Dr. Amber Smithson leaned across the table, nearly dunking her silk blouse into her salad dressing. “Well?” she whispered to the goth-dressed teen across from her. “What’d he say?”
Lizzy did a quick scan of the room, looking quite dramatic in her dark eye liner and studded dog collar.
“Don’t worry,” said Amber. “I already checked. No one from the hospital is here.” Then she patted the table. “Come on, give. What’d he say?”
Lizzy took a deep breath, and for a moment Amber feared the worst. And then the girl burst into a big smile. “My blood test came back amazing! That’s what he said. Amazing! He doesn’t quite believe it.”
“Of course he doesn’t.” Dr. Bob Brickers was as traditional a doctor as they came. He still thought penicillin was cutting edge. He would never accept that a special tea plus some energy sessions done by Amber could possibly bring type 1 diabetes under control. “So everything looks good?” Amber pressed, a little shocked herself that it was working.
“I’m producing insulin on my own! That’s what he said. Pretty soon I’ll be able to get off the shots completely!”
Amber held up her hands. “One step at a time. The diabetes is under control. That’s huge. But—”
“I know! I know! And I didn’t say a word to Dr. Brickers about what we’re doing. But I know it will work!”
Amber smiled, her own hopes rising. As a doctor at Mandolin Clinic, Amber couldn’t possibly admit she was prescribing holistic treatments to anyone, least of all Dr. Brickers’s patients. After all, the man was Amber’s direct boss. But Lizzy’s mom was a friend and had begged Amber for help when the normal treatments had little effect. So Amber had prescribed a special tea and done energy work on the kid. And it was working!
“Just keep doing what you’re doing—especially the diet and exercise.”
“I know, I know,” Lizzy said with a very dramatic eye roll. “And I won’t tell anyone or you’ll get fired. But it’s working!”
Yes, it certainly looked like it was. The two spent the rest of the lunch hour giggling like little girls, then Amber dropped Lizzy back at school before returning to the hospital.
Some days it was hard keeping her interest in holistic healing secret from the ultra-conservative administration at Mandolin. But days like today made it all worth it. That was the reason she’d become a doctor: to find out what worked and what didn’t, no matter the source. Her colleagues might think she was nuts, but she didn’t care if it was Eastern, Western or alien medicine. If it worked, then she was going to embrace it even if it dealt with something as loosy-goosy as “qi energy.”
If only she could get her colleagues to be so open-minded. Some of them were, but the administration was firmly entrenched in the “Western medicine is God” mode, especially Dr. Brickers and his cronies. And until they left or retired, nothing would change at Mandolin.
She lived for that day, prayed nightly for it. Because frankly, she was running out of patience. She’d picked this hospital because it was expected of her. Six generations of Smithsons had worked here as orderlies, then nurses, and then her grandfather had become a doctor here. Her mother, too. So she’d caved to family pressure because Mandolin really was a good hospital and a prestigious place to work.
Then she’d discovered how very narrow-minded her boss was. Not only was alternative medicine evil, in his mind, but anyone who explored it was the devil’s handmaiden. No doctor under his watch could suggest anything but traditional Western medicine. So Amber had hidden her interest. She saw patients like Lizzy on her lunch hour, off of hospital grounds. But she was getting tired all the subterfuge.
She was still absorbed in those gloomy thoughts when she stepped through the door and was ambushed by Dr. Jack Ross, her best friend and an extremely talented neurologist. He matched steps with her and was obviously bursting with news.
“Guess who’s just killed his last patient,” he said as they stepped into the empty elevator.
“Oh, God,” she gasped. “Not another!” They were in a hospital, and people died in hospitals. But lately, the mortality rate at Mandolin was unusually high. It happened sometimes, but it never failed to raise alarms among the people in charge. Who then went crusading around desperately looking for an answer. Or a scapegoat.
“Yup. But this time the family’s lodged a complaint and it’s been backed up by a fellow doctor.”
The elevator doors open, and before Amber could move to her office, Jack gripped her arm and steered her to a doctor’s lounge. It was thankfully empty at the moment, but that wouldn’t last. Before long, practically the whole staff would wander through looking for more gossip to dish. Amber asked the first question on her mind.
“Who died?” Was it someone she knew?
Jack shrugged. “Some woman. Mother of four. Eldest is a lawyer and making all sorts of noise.”
“A name, please.”
He responded with the diagnosis. “Uterine cancer but she died of a heart attack. Why aren’t you asking whose patient she was?”
Because she knew. There was only one doctor that Jack desperately wanted gone. The same doctor who was a pain in Amber’s backside. Dr. Bob Brickers.
“Keep your voice down,” she whispered as she leaned forward. “What happened? Exactly.”
“Remember how Bob took that long vacation last month? Well, he pushed up this woman’s radiation treatment before she was ready. He wanted to get things going before he left. Anyway, she was too weak to do radiation, so bam, last night she has a heart attack and dies.”
Amber felt her mouth go slack. Bob couldn’t be that irresponsible. Sure, everyone jostled their schedules when they wanted to take a vacation, but to endanger a patient like that? Especially one who…
Her eyes widened and her breath got short. “Wait a moment,” she breathed. “Who was the patient? What was her name?”
Jack straightened, alarm growing on his face as he realized something was up. “I don’t remember. Vera someone, I think.”
“I don’t know.”
But Amber did. It all made sense in the most horrible way. She closed her eyes, fighting the tears. To think that Vera was gone. That she would never trade vegetarian recipes with her again. That no one would ever hear her weird horsey laugh again. That her grandchildren would never know how absolutely special she was. The very idea made her heart break. “Not Vera,” she whispered. “Oh, God, not Vera.”
Two hours later, she was having the exact same discussion in the director’s office. Dr. Brickers was there, his face hot and his expression furious. And he was pointing a finger at her.
“Did you or did you not see my patient behind my back?” demanded Dr. Brickers.
Amber sighed and addressed her words to the director. “Vera came to me. She was incredibly weak from the chemotherapy and she had heard about some herbal teas.”
“You did!” Brickers all but screamed. “You gave her some holistic crap behind my back, and now she’s dead.”
Amber didn’t bother looking at her boss. Instead, she spoke as calmly and clearly as possible. “My treatments were working, sir. She was getting stronger. But she wasn’t ready for radiation yet. Dr. Brickers pushed up her radiation just so he could go on vacation.”
“That’s not true!” bellowed her boss. But he shut his mouth when the director held up his hand.
“That’s not relevant, Amber,” said the head of the hospital. “Did you or did you not see Dr. Brickers’s patient?”
Amber sighed but stayed with the truth. “I did.”
“And you prescribed some herbal tea?”
“And certain energy treatments, yes. And they were working!”
The director just shook his head. “You know that’s against hospital policy. You can’t see someone else’s patient behind his back. You can’t prescribe non-traditional treatments. My God, Amber, what were you thinking?”
Amber threw up her hands. “That it was working!“
“Except that she’s dead,” inserted Dr. Brickers.
“Because you pushed up her radiation before she was ready.”
The director sighed. “You can’t have it both ways, Amber. Either she was stronger or she wasn’t.”
“I’m afraid my hands are tied, Amber. You broke hospital policy, you deliberately went behind your boss’s back and now a patient is dead.”
Amber took a deep breath, struggling to keep her temper in check. “You’re right, sir. I should have told Dr. Brickers that Vera contacted me. I’m sorry and it will never happen again. But you can’t blame the treatment for—”
The director held up his hand. “Who administered this so-called energy treatment?”
“I did, sir. It’s very safe. It works with the body’s qi energy—”
“Is it approved by the American Medical Association as an appropriate treatment for cancer?”
Amber grimaced. “You know it’s not.”
“Then I’ll have to ask for your resignation.”
Amber’s eyes widened in shock even though she’d known this was a possibility. “You’re firing me? Even if the treatment worked? Even if the patient got stronger and healthier because of it?”
The director just shook his head. “We can’t have doctors practicing non-traditional medicine here at Mandolin. It’s just not the way we do things.”
“Even if it works?”
“Even if. The liability is too high.” Then he leaned forward, his expression almost pleading. “Look, I know we’re all under a lot of pressure. We’re a high-profile hospital and our patients must get better.”
“That’s what I was trying to do,” she said.
“But not the right way, Amber. Still, if you’ll promise to stop with all this qi nonsense then I’ll soften this to an official reprimand. You’re a great doctor, Amber. It would be a shame to lose you.”
“The qi nonsense works, sir. I’ve done a lot of research on my own, but real statistics would be incredibly valuable. Let me do a study—”
Beside her, Dr. Brickers snorted his derision. “Oh, my God, how can you be so idiotic?”
The director also wasn’t swayed. “Stick to Western medicine, Amber, and don’t talk about Eastern voodoo.”
There it was plain as day. If she wanted to work as a doctor, she had to close her eyes to energy healing. She had to pretend that drugs were the only way to treat an illness. That nothing outside of traditional Western medicine had any value at all. She couldn’t do that. She just couldn’t.
“I can’t willingly put blinders on. I’m a healer, sir. From the core of my being, I work to heal people. So if a treatment works, I’ll prescribe it.”
“Western medicine works,” the director said.
“Not for everybody.” With a heavy heart, she turned and headed for the door. “You’ll have my resignation in an hour.”
Two years later
Roger Martell stared at his doctor and tried reaching for humor. “That’s it? That’s why you dragged me in here? Geez, I thought I was dying!”
His doctor sighed. “Hypertension is a big deal. And if you don’t get it under control you will die.”
Roger flinched, a little frightened by the man’s flat, absolute tone. Sadly, he wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis. After all, he’d been fighting high blood pressure forever. His uncle and grandfather had both died from heart attacks before their fiftieth birthdays. And Roger was well on the early coronary track. But advances in medicine happened every day, right? He wasn’t desperate yet.
“Okay,” he said. “So this special new drug trial didn’t work.”
“Your pressure is higher than ever, Roger.”
“I know, I know,” he groused. This was his first drug trial, but his thirteenth medication. No matter what he did, his blood pressure kept going up and up. “There’s got to be another drug trial. Something really experimental? Seriously, Doc—”
“Seriously, you’ve got to stop relying on drugs and make some life changes. You’re three breaths away from a stroke, and before you ask…” He started flipping through Roger’s chart. “You’ve tried every medication possible, and some that I think were positively ludicrous. Looks like I’m your third doctor.”
“Fourth if you count the drug-trial people.” His doctor sighed. “Look, I can’t even clear you to fly as a passenger in an airplane.”
Roger waved that away. “They never check that anyway.”
“Not the point.”
Roger closed his eyes and tried to remain calm. Sadly, the sight that came to his mind’s eye was his father in a treatment facility after his stroke. He hadn’t died like Roger’s uncle and grandfather, but he had lost the use of a third of his body. Roger tried to force away the panic that skated through his system. “I feel fine,” he said firmly.
“Do I need to outline all the reasons high blood pressure is called the silent killer?”
No, he didn’t need to hear that lecture again. “Okay, so what are my options?”
“Tell me about your exercise and diet.”
He knew this drill backward and forward, but he dutifully went through the litany. “I swim a mile and a half most mornings, I don’t eat red meat too often, and I know moldy bread does not count as a vegetable. Or olives in martinis.”
“Tell me about your job.”
Roger barely restrained his groan. “I love my job. I’m the CFO at a robotics firm owned by my best friend. He’s the brilliant inventor, I’m the business guy. I make sure his ideas get to market—”
“You do everything, run everything, worry about everything and the stress is killing you.”
“I’m not under pressure like those guys,” he said firmly.
“They’re the geniuses who have to perform miracles every day.”
His doctor leaned back in his chair. “So you’re surrounded by geniuses under stress. No pressure there. No trying to keep up with their brilliant minds, no struggling against the meltdown of the day, no agony of trying to herd a zillion iibersmart cats.”
Roger shut his mouth, fighting to keep his expression neutral. Yeah, he often felt like he was the only sane one in a freak show. Other times, he was just the dumb one in charge. His IQ was high, just not stratospheric high. Which at RFE meant he was a moron. “But I love my job,” he repeated.
The doctor sighed. “What about meditation? Yoga? There are some interesting guided prayers.”
Roger rolled his eyes. He couldn’t help himself. So his doctor switched tracks.
“Look, you’ve run out of medical options. Do you understand? There’s nothing more I can do. You have to make some life changes.”
Roger threw up his hands. “Got any suggestions other than quitting my job?”
“Well, when was your last vacation?”
“Just a little bit ago. I went skiing in Colorado. At Christmas.”
“Christmas, as in nine months ago?”
“Um, I think so.” Or maybe it was two years and nine months ago.
“Take another vacation, Roger. Take it now.”
Roger nodded, wondering where in the hell he was going to fit a vacation into his work schedule. “Okay, a vacation. What else?”
“Change your life. Find out what stress is killing you and fix it.”
“Whatever it takes, Roger. Do it now.”