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"Dr. Stratton." The desk clerk flagged Michael down as he strode past the nurses'station. "Your sitter phoned. She said she couldn't get you on your cell. She needs you to call home right away."
Michael reached for the phone she set on the counter for him and punched in his number. When the babysitter answered, he wasted no time greeting her. "What's wrong, Heather?"
"Cody has a fever of 104 degrees. I think he's really sick. What should I do?"
Michael frowned. Cody hadn't even had a cold for months. He must have been exposed to something at school. But what kind of flu bug would cause a fever that high? He'd have to phone Jennie and find out if his friends had been sick. "Just keep him comfortable until I get home. There's a bottle of children's acetaminophen in the medicine cabinet. Give him four of those. If his fever doesn't start dropping after that, call me back." He handed the phone to the clerk.
"Dr. Stratton. Your patient in 208 is totally dilated," an O.B. nurse informed him as she passed. "The baby's head is at plus one."
"Tell them I'm on my way." He washed up quickly and donned his scrubs. When he hurried into room 208, Julie Miller was just beginning to push. She strained, her hair plastered against her forehead with sweat. At last she fell back against the pillow. "I can't do this!" she told anyone who would listen. "I never intended to do this without drugs," she said, half teasing, and completely serious. "Drugs, Dr. Stratton. Anesthesia. Pain relief."
"The baby's coming too fast, Julie. What you've got here is a nice natural childbirth. Something a lot of people are going to envy you for."
"But I can't "
"Oh, yes. You can." He movedto the foot of the birthing bed, pulled up the stool and sat down. "Let's have a baby here. I can see the head."
"Can you?" she asked breathlessly, raising her head slightly as tears of exertion streamed down her cheeks.
"It's right here. I see dark hair, lots of it. Another few pushes and this will be over. Come on, Julie."
Michael had seen hundreds of women through labor and delivery. But he still couldn't do it without feeling a little twinge of pride and sadness, thinking of his own son's birth eight years ago. Jennie had been so brave. And Cody had been such a gift to both of them. There had been a time when they both thought that loving their son might be enough to save their marriage. But it hadn't happened that way.
"I feel the contraction coming. It's coming. I don't "
"You can do it, Julie," her husband said, encouraging her.
"Focus all your energy on this push," Michael urged. "Let your body do this for you. Keep your knees wide. Hold on. Hold on."
"Good," his nurse joined in, cheering her on. "Perfect."
In spite of the fast, easy birth, this patient would need an episiotomy. He performed it quickly as Julie Miller began to strain again.
The baby's head emerged. A shoulder came next and then the rest of the newborn slipped out, a fine, healthy boy, already bleating for his mother. Michael handed her the baby as the nurse wrapped Julie in warm blankets. "Thanks," she whispered.
After Michael showed the father how to cut the cord and allowed the proud new parents to count fingers and toes, he examined the infant himself and gave him a high Apgar score. "Congratulations!" He shook the father's hand before he tucked his charts beneath his arm. Then he touched Julie's arm. "Good work, Mom."
With that, he swung briskly out of room 208 and headed for the fourth floor and his next patient. He looked forward to his visits with Bill Josephs. "Well, Bill," he said, leaning back against the wall and studying his elderly client from a distance. "You look good enough to run a marathon."
"I am looking good," the old man bellowed at him. "I am feeling good. When're you gonna send me home, Doc?"
"Well" Michael appeared to consider as he winked at Bill's wife, adjusting his bedside manner to fit comfortable country folks and friends "how about tomorrow?"
"Yes!" Bill lifted a fist in victory. "Dr. Michael, it's about time you let me out of this confounded place."
"You don't follow my orders, you'll be right back here." Michael scribbled a prescription and handed the little paper to Bill's wife, Marge. "You take that three times a day and you'll be good as new."
"What is this stuff?" Bill chortled. "Viagra?"
Michael had known the Josephs since he'd graduated from med school. Bill's jokes didn't faze him at all anymore. "You rest every afternoon. The minute the farm news report is over and you've eaten lunch, I want you flat on your back for thirty minutes."
"I'll make him do it," Marge promised.
"No smoking. And when you're drinking coffee with your buddies down at the Ferris Dairy Queen, make sure it's decaf."
"You gonna make me drink unleaded for the rest of my life?" Bill asked.
"Yeah." Michael slapped the man's chart shut. "I am. I'll see you in my office in two weeks."
"We'll be there," Marge promised again. "I know how to boss this old coot around."
Michael hugged her. He didn't hug many of his patients, but the Josephs were practically family. "Take good care of him. You're going to have him around for a long time."
Marge shook her head and grinned. "That's what I was afraid of."
Michael hurried upstairs to sign Bill's release papers. As he scrawled his signature, his BlackBerry sprang to life. When he went to answer it, he lost the call. Michael shook his head. The concrete walls of the hospital wreaked havoc on his cell-phone signal. He checked the screen to see if it had been his office trying to reach him. But it wasn't. His home number had been calling. Cody's babysitter again.
The hospital pager on his belt went off. He headed to the nearest house phone and picked it up. "Heather Rogers is on the line," the operator told him. "She says it's an emergency."
"Put her through," he said.
"I gave Cody the medicine." The minute he heard the girl's voice he could tell how distraught she was. "His fever won't go down. And he isn't crying anymore. He's just lying there like a big blob in the bed."
"Is he asleep, Heather?"
"I don't know."
Michael frowned and raked a hand through his hair. He glanced at his watch. Cody's fever should have come down by nowway down. Michael calculated. He could be at the house in twenty minutes.
"Wake Cody and give him a sponge bath. Can you do it? If it frightens you, maybe your mother could come to the house and help." Fear gripped Michael like a vise. Surely, Cody had the flu. But what if this was something else, something much worse? This was one of the downfalls of his profession. For years, he'd been studying worst-case scenarios.
I'm a doctor, he reminded himself. I've just delivered a baby and prolonged a heart-attack victim's life. Cody won't have any problems I can't deal with.
He notified them at the nurses' station and headed toward his parking space. Even though it was past 8:00 p.m., it took several minutes for Michael to find a break in the Dallas traffic so he could enter Central Express-way after he'd gotten to his car. He didn't have to change lanes or pass to exceed the speed limit. He sped toward Plano with everyone else, cruising along at over seventy. When he wheeled his car into the driveway, he recognized Heather's mother's car there, too. Inside, he found them both holding Cody in the bathtub, squeezing washcloths of water down his little chest and arms.
"Cody, kiddo, what's wrong?" He stroked his son's hair while his fear escalated. The boy's face was ashen.
"Can you tell me if anything hurts?"
"My eyes," Cody whimpered. "And my neck and everything."
"Your head? Does your head hurt?"
Cody tried to nod but he winced instead.
"Mostly your neck, though. Huh?"
Michael bent beside the tub and gathered his son into his arms. He soaked his shirt but he didn't care. Cody tried to smile but he was too weak to move. His eyes lolled backward.
Michael succumbed to his panic. He was no longer the capable physician; he was a frightened father, too afraid to know what to do. "We've got to call an ambulance," he said to Heather's mother. And then he started barking orders at them. "Dial 911 for me. Then give me the receiver." He wasn't going to let Cody out of his arms.
Heather dialed the emergency number and then leaned the phone against Michael's shoulder. He gripped it with his chin. He ordered an ambulance in clipped tones, answered as many of the EMT's questions as he could.
"Dr. Stratton, I'm so sorry," Heather cried when she took the phone from him again. "I don't know what I did wrong."
"You've done a fine job, Heather." He forced himself to reassure the girl. Her round face mirrored the fear he felt himself. "You got your mother here. You got me home to him. And I wasn't so easy to convince, was I?" He moved around the room with his son in his arms, hoping that the air stirring against Cody's wet skin would cool him. The boy felt hot enough to go into convulsions.
Think, he commanded himself. You've got to examine this child as if he wasn't your own.
Carefully he propped Cody up on the bathroom counter and studied his face. "Say 'ah,'Cody. Dad needs to see inside your throat."
"Ah-h-h," Cody obliged listlessly. Michael could hardly see anything without his light. What he could see looked slightly red but not inflamed. Gently, he bent Cody's neck forward, testing whether he could touch the child's chin to his chest.
Cody cried out.
Michael didn't hesitate when the paramedics arrived. "You'll need a spinal tap and a culture on him," he said. "Have someone from the lab standing by." As they looked askance at him, he realized they didn't know he was a doctor. "I'm a general practitioner," he said. "Where are you taking us?"
"Plano General is closest."
"Just get us there."
As they sped through the traffic it felt like a snail's pace to Michael. It seemed an eternity before they arrived. After that, things got even worse. He watched helplessly as the paramedics wheeled Cody in on the gurney. An E.R. nurse tried to direct him. "The waiting room is in here, Mr."
"It's Dr. Stratton," he said. "I want to stay with him."
"I'm sorry," she said. "You'll have to wait here. You don't have jurisdiction at this hospital."
He didn't answer her. He couldn't. She was right and he knew it. He walked into the waiting room and turned his back to her.
Only then did he realize the mistake he'd made. He let his son's condition terrify him, and he relied on his own wisdom instead of his newfound faith. Oh Father, he thought. I should be praying, shouldn't I?
Even so, this was the hardest thing he'd had to do in his life, one of the worst things, standing in this waiting room, relying on others to take care of his son. But, just then, he jammed his hands in his pockets, found his BlackBerry, and knew he was wrong. This was the hardest thing. He had to phone Jennie.