This story is by Mia Botha and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The machine beeps. The solid green line painting a familiar picture. A picture I have come to know and trust. A line that keeps my children alive. The beep that allows me to sleep in the hard chair. The beat that echoes their hearts.
It is a long monotonous bleep that jars me. The nurse appears, she fiddles with a few knobs and rushes to the door and two more appear, the bleep is relentless and one more nurse appears.
I huddle in the corner of the room and try to make sense of their actions, their codes. The sound doesn’t stop. The nurses call for the doctors. They arrive, brisk and emotionless. They nod and give orders with quick calculated movements. They look at me and confer again with mumbled words and darting glances. They are trying to decide who will talk to me. Who will ask me what they should do. The two of them turn towards me. I recognize Dr. Chang by his quiet resolve. Dr. Hansen is with him. I don’t like Dr. Hansen. I feel her disapproval before they even take the first step.
I cling to the arms of the chair, my knuckles white. “It’s too soon.” I say before they can talk.
“Mrs. Hernandez, we warned you. We said there would be risks to postponing the surgery.” Dr. Hansen says from above. She doesn’t even hesitate. Charts, not hearts dictate her decisions.
“You said not before they were five years old.” I wail.
“That was an estimate at best. They’re sick. We need a decision now.” She says.
“I can’t my husband isn’t here.”
“Mrs. Hernandez, your girls need this. We must make a decision.”
“But I Can’t. My husband, Kevin, he isn’t here. He’s on a plane. It’s a long flight.”
“Rita, take a deep breath. Let me explain to you what is happening.” Dr. Chang talks in his quiet voice.
I can’t say anything. I don’t want him to say another word. I know exactly what is happening.
“Angie’s heart isn’t strong enough.” I say this, but my voice sounds small.
“Yes,” he says, “Glenda’s heart is working twice as hard, but it is not enough. Not for both of them. Their lungs are filling with liquid. Even with the support of the machines it is not enough. We must operate before Glenda’s heart fails as well.”
“Not without a donor.” I am still clinging to the chair, but my voice has more authority.
Dr. Hansen shoots a dirty look at Dr. Chang and says. “You knew that the donor was a long shot.”
“The girls are too weak for a transplant at the moment.” Dr. Chang says.
“But Rita’s heart can’t beat on its own.” My voice is small again. It cracks.
The machines wail. I wail.
“We need a decision.” Dr. Hansen remains firm.
“I can’t make a decision without my husband.”
“Then we’ll have to call social services.” Dr. Hansen blurts out.
“No!” I slump in the chair.
The door bangs open. “It’s because you are not a child of God.” We all look towards the clamor. “This is your punishment. You must pray.” The mean beady-eyed geriatric limps towards me waving her knobbly finger and glaring at me over her globular nose. She waves her crucifix above her head.
“Martha, not now. Kevin said you can’t be here if he isn’t here. You can’t see the girls without him.” I sigh. Not now. Not her.
“These are your sins lying before you” She aims her ugly finger at my children. “You must pray and they will be healed. You must confess your sins.” She continues. “Spawn of the devil. If my son was here he’d tell you. I raised him right. These are not my grandbabies. They are the devil’s children. These are your sins. You have not been forgiven.”
Her tirade has even shut up Hansen. No one has much to say in the face of pure hatred.
“Please take her away.” I close my eyes trying to summon my strength.
“My son would never allow…” She keeps talking as the nurse takes her arm.
“Your son isn’t here. I am here. I need to decide. My husband can’t be here. He can’t be reached. I have to decide. These are not sins, these are children. Our children. My children. I need to make a decision. Please leave.”
I turn back to my girls. Their eyes are closed. Their breathing labored. I take a deep breath. I need to be strong for my children. I look at the phone again. Nothing.
He’ll only land in another six hours. I turn to Dr. Chang. “Please explain it again.”
Dr. Chang silences Hansen with a glance as she opens her mouth to speak. “Rita’s heart is failing. We can’t wait any longer. If we don’t operate now we will lose both girls.”
“But you are asking me to kill my child. To choose one over the other.”
“It is not ideal, but it can’t be helped.” Hansen says.
“Not ideal?” I am floored.
“Well, it isn’t. You see…” she continues.
Dr. Chang cuts her off. “We’ve run out of time. The girls must be separated. We have no choice.”
“The surgery is too risky. We are waiting for a donor for Rita.” I insist.
“There is no donor. We hoped there would be, but there isn’t. Both girls will die if we don’t separate them.”
“But Rita will die if we do separate them. She needs a stronger heart.”
“We don’t know that for sure. We can help Rita. Her heart can strengthen if it beats on its own. We’ve seen it happen before.”
“You are lying.”
“We are giving you the best-case scenario.” He says.
“And the worst case?”
“You know that already.”
“Can we just wait until I’ve spoken to Kevin? He’s away on business. This was just a cold.”
Dr. Chang takes my hands. “The liquid in their lungs will continue to buildup. It will turn into pneumonia and then they will be too sick for the operation.”
“We were waiting for a donor.” This can’t be happening.
“I know, but it can’t be helped. We need to separate the girls today.”
“But they’ve never been alone.” I yank on the bobble chain on the vertical blind, opening and closing blinds. “There was going to be therapy.” Rita whimpers when the room brightens, and I snap them shut again.
“I know, but they’re sick and they’re only going to get sicker.”
There is a crash in the passage outside and the door bangs open again. “It’s a sin. Those things are here to teach you a lesson. You must pay for your sins. You caused this blight on my family. You brought this shame to my door.” Martha fights her way back into the room. She has a vial of water which she tries to empty on the girls. “Prayer and God’s mercy is the only thing that will save us. Repent!”
Dr. Chang bangs on the glass and the nurses come running once again.
“My children are not a sin.” I shriek. “They’re conjoined. It’s an anomaly. This is not the dark ages for heaven’s sake.” I try to calm down.
She is bustled out of the room again shaking her water and yelling, “Repent!”
“Don’t listen to her.” Dr. Chang’s voice finds me again. “These babies are already a miracle. They have survived far longer than any twins of this…” he searches for the nicest word. “…of this kind. They are miracles. Don’t forget that. Most conjoined twins do not survive. They do not survive this long after birth. Your girls have lived longer than most. We didn’t think they’d survive the first year, but they’re almost two. They are amazing.”
“But Rita is killing Glenda.” I cross my arms and face the doctors again.
“Short answer, yes.” Dr. Chang sighs and keeps talking. “Rita’s heart isn’t growing fast enough. Glenda’s is picking up the strain. I hope, if the separation is a success, Rita’s heart may develop on its own. I hope that it will be adequate for her body, but we aren’t able to predict that. If it works they will both live full, complete lives.”
“If they survive the surgery. If they don’t die on the table. If you separate their livers without them bleeding to death. If their hearts don’t stop in the middle of the operation. If, if, if, if,” I shudder instead of sighing. I throw my hands up in the air. “These are my children. How can you expect me to make this decision? This has always been the plan, I know, but there was supposed to be a new heart for Rita.”
I glance at my phone again. It is silent. Black. Why am I doing this alone? Maybe it is my fault. I told him to go. I said it was for the best. Kevin didn’t want to go on this trip, but we need the money. We always the need money.
The machines flare up again, louder this time.
“Code blue. Code blue.” The nurse calls and the doctors rush to the girls.
Dr. Chang looks at me and I nod. They wheel my children away.
I pick my phone and text their father.