With Your Last Heartbeat
Without her noticing, in the midst of that tender scene, I had managed to enter her room just in time to see Leo fall asleep on Clara's shoulder. She hadn't been able to notice me, as she had begun to quickly read through the exercises they had done until she understood the pattern.
"I see, so the binary numbers work like this. Well..."
Clara began to do the few remaining exercises, double checking to make sure each one was well solved. She was truly cute when she was trying hard, despite everything, and knowing that she was still like that filled me with excitement. She seemed truly determined to make it, so I just threw a smile in the air and decided to leave her alone.
I decided to go get myself a coffee in that time, as the vending machine was only a few feet away.
I noticed that in my reflection in the glass of the machine my concern could be noticed. I quickly smacked my face to forget it, but I guess I couldn't make it go away. It only relaxed a little when I started drinking my coffee, necessary fuel for what was to come.
I drank it rather quickly, and as I walked back into the room, I could hear Clara's exclamation.
"Done," she shouted under her breath, in order to not wake Leo up.
That was the signal for me to come in, this time actually knocking on the door.
"Come in!", I heard from inside.
I entered the room and walked down the small hallway, until I saw her. She was putting the computer away on the table at her side, careful to keep Leo holding onto her. As soon as she saw me, I could tell she had noticed I was very nervous, so again she tried to cheer me up.
"Good evening, Edu," said flashing me the biggest smile she could while giving me the silent signal with her index finger.
After her greeting, I decided to walk towards her, barely able to smile.
"Good evening, Clari," I said as I looked at her companion's injured hand, "Is he okay?"
Clara looked at him quizzically, and when she understood my question, she looked into his face sweetly, blushing her cheeks.
"Of course he is. As always, trying to protect others"
"Edu... should I be worried if I feel my heart beating too fast when I'm with him?"
Clara's face looked on fire by this point, and her eyes couldn't stop pointing at Leo. It was a beautiful picture to look at.
"No. And it's very good that you feel that way. You know, from the first time I saw him, I knew that boy was going to be something very special to you. He didn't seem like someone who wanted to hurt you, and I'm really glad it ended up that way."
"I see," she smiled at me again.
Anyone could tell that Clara really liked Leo. After everything he had done, it wouldn't have been anything too unusual. In my gut, I was glad that boy who didn't know how to tell me how he felt at the time was now reciprocated.
"I'm sorry," was all I could say to her.
I wanted to say something to her, but the words wouldn't come out. I looked at her as if she was that little girl who entered the hospital the first time.
Clara seemed to be softened by that, and her eyes looked like glass now.
"Oh, God. You're such a fool, Edu. You two were supposed to take care of me and now it looks like I have to take care of two crying babies."
I understood for Leo, but it took me a while to react to how wet my face felt. I took off my glasses to dry my eyes quickly, then left them in my hand, without putting them on.
"I remember telling you several times already, Edu. You are not to blame for anything that happens to me. I know you always wanted the best for me, and you took care of me like your own daughter. After everything that happened to you... I'm so lucky to have had you, Eduardo. I never want to lose you."
After her little cut in the dialogue, she herself became distraught, although her smile did not disappear, typical of her.
"Ha, now who's the cry baby," I replied and we both laughed.
We spent a few minutes holding hands, laughing and crying knowing that what was to come was complicated. It was an extremely bittersweet moment, where I began to remember why she was 'lucky' to have met me in the first place. No...
It was why I was lucky to have met her.
"Talos. Hey, Talos!"
I was lying on the break room table, exhausted after a very long shift of work. In front of me was my supervisor, Dr. Guerrero, a woman in her mid-thirties who had risen through the ranks in a very short time.
"Get those legs up, you lazy idiot! You want me to report you to the boss? Come on!"
Guerrero grabbed me by the hair and forced me to stand up, while I heard some laughter around the room.
"You have to bring the gloves from the storage room in the basement. And when you come back, bring me a black coffee. If you put sugar in it, I'm going to destroy that silly face of yours. Is that clear," she said to me in a threatening tone.
"... yes," I spoke reluctantly.
I started to go get the gloves as I thought about how I was going to have to endure another day of permanent mistreatment from my superiors. I hated it deeply, but there was nothing I could do about it.
The reality was that the twenty-five-year-old me hated his life. It was my second year as a doctor, but I had already seen untold suffering inside that hospital. There were many times when I left the consulting rooms crying or banging on the walls in rage, unable to change anything. In the midst of all that, my newlywed wife and I had suffered the loss of a pregnancy, which made us extremely sad, especially her. And between not being able to help people and not being able to save my daughter... I felt guilty.
In the midst of all that, I began to work anxious, nervous, and distraught, causing me to make silly mistakes that complicated everyone. From then on, I was branded as a useless doctor, constantly minimized by my peers and bordering on being in danger of dismissal. I think that, if I kept putting up with all that, it was only because I had a beautiful wife who understood me when I came home crying every night. Without her, I don't know what would have happened to me.
And it was that very day when I was taking the coffee to my supervisor that my life changed completely. The door had been left open, and inside the room was still Guerrero with several female colleagues.
"Hahaha, did he really forget the bandage? God, how stupid," laughed another blonde doctor.
"For real. Seriously, I couldn't give that guy any real responsibility, hahaha... huh?"
After laughing for a few seconds, Guerrero had turned to look at the door, at which point they all saw me.
"What are you doing? Quick, get that coffee."
I set the drink down on the table, with everyone's gaze on me, and before I turned around, something bubbled up from deep inside me.
"I can take care of a patient," I said as I fought back my shyness and suffering.
The room was silent for a few seconds, until they all began to laugh in unison.
"You!" shouted Guerrero as she grabbed my gown intimidatingly, "Do you really think so? You're such an idiot. In all my years as a supervisor I've never been in charge of someone so useless. You-"
"Doctor! We have an emergency patient coming in!"
A nurse came running toward the ward door, looking for Guerrero. She just laughed after a few seconds, before looking back at me.
"You know what, let's play a game. The next patient is going to be in your care. I'm going to be watching every move you make, and at the slightest mistake... I'm going to ask for your resignation. Is that clear," she sneered in front of me before speaking to the nurse, "Hey, Doctor Talos is in charge."
"Okay, let's go!"
After he ran off, I stared skeptically at my supervisor, transfixed.
"Yes!" I shouted nervously before running after the nurse.
That man who had called me handed me a radio, and instructed me to talk over there through signs as I ran.
"Unit, this is Doctor Talos from Internments. Report patient status."
My voice still felt nervous, not that I could contain it. Luckily, everything I said had been understood.
"This is Mobile 4, we have a female pediatric patient with severe hypoxemia and unstable pulse, requesting urgent reception at the emergency lot," I heard over the radio.
In other words, a little girl had very low blood oxygen levels.
"10-4, we are waiting for you at the lot," I closed the communication.
As I arrived at the lot, where several nurses were already waiting, I could see the ambulance approaching with its siren on through the vehicle entrance. It was raining heavily, and my suit was already soaked, but none of that mattered. I was trying to psyche myself up and shake off my anxiety before it arrived, but I found it impossible. Before I knew it, the ambulance was already in front of me. I ran to the back, where the paramedics were waiting.
"Get her inside fast. Her concentration is at 60 percent," a bald paramedic in the ambulance was saying.
"Sixty? That's very low," I reacted.
I quickly surveyed the scene. In addition to the paramedics, inside the ambulance were a man and a woman, presumably his parents, completely terrified. And on the stretcher, which the paramedics were lowering to the ground, was a little girl, with a special mask attached and blue skin tone. Seeing her in front of me, I understood that I had to act.
"Keep up the oxygen therapy! Let's go!"
I got behind the stretcher and started pushing hard in. The rest of the orderlies helped to get us through the door.
"To the inpatient wing. You two, clear the CT room. We need images of her cardiac and respiratory systems."
Oxygenation was quick, rather emergency, to allow her levels to return to normal for a while. Some time later, we were in the imaging room, with the little girl propped up on the gurney of the CT machine.
"I'm going to fill out the report. Age?"
As I was loading the data, the orderly who spoke to the paramedics was telling me the little patient's data.
"Four years old."
"...Clara. Clara Preciado."
I loaded all the data into the machine, and quickly selected the 'start' button.
"Here we go," I reassured myself.
The gurney began to move, with the girl perfectly still, feigning to open her eyes in nervous response, as if she were having a nightmare.
"Please hold on a little longer," I said, even though she didn't understand me.
The machine continued to run through her body, giving low doses of radiation as configured, while the 3D model formed on my monitor.
"Let's see... her lungs seem to be fine... and her heart... too?"
Despite her condition, both her respiratory and circulatory systems seemed in good shape. If she had an irregular pulse, I should focus on the latter, but the heart showed only very minor deformities, which should not affect her.
"Her circulation is a little low, but... could it be a Tetralogy of Fallot? No... this is nothing I've ever seen."
In a panic, I stared at the monitor not knowing what to do.
"What's wrong, Doctor," a nurse asked when he saw me.
"Yes! What is it, Doctor?"
That last shout was from Guerrero, who appeared in the room followed by her companions. She approached imposingly again.
"What are you doing, you good-for-nothing? Let me see!"
She pushed me back with her body as she positioned herself in front of the machine.
"After this you'll be fired, can't be that... huh, what's this? Hey, did you set the machine right?"
"But... it can't be. It's all right, isn't it?"
Not only had the Doctor been taken by surprise by the good condition of her body, but everyone present was completely confused.
"Doctor... what should I do?"
"Huh? You're the one responsible, so take care of her."
That sentence opened my eyes. Right now, I was the one who was supposed to help that helpless girl. No one else. And with someone so fragile in my hands, I couldn't fail.
For the next few hours, I reviewed medical encyclopedias and various essays on cardiology, completely to no avail. Nothing showed anything like this. I rechecked the images we had taken, but I was still baffled. I had to turn to someone else.
"Mmm... I see. It really is a strange case," Dr. Alessandro Salvas, then head of hospital admissions, was telling me. A man in his sixties who had been my mentor since I had entered, and whom I trusted the most in there.
"What should I do," I asked him.
"What do you think we should do, Doctor," he returned my question.
"I... I think we could operate and take out those malformations. It's the only possible cause I can find."
There was silence in the room for a few seconds.
"Are you sure? You know the risks all this can entail. For the patient and for you."
"I know. But... I really want her to be okay."
"Good. Then the operation is authorized. You will accompany Chief Surgeon Duncan in the process. Good luck."
After explaining the procedure to the parents and trying to calm their logical concerns, we locked ourselves in a room to operate on that little girl. She was able to fall asleep quickly thanks to the anesthesia, and we were able to operate with ease, despite the gigantic nerves of everyone present. Several hours passed in the operating room before we were finally able to leave the operating room, where her parents were waiting.
"The operation was a success. We were able to remove the malformations and we hope she recovers soon."
"Yes! Thank god, thank you," celebrated his mother, hugging Clara's father tightly.
"Thank you so much for everything, Doctor," he thanked me as well, while the other doctors cheered in the background.
It was that precise moment when relief came over my body. After so much frustration I had managed to save a little girl's life. We continued to care for her for the rest of that week, during which she played and talked with me almost all the time. Not only because it helped her recovery, but deep down it was good for me to visit her. Seeing that little girl so happy made me break down in tears several times when no one was watching. She had made it. At the end of her recovery, she had to leave.
"Well, what do you have to say to the Doctor," asked her mother in a playful tone.
"Thank you, Doctor Eduardo, I love you very, very, very much," Clara said awkwardly as she waved her arm in the air.
"Get well, Clarita," I replied excited with such happiness.
And so, my story with her was closed. Full of joy, I was going to dedicate myself to continue saving lives and generating more smiles like that...
... oh God, if only I had known what was about to happen.
It was only a few days after she left that my life was ruined again.
"Dr. Talos, we have a patient with hypoxemia coming into the lot," the same nurse who had given me the news earlier alerted me.
"Another one? Cases are on the rise."
"No, Doctor... it's the girl you were taking care of. She has concentration level of less than fifty percent."
I ran like I had never run before in my life to get to the gurney, already inside the hospital.
"Hey, hey, hey. Clarita, relax, I'm here," I said as I grabbed the gurney.
She didn't look good at all. She was breathing very hard to get oxygen, and she looked even bluer than the other time.
Her eyes slowly began to close, until she lost consciousness from lack of air. We had to admit her immediately, and run new tests, which again turned up nothing. I could not find the reason for her hypoxemia. And days later, everything got worse.
"No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. What's going on?!"
I panicked when I saw the new results. Her blood flow was much worse than when she had gone in, and her pulse was even lower, plus the hypoxemia wasn't going away. For another week, she had to be hospitalized, intubated and on mechanical ventilation. And for the rest of the month, she had to stay inside the hospital, barely being able to go out in the yard for a while every day. I tried to keep supporting her, but I didn't know what to do anymore.
"Dr. Talos, do you have a minute?"
The one who called me was Duncan, the surgeon, a bald man in his forties. He had gone to visit me in the waiting room.
"What's going on?"
"They want to investigate us."
I could have sworn my own heart stopped at that moment.
"Guerrero. She's the supervisor, so she wants to take you down in case something goes wrong. And if you go down... my whole team goes down."
"No... there's nothing we can do?"
"Prepare our defense. That's what I came to warn you about."
I was completely frozen. No matter how hard I tried, everything kept going wrong. I couldn't take it.
"I'm sorry...I'm really sorry," I said almost in tears.
Duncan had already started to leave, but he slowed down at the door, his back to me.
"We're not to blame, and I don't think you are either. Life is unfair, nothing more. If you can prove that life wants to be unfair...maybe we can have hope."
I felt that not only could I not save people, but I was hurting and complicating them. Those days, as I recall, were the worst of my entire life. And for another two weeks, nothing changed. Clara kept having regressions and we couldn't find a way to stop them.
"I won, hahahaha, you lost, Edu... huh?"
That playful little girl saw how, while she was smiling, I seemed to be dead in life. I was staring down, without consolation. It was only when she stood quietly looking at me for a while that I noticed.
"What's the matter, Edu, don't you want to play cards? It was you who taught me how to play," she was telling me.
"I'm sorry, I'm fine now. We can go on," I said trying to smile.
But children, even if they don't look like it, are very bold in detecting someone else´s emotions. And I think that was the case with her. I think she knew something was wrong. And that felt even worse.
In just a few seconds, Clara came crawling over the bed, resting her hands in the middle of the space between my body and my crossed legs.
"Don't be sad. Here."
In one of his hands, now outstretched towards me, she was holding a cookie that her parents had given her. She was staring into my eyes as she offered it to me. I took it very cautiously, not knowing if it was right.
"Thank you, Clara. You're such a good girl," I said trying to put on a smile.
I took a bite of the cookie, which was round and vanilla flavored, as I closed my eyes so she could watch me eat it.
"Mmm, it's very tasty, Clara."
When I looked around again, Clara had pounced on me, resting her face against my torso. I thought she was hugging me, so I just smiled until I heard her cry, which was very quiet.
I immediately turned her around and could see that she was breathing heavily, but very rarely. With her two little hands, she was holding my robe as she looked at me.
"It hurts... help."
I laid her down on the bed and rested my ear against her chest, fearing it might be cardiac arrest. And it was: there was no pulse. I quickly pressed the room's emergency button and began resuscitation maneuvers. Being her a kid, I performed compressions with my right hand, while with my left hand I held her head back and opened her airway. Despite doing more than one compression per second, she was still unresponsive.
"Clara! Clara! React!"
The compressions seemed to have no effect. It was at that moment that the nurses rushed into the room with defibrillator in hand. I quickly grabbed it, attached the pediatric pads and triggered it.
After the first shock, thankfully, she seemed to react. She breathed heavily as she began to cry inconsolably. We doctors, luckily trained to respond with this device, quickly relieved ourselves, and Clara was left for observation again.
As I waited outside the room, a few hours after the doctors left, Dr. Salvas spoke to me again.
"I congratulate you on the resuscitation maneuver. Take this."
He was handing me a piece of paper that had nothing to do with congratulations. Rather, it said 'Investigation process against Doctor Talos, Eduardo and against the surgical staff of the General Hospital'.
"It advanced much after what happened just now. Be prepared, Doctor," he sentenced before leaving.
I couldn't take this anymore. Why couldn't anything go right? I didn't understand...
"I don't understand..." I said tearfully to the Doctor, who could no longer hear me.
The next day, I continued to take care of Clara, which I was supposed to do until the investigation progressed. I fed her lovingly, told her a story and took her to the yard to feel the sunlight. There we stood playing for a while, with me sitting intently and her on my lap moving some toy cars and dolls.
"Hey, Edu. This is Emilia," she would say referring to a doll she was holding, "Hi, Eduardo, how are you?"
However, I was again out of focus. I felt empty inside. I thought I was there simply to take my place, but without any motivation. I could barely notice Clara talking to me.
"Oh... how cute. Hello"
"Edu, what's wrong, are you sad again?"
I didn't know how to explain it to her. That little pure soul didn't deserve to be tainted by the whims of adults. But I felt I had to get it out of me just the same.
"This... there are people who are saying bad things about me... because they think I did bad things to you."
Clara didn't seem to understand me. She let go of her doll as she kept staring at me, even though I was looking to the side.
"Because... you wouldn't understand."
After this, Clara grabbed my robe with her small hands and walked over to me. She was so small that, still standing on my legs, she couldn't manage to pass me in height.
"You didn't do anything wrong to me... I love you very much, Edu," she said smiling.
I felt that, at that comment, my mind changed completely. Seeing her standing there was how I imagined I wanted to see her, and also how I imagined my daughter would have been if she had been born. And then I thought... she actually was like a daughter to me. I think that was what I'd been feeling ever since she'd arrived. And I could have sworn that, for an instant, I saw right there another little girl, much like my wife when she was young. That picture moved me to the point where I couldn't stop crying.
"Edu? Don't cry, Ed-"
Before she finished speaking, I hugged her tightly against my body, hiding my head behind her shoulder.
"I'm sorry... I promise to take good care of you. I promise to take care of you like the most precious thing in the world. I love you too, Clara."
I felt her little body try to hug me too, filling me with peace.
"Thank you... Clara."
Dr. Salvas ushered me into his office after I knocked on the door. It had been five days since that hug.
"Good evening, Doctor. I bring you this."
I rested a folder on the table, which the Doctor read instantly. As he flipped through the pages, various writings, images and medical tests could be noticed.
The folder was titled 'Request for research on new congenital heart condition', which on the bottom line was titled 'Crystal Heart'.
"I spent the last few days preparing this report. I researched ad nauseam and found nothing like it anywhere. I would like you to read it, and if you are convinced, to elevate it to the health organizations."
"This... seems reasonable at first glance. But is it an attempt to avoid being investigated?"
It would not have been unusual for some unscrupulous doctor to invent something like that to delay the process against him, but it would never have occurred to me to do so.
"Maybe... but the real reason is that I found the reason I'm a doctor. Even if I get beaten up, I want to help people. And this little girl... I want to save her from her fate, whatever it takes"
Salvas stared at me, as if he knew deep down that I was completely serious, and put the folder down.
"Good. I'll read it today and tell you what I think."
"Thank you very much, Doctor."
“Oh and, Talos… keep taking care of that girl, please,” he smiled to reassure me.
I knew Salvas for a long time, and this smile confirmed something: he had never lost faith in me.
Maybe there was a lot missing. Maybe I wasn't even close to succeeding in helping her. I didn't even know her life expectancy. But I was determined to do it. Deep down I knew it was going to take a long time, but as I walked down those now not-so-dark corridors, I felt more determined than ever. Because, as I saw that little angel again...
"Edu! I missed you so much," Clara was saying to me holding out her arms for me to pick her up.
I grabbed her off her bed smiling and lifted her as high as I could. As she kept laughing, I smiled at her like I hadn't managed to do in a long time.
"I missed you too, Clarita."
For that little angel... I wanted to be her archangel. And seeing that scene, with Clara and Leo now sleeping together, made me realize that I wasn't the only one who wanted to be one. That made me feel happy, too.
"It won't be long now... Clarita," I said still holding her hand.