Feature: The Patient Will See You Now
When Ira awoke after eye surgery on a gurney in the hospital, he found himself at the receiving end of advice from an urbane and friendly doctor who wanted to dispense more than just medicine. Fiction by Jay Neugeboren
When Ira opened his good eye, the men were still there, staring down at him. Doctor Chehade, who had performed the eye surgery the day before, reached under the sheet and took one of Ira’s hands in his own.
“It was as I thought,” he said, speaking in English. “Several of your arteries had significant occlusions. In addition, there is evidence of a prior myocardial infarction—a silent heart attack, I believe you call such events. Am I correct, Doctor Guérard?”
A lime-green surgical mask dangling around his neck, Doctor Guérard nodded, then spoke to Ira in French. Struggling to comprehend what he was saying—the words came to him as if through heavy gauze—Ira asked the doctor to speak in English.
“Ah yes, well, when I saw what was occurring with the occlusions, I did the angioplasties. Three. Coated angioplasty—stents, you call them, yes?—so there should be minimal fibrosis—scar tissue from the inflammatory, yes?—and for the rest, I am not worried.”
“Why should you be?” Ira said. “It’s not your heart.”
“Je ne comprends pas.” Doctor Guérard turned to Doctor Chehade. “Did I use the wrong languages?”
Doctor Chehade explained that Ira was joking.
“Ah, tu rigoles avec moi!” Doctor Guérard exclaimed. “That shows that your spirit is remaining vital. It is always a good warning when the patient is to joke with the doctor. Donc. It was my correct decision to not open your chest to do the pontages, the grafts, yes?”
“Where am I?” Ira asked.
Doctor Chehade explained that Ira was lying on a gurney in a hallway until a new room could be assigned to him.
“When can I get out of here?” Ira asked. “Out there—dehors, là-bas—people aredying…”
“In here, too,” Doctor Chehade said, and turned to Doctor Guérard, who said that he wanted Ira to stay in the hospital for at least one more night to allow time for the anesthesia to wear off.
“Then I can go?”
“Perhaps,” Doctor Guérard said, and added that he would visit Ira later in the day to talk with him about a cardiac rehabilitation program and about “le stress,” about Ira’s intense work schedule, both in South Africa and in the United States.
Ira cranked a lever so that he was in a sitting position on the gurney, and he became aware, for the first time, of a weight on his leg. He lifted the sheet and saw that a sandbag had been placed over his thigh where a catheter had been inserted into his femoral artery. He looked over his shoulder, expecting to see a nurse’s station, but saw only a long, dimly lit corridor, the pale glow of television sets coming from rooms on both sides of the hallway. Was everybody asleep already? Had they forgotten he was there? Had he died and been transported to some medical purgatory where he would spend eternity waiting in a silent corridor—a world without words—for a bed?
He considered climbing down from the gurney to find a nurse, but if he did, he was afraid he might bleed onto the floor or become dizzy and pass out. A world without words: Wasn’t that what his wife, Hannah, had named the hours they were able to spend together away from hospital and clinic and AIDS patients?
Ira had stopped in France to attend a medical conference in Marseille before continuing on to South Africa, and it was at this conference that he had become friendly with Doctor Chehade. The doctor had inquired about the patch Ira wore over his eye, and Ira had explained that it was the result of being hit in the eye by a tennis ball several weeks before.
He and Doctor Chehade talked easily with each other, and Ira quickly learned that the doctor had worked and studied, early in his career, at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where Ira had also spent time.
He and Doctor Chehade had dinner together two evenings in a row, talking about Israel, about Hadassah Hospital, about their families, their work, and it was to Doctor Chehade’s hotel room that Ira had gone at once, earlier in the day, when he experienced sudden tell-tale flashing signs at the periphery of his vision, signs that he knew were symptomatic of the beginnings of retinal detachment.
Yes, I agree that sleep is of utmost importance at a time like this,” the man was saying, “and so I am grateful that you have slept so well. We French, you know, still believe in the cure de sommeil, which I understand finds little favor in your country even though it has proven quite effective, especially for women.”
Ira was not aware of when this man, dressed in suit and tie, had arrived, or of how long he had been there. The man was explaining that, of course, one utilized medications—combinations of antianxiety and antidepressant medications, along with hypnotiques—but that what was essential to the sleeping cure was that patients be removed from the ordinary anxieties that pressed upon them, that they be put into prolonged states of calm in which they would be cognizant not only of the sanctuary the doctor was providing but also of the real world that could be perceived, if at a distance, through the veil of sleep and dreams.
“Who are you and why are you telling me this?” Ira asked.
“I am Doctor Chehade,” the man said. “I was waiting for you to awaken so that we might have a conversation before I leave for home. Also, I would like to take a look at your eye again. So come—I will take you to your room.”
Doctor Chehade, whose voice had a mellow, liquid quality that Ira found beguiling, reached below the gurney, unlocked the brake and, holding an IV pole with one hand, pushed Ira along the corridor.
“I was able to obtain a private room for you, which is one reason for the delay,” he said.
“But also, I wanted to talk with you of something existent on a more personal note.”
In the hospital room, Doctor Chehade offered Ira his hand, and when Ira stood in the space between bed and gurney, he felt his knees give way.
“I’m weak,” he said. “The journey from the gurney, right?”
Doctor Chehade laughed. “I agree with Doctor Guérard—the fact that your sense of humor has not departed is an excellent indicator of regeneration. But you have not eaten for many hours, and so I have ordered a special dinner for you. I think you will be pleased.”
“Thanks.” Ira sat on the bed. “You’ve been very kind.”
“It has been my pleasure, for a man of your eminence.” Doctor Chehade smiled. “I took the liberty of searching for you on the Internet, you see, and I state now that the honorable work you have done in South Africa with victims of HIV serves as a reminder to me to consider seriously the filing of an application with Médecins Sans Frontières, an organization that at this time benefits only from my modest financial support. And you are also a man of Jewish descent, am I correct?”
“Yes. But why—?”
“My parents were friendly with a Jewish man—Austrian, not Israeli—when I was a young boy in Beirut. He was a merchant involved in silk and linens, and we ate in his home upon occasion. I am Christian—not Muslim, or Druze—and thus did not have restrictions against eating pork, but neither did this man and his family. His name was Emanuel Mandelbaum, and he loved electrical appliances and had acquired many: vegetable choppers, small ovens, grillades, egg boilers. In his basement, he repaired appliances for friends and neighbors. He was a fastidious man and, remembering now the deftness of his fingers—they were quite small and what I think you call ‘stubbed’—it occurs to me that he would have made an excellent surgeon.”
“Was he a survivor?”
“Of the camps.”
Doctor Chehade reached into an inside jacket pocket and, like a magician, he withdrew a piece of equipment that he quickly attached to his forehead. It was a headlamp, Ira saw, and it gave off a long rod-like beam of pure white light. Doctor Chehade directed the beam of light onto the palm of his left hand so that he could adjust its intensity. Then he removed the bandage from Ira’s damaged eye, after which, very gently, he probed the area surrounding the eye with his fingers.
“Very good,” he said. “Excellent.”
He turned out the room’s overhead light, closed the door. In his left hand he held a small piece of glass, which he moved back and forth in the space between Ira’s eye and the light that came from the headlamp.
Ira closed his good eye and, when he did, saw nothing but gray, as if a sheet of slate had been slipped into a slot behind his retina the way a photographer slips a photographic plate into a camera.
Doctor Chehade was replacing the bandage, washing his hands. “It is as I thought,” he said. “The healing has already begun, but we will not know for some time yet how much regeneration we have. You may dispense with the bandage tomorrow, nor will you require an eye patch afterward. I have ordered antibiotic drops to prevent infection and inflammation, and I am confident that you will regain, at the least, some portion of your peripheral vision.”
“And after that?”
Doctor Chehade shrugged.
“Who knows? Time, Doctor Farb. Time must become our friend. In four to six weeks, we will know more. But I would look forward, frankly, to a healing period of at least several months.”
“Great,” Ira said. “And I had a heart attack, too, right?”
“A minor infarction we discovered while preparing you for surgery, one which is, as we say, truly of little or no consequence. Doctor Guérard estimates that it probably occurred some time within the past twelve months. Perhaps you recall some unusual indigestion, or some fleeting pain you attributed to exercise, or…”
“S.B.D.,” Ira said.
“Silent But Deadly—what we called silent flatulence when I was a boy.”
“That is very good—I will remember it,” Doctor Chehade said. “S.B.D. But Doctor Guérard is not concerned for your heart, for it is a kind of miracle—what we call the wisdom of the body, yes?—how one can function and live on with only minor portions of the heart muscle remaining alive. Doctor Guérard will urge you to change your habits, but if you do or if you do not, we expect you will reach a ripe maturity. Were there a danger more imminent, he would not release you back to the world.”
“Great news,” Ira said.
“Often, too, the fibrosis of the retina can cause a tension—a tractional detachment—that may cause the retina to detach again,” Doctor Chehade said. “Still, I am optimistic.”
“Why?” Doctor Chehade laughed. “Because I am an excellent surgeon and an optimistic human being—that is why!” he declared. “And because I like you. Because I sense, given how we were drawn to each other, that this is a feeling quite mutual.
“But let me ask you something else—my true reason for remaining until you regained more thoroughly your consciousness. The question I have been preparing to offer is this: What are your allegiances to the State of Israel?”
“Excuse me?” Ira said. “What does the State of Israel have to do with my surgery?”
“I feel a responsibility, as a man of Middle Eastern origin—a man from a civilized Arab nation—to talk to my Jewish friends about this when occasion presents itself. I talk with you as I have often talked with colleagues in the hospital who are of Jewish extraction. I trust you will believe that I am not singling you out.”
“I’m an American,” Ira said.
“Of course you are.”
“And a Jew. Yes, I’m a Jew.”
“Well, I knew that, but I am glad you have decided to clarify your status. Honesty is a requirement of any true friendship.”
“What I meant to say is that I’m a Jew, but not an observant or practicing Jew,” Ira said, and immediately wondered why he was offering this information. “Being Jewish does not inform my ordinary, waking life in any particular way,” he went on. “I don’t go to synagogue or observe the holidays—not even those most Jews observe, what we call the High Holy Days, the New Year and our Day of Atonement.”
“I understand,” Doctor Chehade said. “Of course. I have met Jewish people such as yourself—Americans as well as French and English—and their habits of living conform to your description. You should be assured that I remain a great admirer of your people. Sometimes I think that I admire you more than many Jewish people themselves do, those who, malheureusement, seem to have forgotten who they are and where they come from and why they are here.”
Doctor Chehade steepled his hands below his lips. “You are, you see, a people who believe in One God, who is, of course, the God of all creation. You are a people with great respect for learning, and with traditions of charity, justice and hospitality very much like those of my own people. You have stayed together—a true community, with common bonds, beliefs and rituals—despite oppression and plagues and without, until this past century, a land of your own. The most excellent doctors I have known, both here and in my own homeland, have been Jewish. I am proud to call myself your friend and that you have chosen to listen to me, yet at the same time I recognize that you have become fatigued from your ordeals and also, perhaps, confused as to the direction of my discourse. Therefore, I will arrive swiftly at my conclusion.”
Doctor Chehade stepped back and when he spoke, his voice became stronger, as if he were speaking not only to Ira but to other men, perhaps a dozen of whom had entered the room and were gathered around Ira’s bed. Ira wanted to stand and argue, to explain why it was that a secular Jew—a lapsed Jew?—was not necessarily a sinner.
But he wondered too: Had he somehow—by his behavior, his words, his eagerness to be friends—invited the moment he was now living in?
I feel it incumbent upon me,” Doctor Chehade said, “when I am with Jewish friends—and I want you to listen very carefully to what I say now—to inform you that although the State of Israel will, in the future as in the past, win many battles, it will not win the war. It cannot.”
Doctor Chehade took Ira’s free hand in both his own.
“I see that you are eager to sleep again,” he said, “and I trust it is not because I am boring you. Par conséquent, let me end our dialogue by asserting that I understand that this has been a difficult time for you, and in such a time I do not intend to add to your burdens. Still, while you must understand that I certainly am not against you or your people, you must also understand that history is.”
Doctor Chehade left the room. Ira closed his good eye. He dreamt of leaving the hospital, of walking the streets of Marseille or Durban—or Jerusalem!—with his wife, and of describing for her what had happened. But damn—why didn’t I see it coming? he heard himself say, and when he did, his wife told him that at least he had the words right, and when he imagined her saying this, he began to laugh out loud, to laugh so hard that a nurse entered his room and asked if he was all right.
“Oh yes,” he said. He touched his eye patch and began laughing again. “But I was wondering if you could tell me—please?—why it is that I didn’t see it coming.” H
Jay Neugeboren’s most recent novel is 1940 (Two Dollar Radio).