“I Believe I Can Fly”

“A fourteen year old boy in the Bronx collapsed and died while singing, ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ in music class.”  Wow, the song does have some high notes, but not that high.  I wonder what really killed him.  Probably a cardiac arrhythmia combined with a vasovagal response.  Maybe even a ruptured cerebral artery aneurysm.  Perhaps only my weary and bored eyes even noticed this tiny article in a small corner of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  I feel oh so privileged to receive news of all the world’s tragedies right in my little Emergency Room cafeteria at four-fucking-thirty in the morning.

“Dr. Sheikh to the Emergency Room.  Dr. Sheikh to the Emergency Room STAT!”  Damn!  It was Nurse Debbie’s screechy voice again.  I’ll never know how a scrawny lady like Debbie can have such a mouth.  Her five-foot, hundred-pound stature even appears in my nightmares yelling my name in that unmistakable raspy loudspeaker voice, “Doctor, you forgot to sign your charts.  Doctor, you forgot to throw away your sharps.”  She was the commander-in-chief, i.e. Charge Nurse, of the ER and seemed to have a personal vendetta against all of the intern doctors, especially me.  She never let me rest.  A final gulp of my fifth disgusting cup of vending machine coffee, and I was on my way.

The walk to the ER was long, and I thought of the last time I heard that song – only two weeks ago.  It was sung by a patient who presented quite a moral dilemma for me.  There is a rack of charts in every ER ranked in order of most urgency.  Your gun shots and blue babies are triaged to the top, and then your heart attacks and broken ankles, and last your pesky drunks and psych cases.  As a doctor, you don’t really choose; just pick up the top chart in the rack and start your business.

That night, two charts were on the rack – Elsie Knockhatter, age eighty-two, and Capitan Rodriguez, age twenty-seven.  Elsie’s chart was on top, but Capitan was, well…a hunk – bronze, twenty-seven, and a fine piece of creation.  Elsie was in bed amidst her urine.  Capitan had a big gash on his head.  Elsie just needed some anticholinergic medicine.  Usually, I shouldn’t have to choose.  I am not supposed to choose.  But, but Capitan – I peeked into the waiting area, and Capitan was humming “I Believe I Can Fly.”  His lips were bright magenta, and the words of the song never looked so luscious.  Morality, shmorality.  I gave a quick glance around adn the annoyingly omnipresent Debbie was for once nowhere nearby.  The next second, I walked over to young, beautiful, exsanguinating Mr. Capitan Rodriguez.  Okay, doctors are not supposed to be attracted to their patients, but even Queen Victoria, mistress of prudishness, could not resist Capitan, despite a beet-red capitus.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Sheikh,” I said nonchalantly.  “Can you tell me what happened?”

Capitan’s big brown eyes looked up, and suddenly, a strong fist came rapidly towards me, shying away from my face at the very end.  I didn’t budge.

“Pow!” he yelled.

“Pow?” I echoed.  I looked back at the rank of charts nervously, and saw that no one had picked up Elsie’s chart yet.

“Pow!  Right in the head with a beer bottle.”  He raised his left hand, and picked some dry blood from the right temporal region of his scalp.  He had a three-inch laceration that was mostly covered with long, thick black hair, but had scattered dark red clots.  That had to hurt.

“Right this way.”  He picked up his leather coat, and followed me to the Suture Room.  We strolled in stride through a maze of patients, some in hallway beds, some with bewildered looks on their faces, and others in a mini-comatose state.  My entire focus was on this man with Herculean good looks who was still humming “I Believe I Can Fly.”  I became the envy of the ER, as all the XX chromosomes including Debbie, my arch-enemy nurse, kept staring at Capitan’s structured physique.  That’s right, he’s mine – at least for the next hour.  I tried to catch the rest of the words to that song from my incredibly gorgeous patient, but the EKG monitor beeps, the screaming paranoid schizophrenic, and the overhead pages for doctors to the trauma room made it very difficult to catch the rest of the words to the song.

We made it to our room now, and I asked him to undress.  A rivulet of blood had come down his face to his lips.  He stopped singing and glided his big, strong hand gently over the side of his mouth.

“How did this happen?” I asked casually.

He determinedly plopped himself down on the black-leather examining table covered by a slippery white paper, making a rumpling, crinkling sound.  He seemed surprised by the sound he made, and adjusted himself quickly and gracefully to stop the ruckus.  He then shifted his muscular body, and in a quick, athletic move, lay on his stomach.  “An after-hours party that got out of hand.  I got some guy with a Michelob, and his brother got me with a Bud – Pow!”  He repeated the same fist motion, this time towards the otoscope on the wall.

I unwrapped the sterile instrument tray, and began my hand-washing.  Not once did Capitan take his eyes off me.  “Just do what you have to do, doc.”

“Okay, are you allergic to anything?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Good.  I’ll draw up some lidocaine, so you won’t feel the pain…”

“No,” he interrupted.  “I don’t want any of that.”

“Mr. Rodriguez, your wound will require at least twenty stitches, and lidocaine will make it tolerable.  The suture needle is very sharp,” I said, hoping to be convincing.  No one ever refused pain medication, especially for this procedure.

Capitan leaned his head sideways, and peered directly into my eyes.  The words from his rich lips came forth slowly and succinctly, “I said no.”  It was clear that he didn’t want the anesthetic.

“Suit yourself,” I sighed, and started gloving up.  I held up the curved 4.0 suture needle in front of me, hoping the sight of it would frighten him into wanting the pain-killer.

But Capitan was no longer looking.  He lay there on his belly, and slowly clenched both his fists.  “Okay, I’m ready.”

How could be possibly be ready?  I hesitated for a moment, and then made my first needle entry, expecting a cry, a groan, or at least a flinch.  Capitan lay perfectly motionless.  I writhed in and out with my hands swiftly placing the thirty-eight needle sticks and about a yard of silk thread into his scalp.  All of his perfect body lay motionless throughout.  I had been working for about an hour, and the buzz of the ER had died down a bit.  By now, the paranoid schizophrenic got his antipsychotic medication, and the heart attack victims got transferred to the Intensive Care Unit.  Only then did I notice Capitan still softly singing the song.  This time, though, the lyrics became clearly audible.

I believe I can fly.
I believe I can touch the sky.
Think about it every night and day.
Spread my wings and fly away.

“Excuse me, I’ll be right back.”  I needed to get the antibiotic ointment from the Storage Room.  Actually, I was wondering what had happened to Elsie.  She probably needed some cleaning up and some anticholinergic medicine.  Elsie was nowhere in sight.  Her chart was no longer on the racks, so she must have been seen by someone.  Suddenly, I regretted bypassing her.  Old people are fascinating, full of stories, and plenty of good advice.

I headed back to the Suture Room, Bacitracin in hand, deep in thought about what really makes a man attractive.  I thought about Capitan’s carefree life – goes out drinking on the weekends, spends his days watching sports and lifting dumbbells aimlessly into the air.  This refusal of lidocaine is probalby some macho thing, and now he’ll have stories to tell all his brainless, buffed buddies.  I felt a shudder inside me, and all of a sudden, Capitan had lost his appeal.

It was then that I absentmindedly bumped into a stretcher with a body covered in a white sheet.  “Ouch,” I mumbled, furiously massaging my right knee.  There was a strong stench of urine eminating from it.  I felt my heart skip a beat and I knew even before I slowly turned the identifier tag on the corpse’s wrist.  “Elsie Knockhatter.”  Numb, I went to Capitan.

“Here,” I handed him the ointment.  “Stay away from beer bottles,” I said contemptuously, both at him and even more so, at myself.  I turned and left without waiting for a response.

I finally reached the ER.  “What took you so long, Doctor?”  It was four thirty-two.  Debbie watched me unforgivingly as I headed towards the rack of charts, and picked up the top one without looking at the name.

Nipa Shah, Chicago, Class of 1996

Originally published in Vol. XIV: 1998