by Elisabeth Swann
Mac Stone leaned against the tile wall facing the hospital elevators, pressing his palms into his temples. Ice picks penetrated his skull, and he shrunk into a crouch until the pain eased. Sweat dripped down his face and lingered on his cleft palate repair scar. He felt worse than he did during his alcohol withdrawal at Haven for Hope rehab. That was a year ago; sobriety was supposed to feel good. He cuddled himself in his University of Chicago sweatshirt and rested his head for a moment on his knees. “Straighten Up and Fly Right, Get Up Stone.”
He stood up straightening himself, his hand shaking as he pushed brown hair off his brow. His eight-hour shift in the County Hospital’s Laundry Room began in fifteen minutes and where was Claire? Then he spotted her shouldering through the crowd, directing a “what’s the matter with you” gaze from her deep blue eyes.
“Those navy scrubs look good on you.”
“What do you mean? I look like a blob of blue. The hospital felt it would be helpful to identify the medical staff from the janitors instead of everyone wearing green scrubs.”
Then she smiled, one white incisor slightly crooked in an otherwise perfect bite. No one had smiled at him like that for years; it felt like the smile his mother gave him in happier days when he came home after school. ‘ My sweet, handsome boy, we have an hour before I have to be at the hospital for my shift. Sit down with me and have a snack.’ Then she would hug him as if he had returned from a long absence. School didn’t go well. After he “borrowed” her Chevy and ran it into a telephone pole, she kicked him out of the house.
Claire peered into Mac’s face. “Mac, you look terrible. What’s the matter?
“Just a headache, it’s getting better with the aspirin I took at my apartment. I don’t need a nurse right now, besides, you’ll be late.”
He imagined her head on his shoulder, his hand cradling her soft and wavy auburn hair. “I was wondering if we could get together this weekend.”
“Um, I’m not sure right now. I need to check my schedule…the shifts are changing at the end of the week.”
Mac looked away for a moment; he knew a brush off.
“Mac, I will let you know. I would like to see you, it’s just…”
“It’s okay. Hope it’s not too crazy on your floor. I overheard a neurosurgical resident saying the hospital got slammed last night with a twenty-car pile up on the Loop. Black Ice.”
Claire stepped into the elevator heading to the 7th floor Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit.
“See you after your shift?” asked Mac.
“If you’re lucky,” She laughed gaily, flicked a quick wave and his heart lifted, but his head still throbbed.
Once the doors closed, he turned, and jogged down the stairs to Sublevel 1. He clocked in with the satisfying punch of his time card, hung his sweatshirt up in his locker and put on an orange HAZMAT suit. Next he shoved his hair in a light blue bonnet and selected a mask and protective glasses from a shelf. From the locker room, Mac walked into the cavern that was the high ceilinged laundry operation. Ten industrial size washers and dryers lined the walls; each machine manned by two workers. Bins, heavy canvas bags, and tables aided the transport of linens. Two laundresses fed bed sheets into the automatic folder. From the back of the machine, they emerged perfectly folded, ready to be stacked and delivered to the hospital floors. Mac reeled when he entered the Dirty Room and muttered,
“Blood, feces, sweat, urine, pus, and bile. It beats throwing your guts up behind a dumpster on Michigan Ave.”
Jordan waddled into the room, bulging at the seams of the HAZMAT suit.
“Why are you late, man?” Mac yelled above the racket of the machinery.
“I’m not that late, Mac, my parole office bought some weed from me just before work. I need to keep him happy.”
Together they attacked the head high piles of laundry falling through the chute, eight floors worth. Sheets and towels tumbled down from maternity and post-partum, pediatrics and general surgery, a mountain of cotton detritus.
Jordan laughed, “Did you bring the 100 gallon drum of Febreeze?”
Mac snorted through his mask. “I wonder what happened here?”
The blood soaked pillowcase hung from Mac’s outstretched gloved hand. He had a habit of wondering what happened to the patients: did they survive, were they old, young, married? Were they alone? He’d hate to be alone when he died.
“Probably one of the accident victims from the pile-up,” said Mac, his head feeling like it had broken a windshield.
As Mac and Jordan worked steadily, separating the soiled laundry, another bolus of laundry fell from the chute onto Jordan’s head.
“They should give us some warning! What the hell! I’m working the dryer shift next…not getting paid enough for this. Next thing I’ll be stabbed by a needle and catch AIDS.”
A lone washcloth fell from the chute, next to Jordan’s feet. Mac snatched it from the floor, astonished to see a note from Claire. Drawn in blue ink on the square cloth was an anatomically correct human heart, with an arrow piercing the middle. Little drops of ink pointed to a message, “Saturday. Picnic lunch. Claire.”
Mac quickly folded the washcloth and stuck it in his suit. He craned his head upward, as if he could see Claire, eight floors above, opening the latch to the chute and flinging it down the dark hole. Renewed energy strengthened his arms and he vigorously worked until his lunch break. Certification as an MRI technician was only a month away. No more Sublevel 1.
Unable to reach Claire during his lunch break, Mac hurried Jordan to finish a peanut butter and jelly sandwich he was stuffing into his mouth. Once back in the locker room to suit up again, Mac felt shaky and weird. Suddenly he teetered, the room spun, and Mac collapsed to the floor, writhing uncontrollably. Jordan ran into the Laundry Room, hit an emergency button on the wall and yelled,
“It’s Mac, It’s Mac!” Blood poured from Mac’s mouth. Jordan forcibly opened his clenched jaws and shoved a washcloth in it that he found on the floor next to Mac’s seizing body.
The Rapid Response Team stabilized Mac and wheeled him to the NICU, Claire yelling at a mother and her three children to move out of the way.
“Mac, we’re taking you for an MRI scan.” Claire’s soothing voice calmed him. The MRI sliced images of Mac’s troubled brain exposing the tumor that had sent ice picks in the morning and a seizure in the afternoon. Mac mentally peered into his brain, focusing his anger on the tumor, wishing for its annihilation. Later on the operating table, Mac watched the neurosurgeon select a drill from the tray, heard the anesthesiologist fiddle with the gases, and then felt a gentle hand placing a mask over his face telling him to breathe deeply. He heard the whir of the pneumatic drill being tested as the room disappeared into blackness.
Hours passed before Mac regained consciousness. Bandages encased his head. Underneath a thin white sheet and blue hospital blanket, Mac’s tall frame lay motionless. Claire held his limp hand, staring at his name on the gray hospital bracelet. Mac watched her face as she spoke about the comatose patient in the adjoining room.
“The poor woman skidded on black ice while coming in for the night shift, speeding into a stalled truck. Her body apparently lurched forward and her brain collided with her skull as her forehead hit the air bag. She seems so familiar.” Claire’s fingers touched the space over her heart and stayed there. She slowly rose from Mac’s side, “I just need to check her vitals.”
In a few steps to the woman’s bedside, Claire drew back the covers and read the name on her bracelet. Madeline Stone.
Mac opened his eyes, still groggy. He lifted his arm from the sheet and touched the skullcap of clean white bandaging.
“The doctor says they got it all,” Claire answering the Mac’s fearful look. The cleft palate repair scar looked paler over Mac’s dry lips.
“Is there any family I can tell?” Claire touched his cheek softly.
Mac whispered, “ My mother,” clutching Claire’s hand. “She’s a nurse here. Madeline Stone.”
Back in the operating room, housekeeping stripped linens from the table and dropped them into the round chute in the hall. Nine floors down to Sublevel 1, Mac’s sheets fell, unnoticed among the rest.