Time of death. Three simple words that, together, meant something so powerful. Ellie Zambrano had muttered those three words so many times she lost count. But each time, they made her feel something different. Sometimes relieved they were in a better place, and others she felt as though the world was ending because their lives came to a calamitous halt. Even through her many successful surgeries, the ones that ended gravely were always playing the message that she could have done better.
All the times she had said it they were all for children who deserved better than dire hospital walls that had animals with fake smiles plastered on them. They served to go to school with other kids, play on the playground, have dinners at the dinner table with heir families. While she gave that to most kids, the ones who she took that from she never forgot. Their faces were permanently engraved in her brain and she them before she laid down at night. The heartbreaking ones, the ones who didn’t even have a fighting chance, the ones who did make it, and the ones who lost by a hair. She remembered the them all. And she would never forget. Even though it hurt, she didn’t want to.
She rubbed her sleep deprived eyes and leaned on the counter while one of the nurses gave her an update on one of her patients who had surgery just an hour before. The papers read stable and predicted a smooth recovery.
“Long day Dr. Zambrano?” Ellie’s favorite nurse Val, the only nurse who was always up for a midnight chat, asked, noticing she wasn’t reading the chart as quickly as usual.
“No, just haven’t slept in forty-eight hours, my coffee is cold, and I just got out of a four-hour surgery. But, no. Not a long day at all.” She gave Val a smirk.
Everyone, including the parents and kids, admired her sense of humor. Everywhere she went she was able to bring this lightness with her, which was a difficult thing to do when there were sick kids fighting for their lives.
“But that’s what the job calls for. Although they should make cups that keep your coffee warm for two days but whatever. Anyway, how’s Gabriel?”
“Still craving green lollipops and laughing at the poorly painted giraffe on the wall if that’s what you mean.”
Ellie sighed, closing the binder. “I’m not sure how that kid does it. He has it so bad but he still smiles and can laugh all day about dumb stuff.”
“Yeah well, he doesn’t know he has it bad.”
“That’s because he doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Val picked up her coffee and slid it across the table. “It’s still hot.”
Ellie smiled at her and took the cup. “Thanks Val,” she called, the cup in binder in hand as she walked down the hallway to go tend to another patient.
Walking down the hallway, she saw the man who was in her intern class who she had fallen in love. She never thought she would go for him. In their intern year he had unattractive cocky attitude and treated the nurses with disrespect, but once he grew up that all changed. And now here they were, eight years strong. But that was Antonio for you. Perfect.
“How did it go?” he asked, stopping in the hallway to talk to her, something they did whenever they had a spare moment.
She let out a breath. “Successful. I have an appendix to take out in an hour. Want to join me? It’s going to fun,” she joked.
He widened his eyes. “Oh yeah, appendix’s. Super cool. You know I would love to, but I have way cooler stuff. Heart stuff. It’s a cardio things. You wouldn’t understand.”
“Yeah, yeah. But I get to save kids. Take that.” She punched his chest lightly. “You want to grab lunch afterwards?”
He nodded, stepping closer to her and kissing her repeatedly. She kissed him back, but pushed him away quickly after.
“Nope, that’s all you get. I refuse to be like the residents who have sex everywhere and are all touchy-touchy while people are dying. I’ll see you later.
Ellie held her container with a sandwich in her aching fingers, winding through the hallways with her food after Antonio canceled on her because of an emergency surgery. She let her feet taking her wherever they wanted, which is why she found herself nearing Gabriel’s room.
“Dr. Z!” A teenager with lost blue eyes and fluffy blond hair called from his room, alone. The only company being the poorly painted giraffe on the wall whose smile was more satire than calming.
Gabriel’s was a patient of Ellie’s from the beginning. He had already been at the hospital a year before she arrived, diagnosed with Batten disease when he was six, and he had been in the hospital ever since. That disease changed his whole life. In just eleven years he went from being a happy six-year-old boy who loved toy cars and puzzles and painting to a seventeen-year-old who was near blind, forgot things easily, and who’s life would most likely be over within the next five years. The only reason he could tell it was Ellie nearby was because of her voice. He might have been getting weaker, but his hearing was still strong.
One thing his dementia hadn’t affected though, was Ellie.
“Gabriel, Gabriel, Gabriel, what do you need now?” she said teasingly, sitting down at the end of his bed with her sandwich in hand.
“D-d-do you have green lolli-uh...”
“Do I have green lollipops? Yes, I do. Would you like one?”
His smile widened and he clapped with hands to the best of his abilities. He had a slurred smile, and held out his hands as steady as he could to try to take the sweat candy on the stick.
“You’re the only one who likes the green ones,” she said, peeling off the plastic for him and then taking his hand, gently moving his fingers so he could hold it. She could tell his fingers weren’t gripping to the stick tightly enough, so she continued to hold it, bringing it up to his mouth so he could taste it.
“Good?” she asked.
He nodded and smiled into nothingness.
They were silent for a couple minutes, Ellie eating her sandwich and Gabriel sucking on the lollipop was turning his lips green.
I still ’member your face Z,” he whispered, trying to the sentence the best he could.
“Yeah. I miss it.”
She tilted her head and smiled even though Gabriel couldn’t see it. Resting her hand on his leg, he continued.
“I miss a lot of things. I m-m-mis be able to speak good. Seeing good. Using my h-h-hands. But you kn-now what I miss-s-s most?”
He didn’t say anything, but that meant everything. He missed his life. More importantly the people in his life. His mom and dad. The two people closest to him who left when he needed them most. They came once a month to visit, but that wasn’t enough for him. In a
“I know,” she said, acknowledging that she was listening.
“What happens when-n-n I die? I’ll hurt?”
Her heart stopped for a moment as she was reminded of the timer on Gabriel’s life. In the next five years, Ellie would keep going and Gabriel would be left behind.
When it continued again, she could hear it in her ears and could feel the thuds put pressure on her chest. She could feel the days getting closer and closer, and she feared it would suddenly creep up on her without any warning. His speech was worsening, he couldn’t grab onto things, and he was forgetting more and more.
“No, it won’t hurt. You’ll have a hard time breathing, you won’t be able to talk, and your heart will slowly stop, but it won’t hurt. And when it does stop, the angles will come down and take you somewhere else. Somewhere where you can talk like everybody else, and you can run and paint, and you can eat green lollipops whenever you want.”
His lips formed a smile at her descriptions of the life that was waiting for him.
Ellie rested her hand on his leg, and took one last long look at him, trying to take in his smile and making sure she would be able to remember it just like she did her other patients.
“Okay, I have to check on other patients now, but I’ll comeback later with another lollipop.” She squeezed his hand twice and left.
Winding through the pediatric wing and popping her head in to check on her other patients, she tried not to think about Gabriel’s like soon reaching its end. The saddest part was that he would have to die to reach the happiness he deserved. His life had been screwed over the day he was diagnosed. Never being able to be with the other kids, not even being able to simple tasks like eating a lollipop, always being stuck in his head because he couldn’t communicate everything he wanted to.
She pushed her hair and continued along, finding that this shift was one of those where she wanted to do nothing but go home.
Lucky for her the the rest of the afternoon and evening passed quickly, and soon she was in the same clothes she had come in forty-eight hours ago. Her bag hung-over her aching shoulders and she shoved her hands into her pockets.
“Ellie,” Antonio called, jogging up to her with his bag and the same clothes he arrived in back on. When he was close enough he pulled into a side embrace and they continued out the sliding glass doors together.
“Save any more hearts?” she asked.
“Yep. Heart valve replacement. Minimal blood loss and recovering well. Save any more babies?”
“Why yes. I had to replace a spina bifida shunt.”
“How’s Gabriel?” Antonio often asked about Gabriel often, even though he knew there was always a slight chance their casual conversation would turn into screaming match. They didn’t exactly agree with how they treated their patients. Antonio would bring up the fact that he thought Ellie got too attached and she would counter with the fact that he didn’t care enough. That’s how it was with Gabriel. Though he still asked because he knew she cared deeply for him, especially since she had known him her whole medical career.
“Yeah, he’s okay. He’s got a few years left. I just want to keep him alive. Not seeing his smile everyday would kill me.”
“You get too emotionally invested.”
Here we go again, she thought.
Ellie rolled her eyes. People told her that all the time, but she wasn’t going to change. She would much rather be too emotionally invested than cold and have patients be scared of him. After all, they were just kids. She thought being nice and giving them lollipops and hugs and stuffed animals was part of the job. They all acted a distracting for them from the needles and wires and tubes sticking in them.
“Maybe you’re not emotionally invested enough. My patients love me.”
“But you also love them, and that’s a problem because you’re a surgeon. Not every kid makes it. Probably most of them. The more invested you get, the harder it is to let go.
“Whatever.” She pulled away from him as they neared the car
“I’m serious, Ellie. Kids like Gabriel, there the worst ones. It’s hard when they die. I just don’t want you to spiral like you did with- “
“That was different. And I won’t,” she assured him, trying to reign back in the conversation before it ended in tears. “But they deserve everything because they won’t get to have anything.” She got senses and the conversation stopped. They had this conversation so many times before it was like they were reading the same script over and over again. She thought by now he would be able to see her side, or at least stop bringing it up. But he didn’t. And that was his only flaw.
When they got to the car, he opened the back doors so they could put their things down, but she hesitating, the feeling that she forgot something
“Ill be right back. I said I would give Gabriel a lollipop before I left and the nurses won’t give him any.”
She started running back toward the building, leaving Antonio standing behind.
“Too emotionally invested!” he yelled.
But Ellie continued running bac.
The air inside was cooler than it was when she left, but she didn’t notice. She was just wanted to say goodbye and go home and go to bed.
“Gabriel,” she called from down the hallway, soon coming upon his room. Catching her breath, she walked in and went to stand close to the head of his bed. “I forgot to give you last lollipop.” She reached into her pocket and went to put it in his hand, but stopped before she touched his skin. Her eyes adverted to the half eaten green lollipop that was half eaten sticking to the white sheets and staining them green.
“Gabriel,” she said, her voice in a low whisper as she realized the inevitable. The packaged lollipop dropped on the floor and cracked, the green pieces shattering scattering on the floor.
“Gabriel,” she repeated, shaking him awake. She yelled his name out once more, catching the attention of by standards. She put her hands o his cheeks. She tried, one more time to say his name, but Gabriel stayed in his position. Ellie scanned the room and in the distance of all the sounds that were echoing around her, she heard the flat line noise coming from the machine.
Her feet carried her out into the hallway, screaming for a crash cart and getting one in a matter of seconds.
A few nurses and other doctors followed him back to Gabriel’s room where they ripped is shirt off, revealing his chest. Ellie rubbed the paddles together and told them to change to two hundred.
She pressed them to his chest and watched as it sent a shock through is body, and then was still.
The paddles sat on his chest and she watched it shocked him again. And again. And again. She stopped shocking him and move to manual, pushing on his chest every second, but it didn’t work.
A nurse put a hand on her shoulder, gently saying, “Dr. Zambrano, he’s been down for thirty minutes. He’s gone.”
“No,” she cried, tears falling her eyes to his chest, clouding her sight. Sweat from the strength CPR took causing sweat to drip down her face. “He has to be fine. He still has five years left.” She continued pushing while the nurses stood behind her, to afraid to tell her to stop.
But then she stopped, and took a few steps back, staring at him. Staring at the aftermath of the past thirty minutes and the destruction it caused.
“You have to say it, Dr. Zambrano. You have to say time of death.”
“I can’t,” she panted, her lips stretching as she tried to hold her tears back.
“You have to.”
Tears continued to fall from her face as she kept staring at Gabriel, whose time had finally come.
Ellie quickly shut her lips and wiped her eyes. “No.” She stepped towards his body once again. “Charge again.”
She whipped her head around. “I said change again.”
The nurses obeyed, afraid to disagree because they could see her crumbling.
She rubbed the puddles together for the final time, and went to press it to his chest, but was stopped when Antonio came into the room.
“What the hell is going on?” he asked watching his wife sob was trying to bring him back.
“He’s been down for thirty minutes,” a nurse muttered to him.
He nodded his head and walked over to her, grabbing her hands looking at her sympathetically. The best he could anyway, knowing this was only happening because she loved him.
“Ellie, you’ve got to let him go. Come on.” He did his best to pull her away, but she stayed strong, until she didn’t, and she fell into him, falling the floor.
She stayed in his arms for ten minutes before she should finally stand on her own two feet and mutter the three words that would haunt her and take all the capacity on her mind until someone else he had created the same relationship with would come into her life and fulfill his space. But for now, it was Gabriel who was gone.
With a shattered breath, she cleared her voice and spoke in a dry tone, trying to separate herself from him. But it didn’t work.
“Time of death, twenty-one thirty-five.”