Take any medications, any allergies, rash, blurred vision, or any visual changes?”
“No, except the light bothers me.”
“OK, OK. Let me check you. I need to turn on the light.”
“Go ahead, I’ll be OK.”
“Let me check a few things with the lights off first.”
I took out my flashlight and shined it in his eyes. His pupils reacted briskly.
“I’m no Opthamologist and I haven’t done this since fourth year, but I’ll give it a try. I picked up the opthalmoscope and aimed it towards his eyes. I was greeted by the red reflex and was able to get a clear look at his retina.
Still have the old touch. But, what am I looking for?
I could see blood vessels and the optic nerve, but had no idea if any of it was pathologic.
Where’s the CT Scanner when you need it?
“I’m going to turn the lights on now.”
“OK,” he answered, but there was a sense of apprehension, almost doom as I flicked the switch.
Caleb winced and squinted when the light came on, then put his hands to his temples and rubbed them vigorously as if he was trying to vanquish the demons that were pounding on his head.
“I’ll try to be quick,” I assured him as I auscultated, palpated and inspected form head to toe. Everything was normal. I turned the light off as Miss James stuck her head in the room.
“I need you in three. An elderly man just came in, wheezing, blue lips, doesn’t look too good. I put him on a hundred per cent oxygen.”
“Did you call for an ambulance?”
“Started to, but the man said he wouldn’t go to the hospital.”
“I’ll be back in few minutes, Caleb. Just lay here with the lights off, that’ll probably help.”
I glanced at the chart outside exam room three.
“Heinrich Dietrich, ninety three,” I murmured as I quickly knocked and opened the door.
“Good evening, Mr. Dietrich, I’m Dr. Barnes,” I started with my usual bedside banter.
I was greeted by the raspy sound of labored breathing. Mr. Dietrich was sitting upright, his chest heaving as each breath came with herculean effort. His lips were blue, his eyes sunken deep into their sockets. His skin was a grayish yellow with superficial scratches and healing sores. I understood immediately why he didn’t want to go to the hospital.
“Terminal?” I asked.
He nodded in the affirmative.
“What can I do for you?”
He handed me a piece of paper and gestured for me to read it.
“Chaim Fiesel, 3233 Elm, #11”
“Send for him…Please,” he requested, his voice, with a bit of an accent, a barely audible rasp.
“But, I can’t…”
“PLEASE,” this time almost a command.
I looked at the paper and then at my dying patient.
“OK,” I answered.
I left the room and found Miss James at the nurse’s station.
“Anything else waiting?” I asked, sort of nonchalantly.
“Quiet as a mouse. What’s going on in three?”
“Mr. Deitrich has terminal cancer. He’s dying and he knows it. He asked me to find this man, a Chaim Fiesel. He’s supposed to be in an apartment over on Elm, only about five minutes away. I thought, maybe, one of us could run over and fetch him. You know, grant the dying man his last request.”
“I’ll go,” she replied. “that way if anything bad comes in you can take care of it.”
“I hate to let you go by yourself. It may not be safe.”
“I’ll be OK. I know that apartment building. It has a big, mean, watchdog and is pretty secure. It should only take a few minutes, assuming Mr. Fiesel is there and will come with me.”
She was out the door in thirty seconds and I manned the front desk. A woman came in with her child suffering from an earache. They were quickly examined, diagnosed, treated and out the door. I went back to check on Caleb. He was up on a chair, creating a new masterpiece on the wall. All I could make out in the dim light were shades of black, gray and white.
I heard the door open and saw Miss James and a short, bent, elderly man come in. He was dressed in a dark gray suit, wore thick glasses and had a dark gray moustache. His eyes however, were alive, a vibrant blue. I hurried to meet them.
“Dr. Barnes, this is Mr. Fiesel,” she reported as the man put out his hand. I noticed the fingers were bent and twisted.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, taking his hand in mine, giving him a strong greeting. “Did the lovely Miss James explain the situation?”
“She did, she did,” he answered, his voice marked by an Eastern European accent, not much different from Mr. Dietrich’s. “I do not know this Heinrich Dietrich and I do not know why he would ask for me. Perhaps, you can find out more?”
“I’ll go ask,” I replied. “Maybe he’s a long lost relative and wants to leave you some money. He is dying, you know.”
“Yes, yes, Miss James did tell me that.”
I returned to room three. Mr. Dietrich seemed a bit more comfortable.
“Mr. Fiesel is here, but he is wondering why you asked for him. He says he does not know you.”
“It’s true, he does not, but in a way he does. Tell him I must see him. I must tell him I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? Sorry for what,” I had to ask. “I ask you because I know that he will ask me.”
“Sorry for what I did, to him, to his people, during the war at Dachau.”
Now it was clear to me. Mr. Dietrich, with his clearly German accent. Mr. Fiesel, a Jew, also German, perhaps a survivor of one of the camps, all adding up to a search for peace on one’s deathbed.
“I’ll carry your message to him,” I whispered in Mr. Dietrich’s ear.
I hope Fiesel understands.
I went back to the lobby where Mr. Fiesel was waiting and explained the situation. Fiesel’s face turned red as he heard my report.
“I was in Dachau; my whole family, mother father, two sisters, died at Dachau. He may have been their executioner, for all I know,” his voice was growing louder. “I should hear the confession of a murderer, a man who served in a place that took my whole life from me? No, I will not. I cannot.”
“But surely you can find it within yourself to forgive, to give this man some peace before he goes?” Miss James asked.
But Fiesel said nothing. He sat down and stared at his gnarled hands.
“I was a violinist,” he said softly. “I started playing at the age of two. I was the youngest performer ever with the Munich Symphony. But, they took that from me.” His voice started to rise and tremble. “Look at these hands, look at what they did to my hands. First they smashed my violin into a million splinters, then they smashed my hands.”
And I saw his broken hands, reflections of a broken soul. I left him and returned to the dying Dietrich, but first I saw a light coming from exam one. I had almost forgotten about Caleb. I opened the door and saw him sitting up in the chair. And, I saw his finished mural. It was a scene of horror. A death camp surrounded by barbed wire, emaciated bodies withering away and dying while soldiers brandishing rifles watched, laughed and did nothing. The sky was filled with black clouds which matched the blackness of death in that camp. Except, at the end of the mural there was a bit of yellow, a sliver of sunlight which illuminated a corner of the camp where one soldier was stooping down, giving a red apple to a boy. The boy was like the rest of the prison, wasted, dying, dressed in a ragged striped uniform.
I felt a body brush up against me. I turned, expecting to see Miss James, and was a bit surprised to see Mr. Fiesel. Tears were streaming down his face. He looked up at me and then left me and went into exam room three.
I continued to stare at that mural adorning the room’s previously empty wall. It was a masterpiece of death and hope. The blacks and grays, the ominous clouds, the pall of death which hung over that camp were all overshadowed by the small expression of kindness set off to one side. In the midst of all that despair, one glimmer of hope shined through. I turned to offer my critique to Caleb, but he was gone.
Mr. Fiesel emerged from room three shaking his head, but also smiling.
“You see,” I began to comment, “a bit of forgiveness…”
He held up his hand to stop me. Miss James stood at my side to hear his story.
“You don’t understand, Dr. Barnes, neither of you do. This picture, this vision of death with its small ray of light illuminating a solitary act of human decency is not just an abstract artist’s interpretation. All that death, all those guards and barbed wire is exactly as it was. And, that soldier giving the apple to that little boy is real. That little boy is me. Look at the date on the picture. September 13, 1943. I remember that day, it was my birthday. I turned ten on that day. I was so hungry, I thought I wouldn’t live for another minute if I didn’t get something to eat. One of the guards took pity on me. He was about to eat an apple and must have seen me staring at him. He smiled at me and then got up and came to me. He bent over and gave me that apple and, along with it, gave me the hope and will to survive. You see, I was all alone, my family was gone, murdered by the Nazis; all I could hope for was death, disease and despair. But, he gave me hope and I did survive. I never became the musician I should have been, the Nazi’s made sure of that, but I did come to this country and became an art dealer. This picture reminded me that in the midst of hatred and chaos and evil, human kindness still may exist.”
“Is that why you changed your mind? To pass on this human kindness?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he answered, “but there is even more. Look at the image closely, look at the helmet.”
We bent over and stared at the soldier and saw, clearly on the brim of the helmet the letters HD.
“Heinrich Dietrich, the dead man in your exam room is the soldier in this mural. He gave me his apple and a second chance at life and I had to thank him. You know, Dr. Barnes, he lived only two blocks from me for over thirty years but I never realized it and he could never gather the courage to come to me. He told me now he would walk past my art gallery; he did this hundreds of times. He even found the courage to come inside once. He asked for me, but when I came out he had left. When I saw him today I knew him immediately. He asked my forgiveness. He offered no explanations or rationalizations. He knew what was done, what he had done, how he had helped it all happen and how he had done nothing to stop it. Yet through all that evil, there still existed this one tiny shred of humanity.”
We three stared at the painting for a bit longer.
“Where is the artist?” Fiesel asked. “I would like to meet him and thank him personally.”
“Caleb; he must have left. He lives somewhere in this neighborhood, I’m not sure exactly where. I’m sure you’ve seen his work all around. He has created murals, like this one, all over the city.”
“I have seen them, it is truly remarkable work, a wonderful talent, but, perhaps in need of a little guidance,” Fiesel murmured. “I will have to search for him. After all, I am an art dealer.”
He shook my hand and gave Miss James a light peck on her cheek and went away.
It was coming up on seven when he left, almost the end of our shift.
“What should we do with this mural?” I wondered. “I don’t think it is quite right for a medical clinic.”
“Death, despair and hope?” Miss James said out loud. “Isn’t that what we deal in here?”
“Perhaps…but not in that order,” I observed.
“I’ll tell you what,” she replied. “I’ll call up Fiesel later today and ask him if he wants it for his gallery. I’m sure he can figure out a way to get it from here to there.”
I snapped photo of the mural, just in case it was somehow lost, and then we went back to the nursing station and found a final gift from Caleb.
On the desk was another picture, bright and colorful. It was my apartment. Seated on the couch were two people, myself and Miss James. There was an open door which showed the bedroom and the bathroom, with two towels on the rack and two toothbrushes hanging by the sink. Next to the drawing was a note.
“My headache is gone. Thank you so much, Dr. Barnes.”
Miss James and I stared at each other and then, almost simultaneously asked.
“How does he know?”
We didn’t have an answer.