by Michael Botur
Dr Georgian, who has huge Disney eyes and flaky bitten lips and a brain 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 Georgia’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 is reciting from her tablet the short story I made her write in the second person voice. 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 shit. To release. To glue their broken shards together with gold. A reminder that they once hurled themselves against something hard and broke apart.
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, airing out their guilt. The head of the Review Board has ordered every one of my patients to complete therapy sessions in the St Luke The Evangelist Community Hall. The alternative? Never work in medicine again.
‘Doctor, I gotta head off in a couple mins,’ 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 better known 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.’
‘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 you missed out on spiritual satisfaction. So you fuck up because deep down you WANT to get expelled from a life of triple shifts you hate. You fuck 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, when she saw I was going to heaven without her). But they are too sensitive. Too sensitive is why tightly-wound Dr Georgian fellated a 69 year old heart surgeon at his retirement function. Too sensitive is why hospital reporter Dr Choi started tweeting the salaries of 143 hospital board 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 Moana beat up a paramedic who tried to stop her gassing herself in an ambulance. Dr Patchouli 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 medical equipment made by the finest artisans of Vienna. Dr Rood has been stealing the Salisbury steak 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 300 words before we can conclude our session for the day. If supervisor Dr 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. And it’ll make it longer before they let me back in the hospital.
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 while they stand in front of the coffee machine. I know they want to think their therapist is more fucked-up than they are. I know they have half the story and want the whole. I want them to know I kissed Sleeping Beauty while she slumbered.
‘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 twenty line acrostic poem in your books, please. Discuss Thursday. Be good to yourselves this week. You can go.’
I trudge to the corner, pull my phone from the white lab coat which keeps me from being a nobody, check my voicemails. Dr Chan has left a message in the courteous, cold voice he uses to tell super high achievers they are unsatisfactory to him. He says the Review Board are ready to see me. To see if I can be glued together with gold.
When I turn back, no one has moved. Their arms are all folded. They’re unimpressed and hungry.
‘That eye: it’s changing colour,’ Dr Abdil smirks. ‘And you’re limping, too. 10 minutes on the clock, doctor. How come you’re so hurt? You have to tell us.’
I walk on thick, resistant legs to the end of the fruit packing warehouse walled with mountains of empty wooden bins. 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 his nose has been so flattened he’s unrecognisable. One cheekbone sticks out normal; the other is crushed deep into his face like a dropped eggshell.
Mya first brought me here to score. She got a thrill out of this place. I realise now that 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. She used to cut her thighs as a kid when she’d get an A-minus. When she got older she started destroying herself in individual pieces– smashing her knees climbing rock faces, smashing her bank account supporting Javanese orphans, running til her flesh melted to burn off the calories from anything she ate. Mya’s parents never let her melt into the background. She never got to know what average was.
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 karate kicks, 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, lasering through the audience til his eyes meet mine, for a moment, but I shake my head. I can’t help her. I’m not allowed to be a doctor here. Not til I’ve repaid what I owe.
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. An 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, I’m going,’ you tell them.
‘You positive you wanna do this again?’
‘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 a hugely obese guy 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, sir, just dab it on like so, best after you’re freshly showered, and I’d like to recommend a dietician to –
Asteroids slam 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 suddenly drunk, exhausted. I want to cry and collapse. Tinnitus. I’ll never hear again. He crosses the ring, snaps 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 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 up on the edge, all the way, millimetres away, then right on the razorblade, and then she was gone and for that I deserve to hurt.
Head of the Medical Staff Review Board Dr Selby Chan sports a greying beard which adds to the chilly wise wizard vibe he gives off. Everything about today is cold. My chair is stainless steel and plastic. The hospital’s old-fashioned iron radiators bolted to the walls are so ineffective, I’m trying not to shiver. Shivering is a micro-indicator, one of those subtle ways the human body reveals to its enemies that it is vulnerable. Putting my forearms in exactly the right place on the round table, to appear confident, is important to securing victory for my clients. I’m just a trainee counsellor, I’m not any kind of defence lawyer, I just like to achieve higher percentages of success for my people. The way the docs thank me when they graduate from the airing cupboard is heart-warming. These are people with student loans close on $200,000, most of them, and 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. Then he’ll accept the return-in-a-month of another 40 per cent, if they’ve done their 99 hours of counselling. The other 10 per cent will be permanently written off. Those will be the ones my reports say are incurable. The harm they do costs too much. The board subsidises the universities half a mil to train each doctor across five years. The Hospital Board has to get the maximum staff expertise for minimal money. Broken doctors can be bought far cheaper than fresh ones, they’re easy to sack without facing Employment Tribunal reprisals, and even a broken doc is deeply experienced.
They’re dangerous, too – well, ten percent of them are thought to be.
I was deemed dangerous. That’s why I’ve had twice as much time away from the wards as all the other docs.
The sucker-mouthed prudes around the board table are waiting for Dr Chan to finish responding to a TXT message in-joke from the Minister of Health which is making him chuckle and snort with amusement. The circular table we’re gathered around tries to suggest there is less hierarchy, less formality. Even so, Dr Chan is opposite me. Opposed to me.
While his eyes are facing away, I reach across, pull an annual report towards me and under it slide away his letter opener.
‘That’s just Helen messaging me, horsing around,’ Dr Chan says at last, dropping the minister’s Christian name. ‘Anyhow: let’s commence.’
The Board read out their list of cracked clinicians they want back in service, and I counter with the doctors I think are ready to return. Dr Chan, demonstrating his power by taking the longest time to read every page of my report on his iPad, speaks last.
‘To most of the others you’re requesting, I have no objection,’ the wizard says, stroking his beard. ‘Dr Clair Georgian, however: nn-nn.’ He wobbles his head.
‘You’re punishing her not because she was the worst. You’re punishing her because she was the best. She could do incredible things for our gerontology numbers.’
Dr Chan just smirks. He looks at the rest of the board. They begin smirking too.
‘Guys, please: Clair Georgian has clinical depression combined with Gipertmichenski symptoms,’ I’m almost yelling. ‘And it’s not something she can control. What’s happened to Dr Georgian is a hormonal malfunction easily traceable to her pituitary gland. I’ll put a hundred bucks on it.’ I cite Boris and Bains’s study linking exposure to radiography with the development of hypothalamine cancers and all that comes with them – giant swollen lymphedematic limbs, blackened, granular thyroid gland, and of course pressure on the aspects of the pituitary gland which trigger the release of oestrogen and all the horny hormones that come with it.
‘Hypothalamine, I see,’ Dr Chan sniggers, ‘I take it you’re referring to the pituitary gland, rather.’
‘YES! Yes the pituitary. That’s what I meant.’
The board deputy drums her fingers on the tabletop.
Dr Chan locks his iPad, places it so it’s perfectly perpendicular to the edge of the table, strokes his beard, yawns so I know I’m boring him.
‘Dr Georgian is cleared to return to practice, you can write off her remaining hours,’ Dr Chan concludes, standing and checking the messages on his phone, trying to indicate that I’ve taken too long to come around to HIS side instead of the other way around. ‘Anderson, Patchouli, Yule, Hindi, Moore, Pease, Tongaonevai, Daughtry and Deans are cleared to return, with supervision; Chimamanda, Goldberg and Birbiglia are declined. The others we’ll discuss on the 29th. Yourself included.’ He nods to the minute-taker. ‘Meeting concludes.’
Nobody shakes hands. We pretend to check our phones or we take the fire escape or use the drinking fountain so we don’t get awkwardly stuck in the elevator together.
As soon as I’m in the black abyss at the bottom of the parking garage, as soon as the doors of my car are locked and I have black aviator sunglasses protecting my eyes, I pull out Dr Selby’s letter opener, bite on it, take off my left shoe and sock and put the blade of the letter opener between my toes and push til I gasp. It’s a prick so sharp and satisfying I feel joy move from my feet up to my testicles an into my cock.
God, I loved shooting up.
God, I loved her.
After four years of lectures and exams and parties and trying to hold on to being like all the other 22 year olds in the world, me and my whole class split up across the country to do our residencies in real hospitals. Fifth year, 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 Hospital. 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 crumbling old red brick hall of residence in Otahuhu with fancy arches and stained glass. It had ivy creeping all over it like green tentacles. We were close to a Samoan bakery, Rarotongan bottle shop and Afghani bakery. An old lady stopped me in the street and squeezed my palms and told me how I’d saved her granddaughter’s life, well, me or some young doctor lookalike, anyway. Tall, slim. Tight skin. Glasses. Clean jaw. Gangstas tilted their chins up at me in the alleyway and said ‘What up, doc?’ Me and all the other docs limped into the tavern every morning at 10 for shots and karaoke and men with big mitts patted on the back and bought us beers.
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. People didn’t think majoring in anaesthesia was lame, they knew by saying that was my major that I was lining myself up for an extreme climb with some of the highest standards. Keeping people on the live side of death: it would be a mish. But I’d achieved everything in life so far. The boys in my class patted my shoulder and said, ‘Good on ya, takin one for the team’ when I told them anaesthesia sounded way more fascinating than general surgery. We tried get through a week at a time, though, and not concentrate too much on the pressure cooker we were gonna ease ourselves into. In the Halls we all had to prove ourselves by doing an IV stand while the boys on scholarships from India and Japan and Switzerland whooped it up. The girls went as hard on their IV stands as we did. They wanted to be every bit as respected as us. The IV stand was like a keg stand, except there was an intravenous delivery with three litre bags of ten dollar wine hanging off it. Dr Jodhi did a tour of the dorms early in the night to see what all the noise was about and check we were still alive, but instead of scolding us he just dropped a bunch of jokes and examined a couple of the kids’ cricket bats and talked about Shane Warne vs Richard Hadlee and kissed the girls’ cheeks and called them Betee. It meant daughter, Johnny Krishnan told me. That’s what were were to Dr Jodhi: we were his beloved kids. He would tsk and chide, but he would forgive us for going mental. Dr Jodhi was our kind granddad. He trusted us.
This real tall girl, Mya, with hard, pointy breasts and tree trunk legs and a real tight stomach was strong enough to hold my legs vertical all by herself while I went to work sucking on a litre of wine. I puked before she could tip me the right way up and the wine-bile mix went into my nose and they had to let me down so my airway wasn’t blocked, and I writhed in a lake of purple vomit while weird stats and acronyms about the procedure for a blocked airway flashed behind my eyes like billboards. My naked butt peeking out of the hospital scrubs I was dressed in and vomit and chunks of pineapple from our cheap Domino’s pizza stuck to my dick. Mya stood over me guzzling Absinth and laughing at me, 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 20 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 with my head in the lap of that lanky bully Mya girl, who seemed to be pretty much a female version of me, determined to be on top. 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 went off 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, then, 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, the 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. Everybody stared at me as I answered. It was childish. That was how we coped with the responsibility put on us. We became kids again, trying too hard to not fuck up.
‘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. Real bad if you’re obese, um – 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 someching, child. Tell me someching really important. Tell me how many one day international test caps M S Dhoni has, 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 her stethoscope. As she sat in front of me, blocking me with shoulders broad as butterfly wings, 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.’
I’d never found anyone as competitive as me til I met Mya. We were obsessed with one-upping each other. A dancer since the age of four, Mya was two inches taller than me, even without high heels, which she put on at least once a week when she dragged me to another social where old people would eat us with their eyes. We’d drive up to her dad’s yacht club suck oysters out of the shell and swish massive glasses of chardonnay. Then the next night she’d have boxfit with a couple of the girls from our rheumatology group and go clubbing afterwards and I’d limp after her, drunk on exhaustion, and watch in a corner with folded arms while she zig-zagged on stage, her huge hips bumping against her friends. There were only 168 hours in each week but she seemed to fit in 50 hours of tramping, 50 hours volunteer hearing and vision checks on poor kids in the ghetto, 50 hours partying and fine dining, not to mention 50 hours networking with the silverbacks so she would have her first hospital career lined up after she graduated. Lined up before me. That’s what it was all about with Mya. She liked me cause I was a threat she could stay ahead of.
First time we kissed was with blue, hard lips on the summit of Mt Aspiring, shivering and trying to hear each other over screeching wind that sucked the flapping jackets off our skin. We had sex in a longdrop toilet buzzing with flies as soon as we got back to the hut where we’d left all the other med students who couldn’t keep up. Every other time we made love after that, there were three of us present: Mya, me, plus an enhancer, some tingly lubricant or a bottle of Schnapps or a pill or a canister of nitrous oxide she’d smuggled in her pussy.
Our tenth lovemaking session, Mya pulled out a bag of weed and a pipe. We knew we could both hold out for longer when we were stoned. That was part of the race. The time after that, Mya slipped a bright, shiny 80 milligram circle of OxyContin between my lips and I couldn’t stop falling through the clouds. She used her strong arms to hold me inside her while turbulence tried to flap my body away. I was skydiving towards the landscape of her body and my ears hummed and when I slammed into the ground, I came so hard it felt like my heart was being sucked down into my stomach and shot right through her.
I panted for ten minutes afterwards. By 12 minutes, I got Mya to use her HeartCheck monitor to confirm my BPM was coming down. The Oxy made us move slowly and forget everything as soon as it happened. Mya found her HeartCheck amongst drawers and drawers full of stuff she’d swiped from the wards, stuff she didn’t even need, like speculums and scalpels and marrow scrapers.
‘Babe,’ I gasped, clutching the white sheet against my heaving chest, ‘Oh my God. That’s gotta be the best shit on the planet.’
‘ERNP. That’s a fail.’ She slowed her breathing so she wouldn’t seem as exasperated as me. ‘Carfentanil is the best on the planet.’
‘You have GOT to get some.’
‘I wish. Only Dr Jodhi’s got access. It’s literally locked way in the safe. Ten mils will get you high. 50 milligrams’ll kill you.’
Before I knew it, she’d pushed a pill inside me again – a different one this time, though, a little grey square, like a Lego piece.
Mya put her hands on her ankles and pulled them up around her ears. Her vulva looked like a ripening orchid. Her thighs were huge pale petals. Clitoral hood at the top, dude. Lock it down. File it away. Clitoral hood, clitoris, labia minora, urethral opening, vaginal opening, perineum…
‘That one was Dilaudid, by the way, it’ll get you tooooooasted,’ she sang, laughing, knocking a bottle of champagne off the sidetable. She grabbed a hunk of my hair and mashed my face into her orchid. ‘Hurry up, already. I’m way ahead of you.’
I was a tonne of bad things – drunk on exhaustion, addicted to coffee and cycling and punishing myself staying up til 2am memorising chemical compounds and their antidotes – but I had to let everyone know I wasn’t a nark. Well, I was, and I wasn’t. I was on top of everything. I could dob Mya in to Dr Selby Chan’s Board of Review in a heartbeat; or, I could party just as hard as Mya. Either way, I showed the world only what I wanted them to see. I would drink six jugs at a Grassroots Rural Doctors Club garden party and still wobble home on my bike alive. I would hold my liquor deep inside me, metabolise it, beat the intoxicant, piss it out, glug another triple shot espresso, bike another 20 miles. I passed breath tests. I put blankets on people at 8am when trainee interns were sleeping shirtless and shivering on the balcony of the clubhouse. Making other people comfortable, tucking them in – it was all part of being superior. I watched over them while they slept. Nothing was better than outlasting Mya, especially when she’d had a screaming match over the phone when her mum wouldn’t release any more money from Mya’s trust fund and Mya would try to drink herself into a coma just to stick it to her mum. With no idea what to do outside the wards, bored in our apartment, we would race to see who could pour a bottle of tequila into 25 shotglasses and down it all. If you spilled a drop, you had to lick it up. I loved it when Mya blew chunks all over the glasses and staggered around on her hands and knees then collapsed. I would get a cloth and wipe her face then put a hard drink bottle behind the seven cervical vertebrae of her neck and whisper in her ear, ‘I beat you.’ She’d try to kill herself and I’d one-up her by keeping her alive. I kissed her while she slept.
From the moment I locked my bike til the moment I left the hospital, my days were about waiting for disaster to strike then feeling a sting of excitement or disappointment as another day went disaster-free. I was amazing at my job and there would be a career waiting for me as soon as I graduated and everyone knew it. The little squeaky anaesthetic technicians, with their pathetic three-year degrees, always joked about us Sleep Doctors being like air traffic controllers. Depress the plunger of the syringe; plane takes off. Watch the monitor for hours, putting my nose to the lips of the patient. Plane lands. ‘Time to wake up, sleepyhead.’ Applause, occasionally, if Dr Jodhi read the printout and saw zero spikes in the patient’s heartrate.
Best part of the job, though: a free snifter of something special, and on the job, too. See, along with the other gases we get rid of when we exhale, almost all the anaesthetic passing through a person’s blood gets the good compounds separated out by the lungs and aspirated through a patient’s cool lips. If I leaned in real close over a patient’s nose I could toke on a sneaky snifter of relaxation when the surgeons weren’t looking. It was just between me and the patient. Our little secret.
If Dr Jodhi wasn’t trailing behind me, demanding reports on cricket or cardio, I would lock myself in the dispensary so I could sign out drugs without being interrupted. Patients’ half-used drug bottles on my trolley supposedly headed for the incinerator; personal bottles up my ass. Mya and I would bump into each other in the corridors and we’d both be walking funny, wide and uncomfortable like John Wayne. ‘Howdy, pardner’ we’d wink at each other, and smile and kiss if we had enough gear to give us a good day off.
Didn’t matter if I was sitting in on surgery, doing pre-op checks or post-op, filling out timesheets or just sitting through Grand Rounds: As little as half a tab of ParaCodeine would melt the anxiety away. Just hearing the names of the drugs on the patient’s notes made me relax. They sounded like beautiful, precious fluids. Dilaudid made me think of eyelids snapping open, irises dribbling colour from 100 Crayolas left in the rain. Isoflurane sounded so laboratory-pure that whatever it did to my body, I wouldn’t be responsible for. The hard, industrial dare of desflurane. The stay-away-I’m-powerful of sevoflurane. Demerol made me imagine crisp, clean, white things. Vecuronium sounded like a Roman noble. Respiridol, a breath of fresh air. Fentanyl sounded like a fountain of guilt-free bliss. Mya and me were only in the apartment at the same time a couple of days a week but she would always leave my meds taped to the bathroom mirror if she scored first.
I thought about fucking other girls but there wasn’t anyone who spiced up the sex like Mya, not to mention that I knew any other girl in the world would judge me for the way I chose to relax.
If me and Mya caught up for a box of noodles before the movies, we would run codes as we cycled over to the cinema.
‘What’s code purple, hotshot?’
‘Failure to respond. Aspirate.’
‘What’s code square, then?’
‘Allergic reaction to Augmentin.’
‘Who was the first batsman to score a double century in an ODI?’
‘SACHIN TENDULKAR, BITCH.’
‘You sound just like Dr Godfather, lol.’
It was a rainy Saturday and everybody on the planet was watching the World Cup when Dr Jodhi presented me with a lab coat with my name embroidered on the breast pocket. I had so much morphine in my blood I couldn’t keep my eyes open wide enough to make eye contact. I slumped against him, lay my head on his shoulder, thanked him.
‘You are sleepy, meester, no?’
‘Sorry, Dr Jodhi. Just trying to keep up with you.’
He patted my shoulder. ‘You need to rest for the First Eleven this Saturday, no? We take Canterbury District Health Board and we FUCK THEM!’ We hugged and laughed. ‘Be good to yourself, my boy. Unwind.’
Last night Mya had unscrewed the hot lightbulb of the bedside lamp with the delicate methodical fingers of someone who could steer an endoscope without hitting the sides of the oesophagus. She’d put a red lightbulb in the lamp, shot me up with 20 milligrams of Propofol and pulled me into some red, sweaty swamp I didn’t come out of for days.
‘I am unwinding, Doc. I promise.’
I ran the shower and used my ten private minutes to push a tiny 16 gauge needle between my hallux toe and index toe, singing ‘Distal, proximal, we won’t forget ‘em all.’ My medicine cooled my boiling bones and my body thanked me straight away. It told me I had needed this all my life. I’d never even had alcoholism in my family tree but as I watched the shower water bead on my skin, as I drank it and gargled it and tried to snatch steam-fairies from the air, giggling like kindergarten, there was a voice crawling around the back of my skull whispering, ‘This has always been in you.’
Dilaudid is more powerful than any gas, and Propofol is more powerful still, but only Fentanyl will get you into heaven.
The shower steam danced with the helices of my DNA and popped and fizzed and slithered into my toes and wriggled into my balls and pushed on my prostate gland and I fell backwards into the bath and delighted in the pink food colouring swirling into the water pooling in my belly button.
I staggered back into the sober world when I heard the crack of a whip and I sat upright and the strobe light slowed then switched off and the 200 frames per second I’d been watching slowed and I decided the folded-armed woman in front of me wearing a scowl and trembling lips was Mya. There were flames shooting out of my cheekbone where she’d slapped me, but I was somehow dry, as if she’d slapped the shower off me, and I was in a white ward, a hospital, God damn it, and there was cotton bandage around my skull and she was mad and upset cause I’d cracked my skull and lain in the bathtub til the hot water ran freezing and I’d turned purple, but what really pissed her off was I’d done drugs withOUT her, and she had a shift beginning in ten minutes, and she was going to have to go to work COLD FUCKING SOBER.
Mya, dressed immaculately in a $600 dress her mum had paid for, leaned close to my ear. Tight tucked-in sheets meant I couldn’t move my arms. Her lips brushed my ear as she pretended to kiss me. It would be the first kiss in weeks. We never made love any more, just injected each other’s spines and writhed on our damp bed, masturbating, then slept for days.
She squeezed my scalp. ‘I’m gonna pay you back for this, you little prick.’
Dr Jodhi entered, glowering, walking around like a grumpy mammal shaking his musk all over. Mya kissed and squeezed him extra-hard. Fucking tryhard.
‘What’s the process for discarding phials of Fentanyl once drawn, eh? Speak, boy. You are naming for me 12 risk factors when administering epidurals to an epileptic. Who the vice-captain of the Bangladeshi, hm? Who has thrown more overs – Yasir Shah or Kuldeep Yadav, heh?’
I stared at him hard. He shifted his gaze to Mya.
‘You, miss. You are taking care of Meester?’
‘Oh, we’ve spoken,’ she hissed through her fangs. ‘Next time he does something this stupid, he knows he could die.’
Patient Priyanka M. had trouble relaxing the lower half of her body to let her baby out. I elbowed the nurses aside and breathed on her vertebrae as I rubbed topical anaesthetic in a delicate rainbow pattern across her back, whispering susurrations. As I bent toward the floor to pull the wide-gauge needle from my kit, I licked the Lidocaine cream from my fingers, quietly shivering with ecstasy as the beautiful cocktail of sodium, nitrogen, barium and boron soaked through the palatoglossus into my lingual nerves, my trigeminal nerve, my hypoglossal nerve, the glossopharyngeal, from the lingual to the vagus, tickling my throat, both warming and cooling at once.
I stood. The sleepy grin I gave the team was drunken, cheeky, slutty. I licked my tingling lips, told the frightened-looking nurses to steady the patient and directed the gracefully curved tip of a Tuohy needle expertly into the curious meat hiding inside the patient’s lower thoracic nerve.
Patient Priyanka gasped and squeezed the sides of her cot. Quickly I pushed towards her corda equina, set up the rigging. I’d practised on Mya. We’d made love with tubes sticking out her back, crunching as we writhed and wriggled and shuddered. I just managed to push in the loss-of-resistance syringe and feed the milk of the poppy inside her dura mater before I let go of the rigging, dribbled some instructions to the nurses to plug the patient’s release button in so Patient Priyanka could squirt heaven inside herself, walked crisply out to the corridor, leaving the yabbering clamour behind me before I rounded the nearest corner, tugged on three, then four, finally five cupboard doors before I found one as inviting as a hotel, walls two metres apart, with a paint-spattered aluminium basin to sit on so I could tear off my sock, jam a needle between my big and little toe, tickle the medial calcaneal nerve with a little drink of bliss then plunge the needle’s depressor down so hard I blasted all the way up to my sciatic nerve. It felt so good that semen squirted suddenly into my boxer shorts and I chuckled twice then rolled hard onto a pile of buckets.
Mya got sacked after she fell asleep on a flight of stairs and tumbled down and cracked her femur and they gave her a blood test before she woke up and the nurses looked at her results and ran and got Dr Jodhi. When she woke, Dr Jodhi was scribbling on his prescription pad but he was angling it protectively away from her. He even shunted his chair back a foot from her bed. He wrote her a script for morphine and she looked at the pathetic quantity he was signing off and laughed. ‘Don’t you have anything stronger?’
Dr Jodhi later told me if she didn’t have a plaster, she would’ve lunged at him like a vampire. I agreed it was a shame, what had happened to her, Dr Jodhi. If I could just get my hands on the bastard that got her hooked…
I tried to hang out with the boys but everyone was dispersing to Britain or Canada or the South Island. I was losing my family. They were off being paramedics or rural doctors or lecturers. Some of them had even admitted being a doctor was too stressful. They’d gone and quit and now the worst drug they did was cheeseburgers.
At home Mya shot up and watched TV all day. She saw this thing on Discovery channel in which a tiger was sedated with 100 mils of Fentanyl. She took up the challenge. She dosed as much as a tiger, then as much as a dolphin, then as much as an Indian elephant.
‘Smash it,’ she said one day, just as I was about to go to work. ‘Crack it open.’ She pointed her scratching knife at me. ‘IMMEDIATELY.’
There was nothing around the house to crack through the plaster cast on Mya’s leg so I went out and bought a spade with a good sharp edge. I did a few practice whacks on the arm of the couch, then the coffee table.
‘I don’t think I should do this,’ I told her.
‘Then how the FUCK am I supposed to get to my femoral vein, genius?’
‘I… I think I need a hit, first.’
She nodded, and made a ‘hurry up’ swirling motion with her index finger. I injected myself then shot her up through the crappy saphenous vein on her foot. Then I was ready to take off her cast.
The first few whacks with the spade cracked the plaster. The last whack cut into her muscle. Mya cried and peed into her dressing gown and bled on the couch. She didn’t want a bandage, though. Mya begged for another squirt.
I dialled for an ambulance and they rushed her in while she muttered, ‘Carfen, carfent, cuff,’ sliding between alive and dead. Her re-broken femur, weak and cracked and sharp, had punctured her femoral artery and her leg was blue and fat with blood spewing into her interior.
Dr Jodhi babbled in Hindi. His eyes glinted, wet and shiny as he wailed and wept and chased the stretcher down the corridor. The only word I caught was Betee.
‘Fentanyl won’t do it, Godfather,’ I told him on the edge of the operating theatre. ‘It has to be the strong stuff.’
He looked at me with hurt. Dr Jodhi was our top physician, but he’d let his children cling to his legs. We were dragging him down.
‘Very well,’ he sighed, and withdrew his pad and signed the authorisation. I raced to the dispensary, got the carfentanil, and on the way back paused with the vial in my hand, licking my lips, just staring at the luxurious word on the label. 24 carbons, 30 hydrogens, a couple of nitrogen and oxygen atoms positioned on the compound just-so. Symmetrical and beautiful. I was right beside a giant, white, clean toilet for disabled people. I could go on holiday right now. Escape all this.
No. Resist, man. Patience.
They said there was less than ten minutes to get Mya’s leg opened up, fresh blood put into her and the severed lower section of the artery rerouted. There were 18 people in the room, half of them just healthcare assistants mopping up as Dr Jodhi clamped the upper half of the pulsing artery so tightly the blood had no choice but to spurt onto the ceiling.
Mya gasped and tried to sit up. People who hadn’t had time to even gown up held her down while she kicked their nice shirts.
‘ANAESTHETIC! 10 MILIGRAMS ONLY, BASTARD FUCK!’
‘I’m on it, I’m on it.’
I plugged her in, pushed the trolley to the corner, tubes everywhere, and stood there with my nose against the heartrate monitor watching Mya’s plane in the air, shuddering against turbulence. I depressed 10 milligrams of Carfentanil into her tubes and her vitals dropped, then lurched, then dropped again. Her face went from purple to white as she lost a full litre of blood, then one and a half litres.
Nobody paid attention to me. Everything was shouting and shoulders.
I broke away from my duties to bend over her lips and kiss her goodbye. I squeezed the depressor and pushed into her every last drop of the fountain of ecstasy she’d been waiting for. 20 mils. 30. Finally, 50. Clear and pure as vodka, Carfentanil slid into her bloodstream as her plane dropped silently out of the sky and her vitals plunged to nil while I sucked the loaded breath from her lips and the nurse began bellowing at me, ‘WHAT DID YOU DO?! WHAT DID YOU DO?!’
So. That’s me. That’s my story.
I’m not allowed back on the ward. Yet. I have to help you. All of you.
I have to prove to Dr Chan I can watch over my broken doctors while you’re awake.
And, if you trust me, I’ll be there while you sleep.