I stick my key in the lock of my door and jiggle it around until it catches and unlocks. I step into my crap apartment and it’s exactly how I left it, disorganized and smelling of stale air. It’s understandable. This isn’t really a home. All I do is sleep here. My life is lived at the hospital.
I don’t turn on the lights. I know where everything is and I have the absolute worst headache. I open the door to the fridge and squint through the light to grab a beer. The fridge is barren, other than a near-empty box of beers, a bottle of ketchup, and a lone box of ancient Chinese take out. I close the door and slump down in my easy chair. The top of the beer pops open with a satisfying crack, and I take a long sip. I almost didn’t opt for the beer, as it was six-thirty in the morning, but I had just gotten off a twelve-hour night shift. A hell of a twelve-hour night shift.
An infant less than a year old succumbed to a nasty strain of inhalation-born bronchitis not ten minutes after I clocked in. The damn mother wept for less than a minute before excusing herself to go outside and have a smoke. Despicable.
A little boy named Maxwell was riding his bike and got hit by a SUV. He passed minutes after getting to the hospital.
A little girl, who was thought to have made great strides in her battle lost suddenly. I figure I deserve something to make it all a little more bearable. In the dark, unwavering silence, I toast those three poor kids. Thank you for supplying me with a sufficient reason to drink.
I think about how in a mere couple of hours, I’ll have to leave my goddamn apartment and report for yet another goddamn shift at that goddamn hospital. I briefly consider calling in sick, but I’ve already used that excuse three times this month. And it’s only the 8th.
I fall asleep. However, It doesn’t feel like I’m sleeping; It feels like I’m just ignoring life. For a few hours I can just close my eyes and not think about paperwork, and times of death, and how many milligrams of whichever drug can go to whichever patient. For a couple of hours, I don’t hate everything. My chair is soft and the darkness of my apartment pulls me into a deep sleep. I don’t dream about anything; I rarely do. My mind is blank, just the way I like it.
Until, of course, my watch beeps me awake, reminding me of who I am. One hour until my shift. I rub my eyes in disbelief that it’s already time to go back. The beeping persists. I tear the watch off and throw it at the wall. It keeps beeping. I stand up and stomp it. I stomp it again and again. It continues to beep as any watch should. I throw it into the bathroom and I hear it splash into the toilet. It’s muffled, but the son of a bitch is waterproof.
I fell asleep in my work clothes, so I don’t bother changing anything but the tie. I mutter every curse word I can think of on my way down the stairs and into my car. I get to the driver’s side door and see I forgot my keys. It’s up the stairs again, and I’m wrestling the lock open with that key that barely works.
The key that’s on my keychain. Next to my car keys. They were in my hand the entire time.
I slam the door shut again; this time the entire knob comes off in my hand. The other half clatters to the floor inside my apartment. Perfect, now the stupid landlord will have to fix it. I throw the knob to the side and storm down to my car angrier and much later than before. In the distance I swear I can hear the toilet watch still beeping.
It’s rush hour; all the roads are clogged with people trying to go to work. My side of the road is completely empty. I’m a lone fish leaving the reef. People look at me like I’m crazy. I’m beginning to think they’re right.
After a few minutes of dreadful driving the signs appear for Glenbrook Children’s Hospital. The term ‘children’s hospital’ makes people think it’s cute. A bunch of little toddlers running around, rainbows and happy little animals painted on the walls. What they seem to forget is that all those kids are there for a reason. And the reason is never a good one.
Before I know it, I’m past the entrance of the hospital’s parking lot. I simply rolled right by. I think about turning around and find I have absolutely no urge to. I take the entrance ramp onto 84 West. For a moment, I reconsider my decision. What if those kids need me?
They don’t. They need someone who won’t kill them. I hate to admit it to myself. But I’m right.
The 84 West interstate is known for two things: more potholes than are imaginable, and more hitchhiking bums than any road in America. The highway is also fairly empty, but I see the occasional raggedy hobo with their thumb turned out, to see if I’ll stop for them. There are forests to my left and fields of wheat and corn to my right. Already I’m a long way from the city. Perfect. I roll my window down and take a deep breath. I can’t tell if that wonderful smell is freedom or neglected responsibilities. Is there even a difference?
There are signs every couple of miles warning people that hitchhikers can be dangerous. No, really? I wish they’d used the money for the signs to fix the damn potholes. It feels like I’m a smoothie and my Camaro’s the goddamn blender. Despite the jostling, I didn’t bother with my seatbelt. My entire line of work depends on injuries. Why not do my part in helping stimulate the industry? Because that’s all it is, right? A damned industry? We’re happy to help sick children so long as we can hand the parents a bill afterwards. It’s ridiculous. All I want to do is say “I’m a doctor, I’m here to help” and actually mean it. That’s all I want. The one thing. The glory of saving someone’s life. Working in the hospital is nothing like that. I feel I’m nothing but a prolonger. I prolong kidney failure. I prolong leukemia. I can’t do a thing to truly help anyone. I simply prolong death. Some say that doctors make the worst patients, but I disagree. I wouldn’t care enough to try to treat myself.
The sunrise burns a bright orange on the horizon. I can’t even see the city anymore in my rearview. I push the hospital out of my mind as I pass a lonely hitchhiker.
When I was a kid, the doctors on television had it all. The money, the women, the action. Now I have it all, but in a different respect. The student debt, no free time to support a love life, and the crushing responsibility of telling people their children aren’t going to live. I learned pretty quick that the more time you spent caring for other people’s lives, the less you gave a damn about your own. It’s sure not your average office job, where you can go home and leave work where it came from. I have to go home every day with the most horrible thoughts tearing through my mind.
“I’m sorry, sir, your three-year-old isn’t going to pull through.”
“I’m afraid she doesn’t have much time left.”
“If you would like to, now’s your chance to say your goodbyes.”
I pass two more hitchhikers.
Whether you’re telling someone that their child has cancer or ordering the janitor to mop up a pool of blood on the linoleum floor, it’s never glamorous. It’s not at all what I wanted. For every win there’s a dozen losses. I want to help people. I want to kneel next to them and assure them they’re going to be okay. I’m a doctor, I’m here to help. Those words just make me smile. They put everything into perspective. Not only have my years of excruciating studies been worth it for me, but I’m making some sort of difference in this world. I’m a doctor, I’m here to help. I’m a doctor, I’m here to help.
I need a save. I need to help someone and really know I’m making them better. That’s why I became a doctor. To save others. To save myself.
I saw yet another man walking down the highway with his thumb out. This one was old and slow, and I drove right past him. A quarter of a mile later I realize how much of a hypocrite I am. I say I want to help somebody and then I just drive right past an old man? What if he was sick? What if he was injured? What if I could’ve been the one to save him? I’m a doctor, I’m here to help. Well it’s too late to go back for him now, but this is Hitchhiker Alley. I’ll save the next one I come across. A pothole throws me. I realize I’m going 80 in a 60. I don’t bother slowing down. I need to find my next hitchhiker. I’m a doctor, I’m here to help . . .
After a few minutes I see another skyward thumb in the distance. I need to get to him. I need to save him. My foot lurches onto the gas.
85 miles per hour. I’m getting closer. My car starts to shake. I need to save him. I’m a doctor and he needs help. He has a green backpack on and is wearing big bulky headphones. He probably doesn’t even hear me.
90 miles an hour. I’m getting closer and closer. I’m practically on top of him when I slam on the brakes and swerve. My car bounces as it skids over the rumble strips.
He turns around just in time to see my Camaro hit him. I see his icy blue eyes widen as the car makes contact. His pelvis shatters on impact and he flies through the air. The bearded hitchhiker lands mangled and bloody on the ground. Compound fractures, possible internal bleeding. I slam the car door and rush over to him. I can’t help but let a smile creep across my face.
“It’s okay. I’m a doctor, I’m here to help.”