Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Night Clinic Raven


“I don't like the looks of this, I said as I walked into the clinic. I looked up at the sign and saw a large black bird perched above the Red Cross. Then I my gaze travelled up to the early evening sky and I saw the full moon and murmured to myself, “It's going to be a long night.”
“Did you see that bird perched outside our clinic?” I asked Miss James as she looked up from the desk where she had stowed her monstrous purse.
“No, I guess not,” she answered. “I hurried in without taking any notice so I wouldn’t be late.”
“Well, it’s got to be the biggest crow ever. Black feathers, black feet, black beak all outlined by a full moon. One or the other and I’d say we were in for a long night, but the two together spells disaster of Biblical proportion. I’m sure it won’t be sore throats and sprained ankles all night.”
Miss James stuck her head outside. The sun was almost settled down in the west and the full moon had taken its place commanding the dusk. She stood opposite the sign which swayed gently back and forth in the light breeze.
“It’s funny how it just sits there, perched quietly, almost serene in the moonlight. It’s a raven, you know, like a crow, but solitary,” she observed.
“It all seems very Poe-ish to me, ‘quoth the raven, nevermore.’ I never did understand that poem.”
I turned to my right and felt a sharp twinge of pain in my side. Miss James noticed me wincing as the pain shot into my thigh.
“Dr. Barnes, are you alright? For a moment you turned white as a ghost.”
I caught my breath and slowly straightened up. “Yes, yes, I don’t know what that was. I guess I just turned too suddenly and had some sort of muscle spasm. But it still hurts. I guess I’ll go sit down for a minute while you get the first patients ready.
“Good idea, doctor,” she agreed with me for once.
Full moon, ravens, talk of turning white like a ghost, Maybe I should call Dr. Maxim to cover for me and take the night off. Two bad omens I can handle, but three surely means this night will never end.
I glanced outside and saw that the raven was still perched above our door. I felt a tap on my shoulder as Miss James beckoned me back inside to start our shift.
“We should close the clinic tonight,” I decided. “I’ve got a bad feeling.”
“Don’t be silly,” she chided me and then she went outside and shoed the black bird away. “See, it’s gone.”
“Not really,” I replied as the raven returned and settled once again on top of our sign.
“It’s just a bird. There’s a child with a fever and sore throat in room one,” she announced.
“Good, something easy for a change,” I said and we walked back towards the exam rooms together.
“You’re walking sort of bent over,” Miss James noticed. “Something wrong?”
“I’ve got this soreness in my right side, seems to hurt more if I stand up straight. Maybe I pulled a muscle running this morning.”
I picked up the chart outside the door of exam room one, “Amber Lynn, 2 years old, sore throat and cough for two days, temp 101, otherwise healthy.”
A nice straightforward five minute visit.
“Good evening, I’m Dr. Barnes and this must be Amber,” I began my usual introduction and held out my hand to Amber’s mother.
We went through the brief history and I checked the little girl’s throat and listened to her chest. As I was writing out a prescription and instructions for Amber’s now relieved Mother I heard a loud crash and shouting from the waiting room.
“Wait here,” I instructed and went out to see what had caused all the commotion.
I walked quickly out to the waiting room, almost colliding with Miss James and her big belly, and arrived at the lobby just in time to see two young men in colorful leather jackets and jeans at each other’s throats.
One of the combatants gained the upper hand and pulled his adversary  up with his arm wrapped around his neck. I started towards them.
“You two monsters take your differences outside. You know the ‘rules’, this clinic is safe…”
“…for what this asshole did there is no safe place.” And he pulled out a blade and slashed it across his opponent’s neck. I raced to the victim’s side, ignoring the now very intense pain in my right side.
“Nobody’s going to bleed to death in my clinic,” I shouted pushing his attacker away.
“You don’t get involved doc. He deserves to die for what he did to my little sister,” the attacker screamed back. “You stay away from him. Just let him bleed. I’m warning you…”
I ignored this warning as I pulled off my shirt and held pressure over the deep neck wound, pushing my fingers into the depths of his neck to stem the blood flow, putting direct pressure over what I hoped was not his carotid artery. The fountain of blood slowed to a trickle as I cradled the victim’s head.
“I warned you,” said a voice behind me.
I felt a sharp pain just above my belly button and then looked up at my attacker as he pulled his knife out of my abdomen. My head started to spin as I heard a vaguely familiar musical jingle in the background. I looked up and saw the raven settling on the light above me. Then I saw the raven open its mouth, as if to speak and I remember eagerly anticipating its words…but there was only silence as everything went black.
The dark dissolved and a refined, sophisticated, slightly British voice began:
“You should feel lucky, you know. You should be dead, but somehow somebody snatched you from the abyss, at least for a moment.”
I opened my eyes and saw the raven. I tried to reach up and grab him; I wanted to strangle the life out of him, I wasn’t sure why I hated him so, but in my mind he was the embodiment of all the evil I had ever known. My arms wouldn’t move.
“You should hate me, you are right to hate me, but you don’t completely understand the whys and wherefores. I’m sorry, that’s redundant.”
A learned Raven?
 “Oh, don’t try to answer. Your arms are tied down and you’ve got a tube in your throat so you can’t talk. You know the kind, an ET tube, you’re on a ventilator, life support. It’s all that stands between you and an eternity with the likes of me. As a matter of fact, you’ve got tubes coming out of most of your body orifices. Therefore, just blink your eyes if you understand me.”
I tried to move but I couldn’t. I tried to talk, to scream at that vile bird, but there was only silence. I blinked my eyes twice.
“Once is enough. You don’t need to shout. I know what you’re thinking. What does a raven have to do with you or your precious night clinic or anything at all? You’re a smart doctor; you should know. You have this notion that I am wicked, but we ravens are not evil harbingers of ill will. Truly, we are one of god’s chosen messengers, like angels. Oh, you don’t believe me? Don’t take my word for it, just look in the Bible. Who did God choose to feed the prophet Elijah? Ravens. And who did Noah first send out from the Ark to ‘test the waters?’ A raven. So don’t go carrying on about evil and the dark side of humanity. You don’t have to say it; these thoughts fill your head. I wish Edgar Allen Poe had never been born.”
I wished the raven would stop his incessant chatter, but I was helpless. All I could do was lay there and listen.
I must be in a hospital on a ventilator which means the Raven is correct that I can’t talk. Maybe, I died and this is really Hell. Is this my fate? To be trapped for Eternity listening to the rantings of a deranged crow?
“Crow, did you call me a crow. Why, I’ve never been so insulted. Crows are vicious and petty. Just look at what a group of them is called: a Murder. How appropriate. Every time I see one of those little flying rats I’d like to murder it. But, ravens, we are a different breed, the most noble of all birds. Solitary, thoughtful, central to such a variety of myth and legend. Why, it’s the ravens of London Tower that maintain the British Empire. The ravens are part of the great Norse god king Odin. So, please don’t offend me by calling me a crow.”
His voice had grown loud and pierced my brain, but I guess he realized how shrill he had become and settled down.
“Now, where were we? Ah, yes, the nobility of the raven, a favorite topic of mine. But, enough about me, let us talk about you. Rather, I will talk, you listen. You really do listen very well, although I suppose you don’t have a choice.”
There was a sigh and then he continued, “I wish all doctors were such good listeners. It’s the ability to listen and hear what their patients are saying that makes a doctor a truly skilled healer.  But, are you really a good doctor? Are you even a good person? You think you performed a brave and righteous act when you thrust your fingers into that dying boy’s neck wound and saved his life, but was it in fact righteous? Do you know what he did to provoke such an attack? I’m sure you remember his assailant shouting about his sister, his baby sister, his nine year old baby sister who had just been brutally raped and then mutilated by the monster you saved. Does that make you feel noble? Don’t try to answer. And, closing your eyes tightly won’t make the truth go away. That beast deserved to suffer, deserved to die. Is it wrong for a brother to take vengeance on the person who attacked his sister and left her scarred beyond all hope, for life? However, you did not know, you could not have known. And, if you had known the truth, if you had witnessed the atrocity, would you have been in such a hurry to save that boy?
“Your eyes plead ignorance, while your soul is in turmoil. But, there is no amount of penance which can undo such damage. Maybe, just maybe, you were right, you should have saved him. It’s your job, you took an oath, to treat the sick and injured to the best of your ability. It isn’t your place to sit in judgment. Are doctors exempt from simple human decency?
“Let us forget about your attacker and his victim for now. Let us look at something closer to you, the lovely, decent and resourceful Miss James. She has almost molded you into an acceptable human being; one with a true conscience and respect for others. She drew you away from your shallow dreams and brought you into a bizarre world filled with society’s outcasts, rejects and downtrodden. She faces each day with a smile and a helping hand not because it is a job, but because she cares about every drunk, junkie and schizo that wanders into her clinic.CAN YOU SAY THE SAME?”
The raven paused from his soliloquy for a moment and took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry I raised my voice. You, Dr. Barnes, you would escape from the Night Clinic in a moment if she would agree to join you and, now that you’ve suffered this terrible injury, she just might do that, just for you. But, can you ever truly escape? Your past will be with you. Yes, I know; I know all about a lazy, abusive, alcoholic father who cast his son out when the boy was barely fifteen. I know about this boy who survived on streets not unlike those which surround the Night Clinic, who lived by his wits, managed to go to school, worked every sort of odd job and maintained an equilibrium that carried him to scholarships, then to one of our finest universities and, finally, medical school, all the while vowing to never return to the poverty of his childhood days.
“There is, however, a demon lurking in the shadows. Guilt. We all must deal with our guilt. Dermatology in Hawaii is as far from the Night Clinic as you could go and the prospect of a soft life on the beach unchained the guilt from the depths of your being and brought it to the surface where, eventually, it would have torn you apart. The presence of Miss James allows you to rationalize your decision to stay at the clinic. You say it’s for her, but truly it’s your guilt which keeps you surrounded by winos and hookers. I tell you the truth: if you were to try to leave this sordid world behind and abandon those members of society who most need your help, this guilt would devour you. Oh, you would surely feign happiness, drive around in your big, shiny Mercedes or BMW or Lexus, live in a big house on the beach, but underneath guilt would be gnawing away, scratching and tearing at your soul, never allowing you a moment’s rest. Maybe it would have been a little thing like insomnia or something worse like uncontrollable fits of anger, or infidelity, but it would have been something. And then, because of this guilt, booze or pills or worse would have consumed you and, in the end, you would have ended up in exactly the same place you are now, except without hope.
“Oh, I’ve offended you, I’m sorry. Truth is always a burden and facing the truth within us is an even greater weight to shoulder, a weight which suffocates. That sounds very profound, doesn’t it?  ‘Truth is always a burden, truth suffocates.’ But it’s just drivel, no, it’s worse than drivel, it’s foolish nonsense which deceives. It is running from the truth which creates the burden. However, admitting that there is truth and accepting it brings freedom, and freedom releases us from the troubles of this world. Well, maybe not us, at least not me, after all, I’m just a big black bird. But, humanity is crushed by its refusal to face truth or even admit that there is such a thing as absolute truth in this world. And, what is this truth? Just three things: you are born, you struggle for a brief period of time and you die and on the day an individual accepts the reality of this truth real freedom begins.
“I’m sorry, I’ve wandered off into the world of philosophy. I’ll get off the soapbox and, let us see, where were we? Oh, yes, Miss James.
“She’s your savior you know. I know it’s not a pretty picture, but look at what you were before she came into your life. A heartless womanizer, studying the intellectual side of medicine, but without a soul or true compassion. Intelligence and hard work may carry you a long way in the medical arts, but without a large dose of kindness and concern for others you could never be a true healer. Miss James, surrounded by the deprivation she lives with and fights on a daily basis in the clinic, opened your eyes to this world you knew all too well; one you had buried away deep in the recesses of your brain and hoped to escape forever. It was Miss James who guided you and showed you the true meaning of responsibility, compassion and, in the end, love. It’s why you are lying here now instead of being safely ensconced in that cushy job treating annoying itches on the buttocks of fat, wealthy socialites.”
I had been listening to his speech quietly, my eyes closed, each word boring into my brain, but now I wanted to answer him, tell him how right he was, but also how wrong.
He knows what’s in your head, you don’t have to tell him.
I opened my eyes. I wanted to speak to him and tell him, but he was gone. For a brief moment I heard the steady beeping of monitors and the whoosh of the ventilator, but these noises faded as reality receded and everything went black.
After a time, the black began to withdraw as streaks of light poked out from the edges of emptiness until I saw the silhouette of the Raven perched above me.
“I hope you had a peaceful respite,” he began, “but, I see that was not the case. Perhaps I will be able to put your mind at ease. How can I do that? Surely you don’t blame me for the turmoil you feel. I am not the one who stabbed you, I did not make you sick or harm you in any way. I did not suffer poverty and deprivation with you. I am only here now, a messenger to help, to bring peace to a tired soul, perhaps eternal peace. Death? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I know you’ve wondered about death over the years, pondered, searched and even glimpsed a taste of what may come after one’s breathing ceases, the heart beats its last, the brain becomes quiet. Is it the beautiful Garden? Is it complete and total nothingness, is it anything? Here let me show you, let me take you.”
The Raven spread its wings and started to beat the air ever so slowly. It hovered above its perch for a moment and then moved closer, drawing me out of my bed and carrying me away. The wind raced past, bringing a delightful relief from the chaos in my soul. A patch of green began to grow in the distance, then it was split by a river of blue. Bits of color grew into radiant collages as flowers appeared and we stopped. The Raven, gently holding me aloft, hovered over the Garden. Not just any garden, The Garden. The exact garden that took Jewel and her mother, the same Garden I’d thought about almost every night since that fateful day. Here it was again and here I had a second chance. I knew what waited for me in that place: Peace. Peace and Eternal Happiness.
“It’s yours, if you wish. Choose. You know what waits for you here in the Garden. Or, you may choose an unknown future. But, you must make a choice. You’re a doctor. Every day you make life and death decisions. Now it’s your own life. Choose.”
Sick children, injured teens, hopeless diseases, death and destruction weighed on my head and then I saw the Garden, beautiful, peaceful, serene.
Is there any choice?
I reached down and tried to grab a branch to pull myself down, down into the Garden and away from the Raven. I had almost touched the top of one of the trees when the Raven left me and settled on a nearby tree branch and fixed his stare upon me.
“CHOOSE,” he screamed.
And, above me, I saw the Goddess of the Night and Captain Surgery and the Dragon and Caleb and so many others shouting at me, begging for me to come back, to help them, to ease their suffering and I pulled my hand back. Below was Jewel beckoning, mouthing “It’s OK.”
I heard the screams of a woman in labor, Miss James suffering for our child, for me and then a final blood curdling scream and then crying, first soft and them louder: the cries of a baby and her father.
“NO,” I screamed as I ripped the endotracheal tube out of my throat and sat up in my hospital bed screaming, “NO, NO, NO.”
Arms reached against my shoulders and held me down and I opened my eyes and saw Miss James, dear Miss James and I felt her hand on mine. I settled back, comforted by the soothing, steady beeps of the EKG and pulse oximeter and her sweet voice.
“It’s OK, doctor, It’s OK.”
“I’m thirsty,” I croaked out. “I won’t need that tube anymore.”
 I felt the cold plastic of an oxygen mask settle on my face as I lay back and fell asleep to the lullaby of the ICU.
The Raven was gone.
I awoke to the caresses of Miss James stroking my cheek with her soft hand.
“You’re looking much better, I must say. You’ve been through quite an ordeal. Did you know that besides being brutally stabbed while attempting to save a young man’s life you also had a ruptured appendix. It was all Captain Surgery could do to stem the bleeding and clean up all the infection. And then, despite the Captain’s efforts, you’ve been on seven drips, suffered through ARDS, Renal failure and shock liver. I don’t know what was going on in your head, but your behavior was a little bit bizarre. They had to keep you tied down most of the time and you seemed to be staring at something, even though I don’t think you saw any of us hovering over you. All I can say is that it’s a good thing you’re young and strong. At least it looks like you’ll be around to see your daughter come into this world.”
“Daughter? A baby girl?” My eyes lit up and I’m sure a big smile creeped onto my face. “Wonderful…I’m glad,” I murmured as I sank deeper into my bed.
“Now, my dear Miss James,” I added, “do you think you can get me a rack of ribs from Louie’s…and some cole slaw?”
Two weeks later I was back on my feet and made my return visit to the Night Clinic.
I walked towards the front entrance and saw the Raven perched on the sign above the door. Its gaze almost burned a hole in me as I walked by. I stopped in the doorway, turned and smiled at my black benefactor and tormenter. Its beak opened as if it was going to address me, but then it smiled, closed its mouth and I watched as it spread its wings and flew away.