“I’ve thought a lot about that,” Wilding said. “I used to think it would be fun. You know—having grandchildren, living somewhere near, then going in the evenings to baby-sit, and all the rest.”
Elizabeth asked, “But won’t you—now?”
Wilding shook her head. “I have a feeling that when I go it’ll be like visiting strangers. And it won’t be often either. You see, my son is stationed in Hawaii; they left last week.” She added with a touch of defiant loyalty, “He was coming to see me and bring his wife. Then something came up at the last minute, so they couldn’t make it.”
There was a silence, then Wilding said, “Well, I’ll have to be getting on now.” She eased to her feet, then added from the doorway, “Drink your juice, Mrs. Alexander. I’ll come and tell you—just as soon as we hear anything at all.”
Kent O’Donnell was sweating, and the assisting nurse leaned forward to mop his forehead. Five minutes had passed since artificial respiration had begun, and still there was no response from the tiny body under his hands. His thumbs were on the chest cavity, the remainder of his fingers crossed around the back. The child was so small, O’Donnell’s two hands overlapped; he had to use them carefully, aware that with too much pressure the fragile bones would sunder like twigs. Gently, once more, he squeezed and relaxed, the oxygen hissing, trying to induce breath, to coax the tired, tiny lungs back into life with movement of their own.
O’Donnell wanted this baby to live. He knew, if it died, it would mean that Three Counties—his hospital—had failed abjectly in its most basic function: to give proper care to the sick and the weak. This child had not had proper care; it had been given the poorest when it needed the best, and dereliction had edged out skill. He found himself trying to communicate, to transmit his own burning fervor through his finger tips to the faltering heart lying beneath them. You needed us and we failed you; you probed our weakness and you found us wanting. But please let us try—again, together. Sometimes we do better than this; don’t judge us for always by just one failure. There’s ignorance and folly in this world, and prejudice and blindness—we’ve shown you that already. But there are other things, too; good, warm things to live for. So breathe! It’s such a simple thing, but so important. O’Donnell’s hands moved back and forth . . . compressing . . . releasing . . . compressing . . . releasing . . . compressing . . .
Another five minutes had passed and the intern was using his stethoscope, listening carefully. Now he straightened up. He caught O’Donnell’s eye and shook his head. O’Donnell stopped; he knew it was useless to go on.
Turning to Dornberger, he said quietly, “I’m afraid he’s gone.”
Their eyes met, and both men knew their feelings were the same.
O’Donnell felt himself gripped by a white-hot fury. Fiercely he ripped off the mask and cap; he tore at the rubber gloves and flung them savagely to the floor.
He felt the others’ eyes upon him. His lips in a thin, grim line, he told Dornberger, “All right. Let’s go.” Then, harshly, to the intern, “If anyone should want me, I’ll be with Dr. Pearson.”
In the pathology office the telephone bell jangled sharply and Pearson reached out for the receiver. Then, his face pale, nervousness showing, he stopped. He said to Coleman, “You take it.”
As David Coleman crossed the room there was a second impatient ring. A moment later he was saying, “Dr. Coleman speaking.” He listened, expressionless, then said, “Thank you,” and hung up.
His eyes met Pearson’s. He said quietly, “The baby just died.”
The other man said nothing. His eyes dropped. Slouched in the office chair, the lined, craggy face half in shadow, his body motionless, he seemed aged and defeated.
Coleman said softly, “I think I’ll go to the lab. Someone should talk with John.”
There was no answer. As Coleman left the pathology office, Pearson was still sitting, silent and unmoving, his eyes unseeing, his thoughts known only to himself.
Carl Bannister had gone out of the lab when David Coleman came in. John Alexander was there alone, seated on a stool before one of the wall benches, the lab clock immediately above his head. He made no attempt to turn around as Coleman approached, his footsteps slow, the leather of his shoes creaking as he crossed the floor.
There was a silence, then, still without turning, Alexander asked softly, “It’s . . . over?”
Without answering Coleman reached out his hand. He let it rest on the other’s shoulder.
His voice low, Alexander said, “He died, didn’t he?”
“Yes, John,” Coleman said gently, “he died. I’m sorry.”
He withdrew his hand as Alexander turned slowly. The younger man’s face was strained, the tears streaming. He said, softly but intensely, “Why, Dr. Coleman? Why?”
Groping for words, he tried to answer. “Your baby was premature, John. His chances were not good—even if . . . the other . . . hadn’t happened.”
Looking him directly in the eyes, Alexander said, “But he might have lived.”
This was a moment of truth in which evasion had no place. “Yes,” Coleman said. “He might have lived.”
John Alexander had risen to his feet. His face was close to Coleman’s, his eyes imploring, questioning. “How could it happen . . . in a hospital . . . with doctors?”
“John,” Coleman said, “at this moment I haven’t any answer for you.” He added softly, “At this moment I haven’t any answer for myself.”
Alexander nodded dumbly. He took out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. Then he said quietly, “Thank you for coming to tell me. I think I’ll go to Elizabeth now.”
Kent O’Donnell had not spoken during his progress through the hospital with Dr. Dornberger; the intense anger and frustration, which had engulfed him like a wave as he had looked down at the dead child, kept him tight-lipped and silent. As they swept through corridors and pattered down stairways, eschewing the slow-moving elevators, bitterly once more O’Donnell reviled himself for his own inaction about Joe Pearson and the pathology department of Three Counties. God knows, he thought, there had been plenty of danger signs: Rufus and Reubens had warned him, and he had had the evidence of his own eyes to tell him Pearson was failing with his years, his responsibilities growing beyond him in the busy, expanded hospital. But no! He, Kent O’Donnell, M.D., F.R.C.S. (Eng.), F.A.C.S., chief of surgery, medical-board president—off with your hats for a fine, big man! “Send him victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us, God save O’Donnell!”—he had been too preoccupied to bestir himself, to use the toughness his job demanded, to face the unpleasantness which was bound to follow action. So, instead, he had looked the other way, pretended all was well, when experience and instinct had told him deep inside he was only hoping that it would be. And where had he been all this time—he, the great man of medicine? Wallowing in hospital politics; supping with Orden Brown; fawning on Eustace Swayne, hoping that by inaction, by permitting a status quo, by leaving Swayne’s friend Joe Pearson severely alone, the old tycoon would graciously come through with money for the fancy new hospital buildings—O’Donnell’s dream of empire, with himself as king. Well, the hospital might receive the money now, and again it might not. But whether it did or didn’t, one price, at least, had already been paid. He thought: You’ll find the receipt upstairs—a small dead body in an O.R. on the fourth floor. Then, as they came to Pearson’s door, he felt his anger lessen and sorrow take its place. He knocked, and Dornberger followed him in.
Joe Pearson was still sitting, exactly as Coleman had left him. He looked up but made no attempt to rise.
Dornberger spoke first. He spoke quietly, without antagonism, as if wanting to set the mood of this meeting as a service to an old friend. He said, “The baby died, Joe. I suppose you heard.”
Pearson said slowly, “Yes. I heard.”
“I’ve told Dr. O’Donnell everything that happened.” Dornberger’s voice was unsteady. “I’m sorry, Joe. There wasn’t much else I could do.”
Pearson made a small, helpless gesture with his hands. There was no trace of his old aggressiveness. He said expressionlessly, “It’s all right.”
Matching his tone to Dornberger’s, O’Donnell asked, “Is there anything you want to say, Joe?”
Twice, slowly, Pearson shook his head.
“Joe, if it were just this one thing . . .” O’Donnell found himself searching for the right words, knowing they did not exist. “We all make mistakes. Maybe I could . . .” This was not what he had intended to say. He steadied his voice and went on more firmly. “But it’s a long list. Joe, if I have to bring this before the medical board, I think you know how they’ll feel. You could make it less painful for yourself, and for all of us, if your resignation were in the administrator’s office by ten o’clock tomorrow morning.”
Pearson looked at O’Donnell. “Ten o’clock,” he said. “You shall have it.”
There was a pause. O’Donnell turned away, then back. “Joe,” he said, “I’m sorry. But I guess you know, I don’t have any choice.”
“Yeah.” The word was a whisper as Person nodded dully.
“Of course, you’ll be eligible for pension. It’s only fair after thirty-two years.” O’Donnell knew, as he said them, the words had a hollow ring.
For the first time since they had come in Pearson’s expression changed. He looked at O’Donnell with a slight, sardonic smile. “Thanks.”
Thirty-two years! O’Donnell thought: My God! It was most of any man’s working life. And to have it end like this! He wanted to say something more: to try to make it easier for them all; to find phrases in which to speak of the good things Joe Pearson had done—there must be many of them. He was still debating how when Harry Tomaselli came in.
The administrator had entered hurriedly, not waiting to knock. He looked first at Pearson, then his glance took in Dornberger and O’Donnell. “Kent,” he said quickly, “I’m glad you’re here.”
Before O’Donnell could speak Tomaselli had swung back to Pearson. “Joe,” he said, “can you come to my office immediately? There’s an emergency staff meeting in an hour. I’d like to talk with you first.”
O’Donnell said sharply, “An emergency meeting? What for?”
Tomaselli turned. His expression was serious, his eyes troubled. “Typhoid has been discovered in the hospital,” he announced. “Dr. Chandler has reported two cases, and there are four more suspected. We’ve an epidemic on our hands and we have to find the source.”
As Elizabeth looked up the door opened and John came in. He closed the door, then stood for a moment with his back against it.
There was nothing said, only with their eyes—grief, entreaty, and an overwhelming love.