Short story by Michael Botur
Dr Georgian is reciting from her tablet the short story I made her write. Creative writing is a tool I utilise in the Airing Cupboard to get my broken doctors to look at their problems objectively. The Airing Cupboard is the church hall in which my kintsugi gather around me on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to air their angst. Display their damage. To glue their broken shards together with gold. A reminder that they once hurled themselves against something hard and broke apart. Whatever metaphor works for them. It’s about healing.
Dr Georgian, whose young brain is so big it seems to enlarge her head, has been experiencing a condition she claims is nymphomania, though that’s a non-clinical term best avoided. The closest clinical term which could describe Dr Georgian’s decision to have sex with a patient in the physiotherapy spa pool is hypersexuality. Or just call it plain-old depression – not that it’s easy to get a doctor of 25,000 hours experience to admit she has depression, nor any other flaws.
Dr Georgian keeps stopping, putting her tablet down and looking at me to see if I’m satisfied yet. I can tell she’s staring at my black eye, thinking I’m the one who’s fucked up. The truth is we’re all fucked up. Every doctor in the room finds it hard to admit why they’re here. The head of the Review Board has ordered every one of my patients to complete therapy sessions in St Luke The Evangelist Community Hall. The alternative? Never work in medicine again.
‘Doctor, I gotta head off in a couple minutes,’ Dr Anson complains, rearranging his shaky, shivering limbs, sitting up and flexing his cramped back. A person gets shakes and cramps when their body chemistry decides it can’t exist without the 17 carbon atoms, 19 hydrogens, three oxygens and single nitrogen cherry on top which, when artfully arranged, make up the hydromorphone we know as Dilaudid. I can barely grow a beard and I haven’t lived long enough to get a driver licence, but I know opioids. I know what Dr Anson is going through.
‘Tell us why you got a black eye,’ he says. The group nods along with him. ‘You weren’t always a therapist, were you, doc. We shared. Now you share. How come you get beaten up all the time?’
‘If you leave early, Dr Anson, that’s two hours you’ve completed with me, not three. That’s on you. Guys, you have to do your 99 hours same as me.’
‘Hundred-and ninety nine for you, doc. So we heard.’
I hold my hand up to say, Be patient. I roam the circle of broken doctors as if we’re playing Duck Duck Goose. ‘For years, you brought the dead back to life. The highest training for the highest salary for the highest stakes. You learned you were infallible. Learned you had to bury feelings of inadequacy. You became more skilled than 99.9 per cent of people in the world. But, because you skipped the part of your development where you became at peace with your human flaws, you fuck up. Deep down you WANT to get deregistered by the Board. You hate triple shifts. You mess up and they chastise and berate and discipline you, but they don’t sack you because they don’t want you to quit the hospital, because then they would lose power over you. So the Board of Reviewers sends you here, because you’re a sensitive person trapped in an insensitive profession. And you don’t know a way out.’
Their bulging eyeballs tell me they’re not used to being confronted like this, like Mya’s eyes, when she saw I was going to heaven without her. But my broken doctors are too sensitive. Too sensitive is why tightly-wound Dr Georgian fellated an elderly heart surgeon at his retirement function. Too sensitive is why hospital reporter Dr Choi started tweeting the salaries of 103 executives before security tackled him off his office chair. Too sensitive is why Dr Chimamanda sewed her cellphone inside a patient because she was sleepwalking during the day because she had been up all night on a treadmill because the staff marathon team convinced her that a single ounce of body fat was unacceptable. Dr Anderson hoarded breast augmentation photos, Dr Moananui burgled an ambulance, Dr Barrows tasted the blood of an eight year old boy because it was Rh-null, rarest in the world, sacred, precious. Dr Cruz hoards stainless steel tools. Dr Rood steals Salisbury steaks from patients’ meals.
I look at the old cuckoo clock on the oak-panelled wall of St Luke’s. We have two more broken doctors to read their simple stories before we can conclude our session. If supervisor Dr Selby Chan finds out my broken docs haven’t done exactly 99 hours of therapy within three months, they’ll be asked to redo their hours from scratch. I’ll have to re-do my own hours, too.
As they plead with their eyes to find out whether the session is really over, whether they have really advanced another three percent towards returning to the wards, I come close to blurting to them how I broke, how I became kintsugi. I know they gossip about me.
‘Final thought for the day,’ I say, changing the subject, ‘We all feel we deserve to be hurt. But do we actually deserve that? Write me a 20 line acrostic poem in your books, please. Discuss Thursday. Be good to yourselves this week. You can go.’
I shelter in a corner of the hall and check my phone. Dr Chan has left a voicemail in the courteous, cold voice he uses to tell high achievers they are unsatisfactory to him. He says the Review Board are ready to see me. To see if me and my patients are cracked or kintsugi. My broken docs – people with student loans close on $200,000, most of them – they’re offering to clean my house and wax my car so long as I can get them Category 1 Restricted Permission To Conduct Medical Duties on Hospital Grounds. Well – 50 percent of them, that is. Dr Chan is looking to accept the immediate return of 50 per cent of broken doctors to practising, so long as the savings they bring the board outweigh the cost of lawsuits. The Board will read out their list of cracked clinicians; I’ll counter with the doctors I think are ready to return. I’ll tell Dr Chan, as he strokes his grey wizard-beard at the head of the table, that Dr Clair Georgian’s clinical depression is attributable to a hormonal malfunction from a damaged pituitary gland haemorraging oestrogen and cortisol. Then I’ll book Dr Georgian an urgent brain scan.
When I finish checking my voicemails and fantasising about the fight ahead, my broken docs are still in their chairs. Their arms are all folded.
‘That busted eye: it’s turning green,’ Dr Abdil smirks. ‘I’d say the haematoma occurred 72 hours ago. And you’re limping, too. There’s 10 minutes on the clock, doc. How come you’re so hurt? You have to tell us.’
I walk on thick, resistant legs to the end of the warehouse walled with wooden bins full of fruit. We’re so deep in the warehouse it’s impossible to see from the street what’s going on. I fist-bump a guy from South Sudan with skin so black it seems to glow blue. I’ve heard he grew up in fighting rings, breaking other kids’ faces when he was five. After he got his refugee stuff approved he was actually a medical student here but couldn’t get his student visa extended so now he fights to make a living. He’s tossed away his passport. He doesn’t even resemble his photograph anymore ’cause the bones of his face have been dented like eggshell.
Mya first brought me here to score. She got a thrill out of this place. Mya always wanted to be smashed to pieces. She felt guilty for being statuesque with blonde hair and blue sparkling eyes and a ballet dancer’s body and terrific parents and a hard-to-achieve degree that put her on top of a lonely mountain of expectation.
I’m told there’s a space for me in the cage in 30 minutes. Til then I can warm up and watch fights and whoop and roar and throw fruit at the cage. The three skirmishes I watch are over in four minutes. That’s how hard people hit each other here. Two dreadlocked women, skinny, with strange wobbling breasts, claw at each other. One has been practising Muay Thai, evidently, and cripples the other with a knee to the jaw before putting an armbar on her opponent til she stops twitching. The referee looks out from the cage, searching the audience for a medic til his eyes meet mine, but I shake my head. I can’t help her. I’m not allowed to be a doctor here.
Two gang members, one a man-barrel with a stomach which wobbles like an ocean, the other almost seven feet tall and reeking of cigarettes so bad I can smell him from outside the cage, grapple til they collapse, sleepy and slippery. The tall one vomits blood. A janitor trudges in with a mop and bucket.
Then Epic and Mega, the big bald twins who run the show, find me in the audience. Epic taps my shoulder with a finger hard as wood.
‘Just checking in on you, pal.’
‘I’m going up tonight, definitely.’
‘You positive you wanna do this again? Aren’t you a little… vulnerable?’
‘I was comfy for too long. I need the hurt.’
The man who waddles into the ring from the opposite side of the cage is an obese ball with pale patches across his tits. Those are blooms of a fungus known as Pityriasis vercisolor, I want to tell him. His body’s constant sweatiness provides fertile ground for that stuff to bloom on the epidermis. I want to put him on Fungasil. I want to get my prescription pad back. You’ll have to keep your body as dry as possible while you’re applying it twice a day over 28 days, my friend, just dab it on like so, best after you’re freshly showered, and I’d like to recommend a dietician to–
An asteroid slams into my brain. Everything is moving in slow motion. His fist has gone around the side of my daydreaming head and smashed my ear. I’m drunk, exhausted, nauseous. I want to cry and collapse. Tinnitus. I’ll never hear again. He crosses the ring, slaps his wobbling arms around me.
I get a glimpse of Sudan in the crowd with his little fingers in his lips, whistling. Throw in everything, he’s saying. Wriggle, squeal, scratch, bite. Come out of this, Doc. I don’t have kids or a cat to go home to and my parents are dead. All I’ve got is my airing cupboard, my clients, so I growl back into the fight, headbutt the fat man and both our noses explode because I have to be punished because when you put somebody in an anaesthetic coma, they lie on the edge between here and gone and I took Mya to the edge, because she told me she wanted to see the view, right on the razorblade, and then she was gone and for that I deserve to hurt.
After four years of lectures and exams and parties and trying to hold on to being like all the other 22 year olds, me and my class split up across the country to do our residencies in real hospitals. Shit got real. No more sneaking away from our tutors to go and smoke. No more acting like we didn’t have to look after ourselves. I got assigned to Middlemore. The place was a factory. 1000 beds. 30 theatres. Three sites. 5000 staff. Half a million patients a year. Then there was me, the one bee in the hive regretting I didn’t get out earlier.
Me and some of the other kids moved into this red brick dormitory in Otahuhu with fancy arches and stained glass. We were close to a Samoan butchery, a Rarotongan bottle shop, an Afghani bakery. We helped out on the wards. We sat in on consultations. Old ladies stopped us on the street for praise, as if we were real legitimate docs. Me and my people limped into the tavern every morning at 10 for karaoke and to suck shots from 100ml syringes. Old gambling addicts bought us beers and praised us.
I’d smashed every exam at school and I played centre in the A-team for the inter-schools soccer and still found time to get Merit or Excellence on all my exams AND keep friends AND learn about sex with a group of safe, clean kids. My first week in Med Dorm, I found out my popularity wasn’t just a high school phenomenon. When people heard anaesthesia was my major, they knew I was lining myself up for an extreme climb with some of the highest standards. Keeping people on the live side of death. Challenging, sure, but I’d never settled for anything less.
We tried to get through a week at a time. We had a party to balance every exhausting assessment. In the Halls we all had to prove ourselves by doing an IV stand while the boys on scholarships from Tehran and Tokelau whooped it up, everyone wearing scrubs and disposable smocks. The girls went as hard as the boys. The IV stand was like a keg stand, except there was an intravenous delivery with bags of ten dollar wine hanging off it. Dr Jodhi – Dadu – did a tour of the dorms early in the night to check we were still alive, but instead of scolding us he just dropped a bunch of cricket jokes and made conversation about Shane Warne vs Brian Lara and kissed the girls’ cheeks and called them Betee. It meant daughter, Johnny Krishnan told me. That’s what we were to Dr Jodhi: we were his beloved kids. He would tsk and chide, but he would forgive us for the occasional blowout. Dadu Jodhi trusted us.
This real tall girl, Mya, was strong enough to hold my legs vertical all by herself while I went to work sucking on my wine stand. I could hardly concentrate. I stared up her tree trunk legs, her muscular chest. I puked before she could tip me the right way up and the fizzy-bubbly-wine-sick went into my nose and they had to let me down so my airway wasn’t blocked, and as I writhed in a lake of bile the acronym for the procedure for a blocked airway flashed behind my eyes like a billboard. Puked-up chunks of pineapple pizza stuck to my dick, hanging out from my meagre gown. Mya stood over me guzzling Jägermeister and laughing at my corpse, but the boys’ slaps and pats and noogies told me I was in. I’d passed the Pissup Test. They hauled me up, applauded. I crowdsurfed. We raced each other to be the first to name the 12 stages in a ventilator inspection checklist while necking 12 shots of rum. An hour later I was asleep in the bathroom on a pile of mouldy laundry. I was wasted, but not wasted enough to override the switch in my brain that told me to wake at dawn and annihilate everyone who thought they were smarter than me. Especially Mya, with her “Ernp, fail” comments after every time I got the incus and malleus earbones mixed up. When the dawn alarm dinged on my phone I stood, washed my dick in the basin with hand soap, reconstructed what had happened last night. Mya, on the floor behind me, looked like a dropped marionette. I kneeled over her, studied the movement of her slumbering lips. Her oesophageal tract was cramped. I adjusted her head, brushed a sticky curl away from her brow. I hovered my lips over hers. I nearly kissed her while she slept. She was in paradise, though. Wherever she was, she would be happy. No triathlons. No supervisors. No swotting over blood types and allergens and lipid-oxygen bonding precipitors. No senior doctors in her dreams yelling her hard enough to shake her hair. No guilt, no shame, no hunger. Just unconscious bliss.
Instead of kissing those lips I draped a towel over her, stepped into fresh beach shorts and jandals and a Hawaiian shirt I found on the floor of some dude snoring in a bedroom with three naked med students piled around him.
I walked to my Grand Round picking bits of bacon out of my ears. Dr Harkanwal Jodhi, Godfather of Anaesthesiology, was in the front of the meeting room, illuminated by the projector, asking everybody if they could explain the TCSC of having an airway blocked.
TCSC… Total Combined Status… Circuit? No, Consequences. Everything in anaesthesia is consequences.
I stuck my hand up. Every kid stared at me as I answered.
‘When the oesophagus is blocked, like, even just 10 per cent is gonna stop you being able to aspirate your carbon dioxide,’ I ventured. ‘So, like, that C-O-Two’s gonna line your bronchioles like cholesterol or something. CO-Two makes the muscle in your airway all thick and saggy til it almost closes. Big time risk of stroke. Real bad if you’re obese, ummm – you said we’re supposed to flag it as a Code Orange compound complication in pre-op?’
‘Meester Delight!’ Dr Godfather clapped and grinned so wide I saw a flash of gold. ‘C-O-Two, every child! Two particles of oxygen and one of carbon. Dear friend of the oxygen we need in the air we breathe. Tell me something, child. Tell me something really important. Tell me how many one day international test caps M S Dhoni is having, child.’
I picked a shard of vomit from the yellow stubble on my lip. ‘Uh…. 156?’
‘Nerd.’ Somebody threw a drink bottle against my head.
‘INSUFFICIENT!’ Dr Jodhi slapped his desk. He grinned wickedly. ‘156 milligrams of sodium pentathol: patient stable. Two more milligrams, we are taking the patient to 158, Meester: is this patient stable?’
‘Patient critical,’ I mumbled, and hung my head.
Mya limped in towards the end, just when Dr Jodhi was talking about the different ways rhesus-negative blood absorbs opioids compared to Rh-positive blood. She’d showered and put on a miniskirt and heels and even wore her stethoscope. As she sat in front of me with broad sporty shoulders, a waft of fruity shampoo went up. Mya was blocking out the presentation. Blocking the adulation from our godfather.
‘Down in front,’ I whispered.
She half-turned her head and sneered.
She winked out of the corner of her eye and said in a low voice, ‘Get to the top of Mt Aspiring before me, I’ll fuck you.’
That’s the first 3000 words.
Buy the book and read the gripping conclusion – drop Mike an order. $25 for a printed copy.
Find TRUE? on Amazon.com or use my contact form – you’ll get a book that’s more nicely printed than on Amazon.com print on demand and it’ll arrive in your postbox more quickly and more cheaply. https://nzshortstories.com/contact/