Chapter 1 - Fresh Air
It was exactly what I needed.
It was the start of my second at my new job and I was still getting lost. It was brand new, huge, and looked expensive. It felt more like a hotel than a hospital in some parts, but that was to be expected in this part of California.
The sprawling curved shape of the building had three main segments; diagnostics and women’s health in one, oncology in another, and plastics in the largest, because once again, California. It was filled with private rooms and had the newest, technologically advanced surgical suites. It would have been a country club of hospitals if not for the clinic on the first floor.
It was pretentious, but the pay was high and so was the patient satisfaction. As little as I seemed to fit in, I was convinced I had snagged my dream job. I was just waiting for it to feel that way.
They had me shadow Theresa, a fifty-year-old Charge Nurse with more wisdom than she realized. The nurses and doctors in our department called her Mother Theresa, and for good reason, and I was loving every minute of it. She trusted me to know what I was doing and never made me second-guess myself when it came to patient care. She had been showing me the ropes, and more often than not, was keeping me from getting lost.
“The people here are the most wonderful and the most annoying,” Theresa explained to me. “Most are well established, come from money, or both, which means they will look at you like you’re their servant rather than their nurse. And it goes for the doctors as well.”
“I can take it,” I told her. “Most people don’t realize how much they need us until they really need us. They all get there eventually.”
She nodded her head. “I didn’t peg you for an optimist, but we’ll see how long that lasts.” She raised an eyebrow at me, making me chuckle as I followed her down the hall.
We were on our way to receive our newest patient. This one was young with ambiguous symptoms. The doctors from the clinic had been talking him up as a medical mystery. Every diagnostic doctor’s pipe dream was to meet a medical mystery and solve it, but that never really happened. I never understood why they wanted that. Sometimes, it seems doctors forget that patients are people.
“Where is he?” I asked her.
“They put him in a bed already.” She pointed down the hall. “He’s a fall risk.”
We walked closer to him and I almost tripped when he looked at me. He sat lounging in his hospital gown, one arm covered in tattoos to the wrist, the other to his fingers. His hair was cut short on the sides and back, leaving a long patch in the middle that he combed absentmindedly with his fingers. It was bleached blonde, growing in much darker at the roots. He watched us with piercing, hazel eyes, and a pretentious, cocky gaze. The man was hot. That much was undeniable.
“Mr. Ziegler,” Theresa greeted him.
“Hi there,” he said with a stunning smile.
“I’m Nurse Diaz and this is Nurse Brennan,” she introduced us. “We’ll be taking you up for your MRI.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” He shook her hand and then turned to me. “And especially you,” he said with a flirtatious, growling tone while holding his hand out to me.
I shook it but was distracted by his bracelets. I grabbed the thin braids with my fingers, feeling them for wires. “These don’t have metal in them, right?” I asked.
“No ma’am,” he growled. Everything that came from his mouth sounded suggestive. He pulled his arm away slowly.
“Do you have any other jewelry or piercings, Mr. Ziegler?” I asked.
“No, but you can take a look if you don’t believe me, Nurse Brennan.”
He playfully tugged down his gown. His tattooed sleeves were an eclectic mix of classic flowers, waves, and koi fish, and stopped at the top of his shoulders. His chest was toned and hairless and clearly contained no piercings. He was really trying. I looked back to Theresa with a laughing smirk.
“I think you’re fine,” she told him. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yes! Take me for a ride.”
Theresa wheeled him down the wide hall toward the elevator as I trotted alongside her, staring at the mural on the wall. Each wing was decorated with a different variant of blue. This one was shades of aqua, the mural an abstract, cascading wave composed of tiny triangles. It was as intriguing up close as it was from afar.
“You know I can walk, right?” Mr. Ziegler asked.
“That’s what you said last time. Right before you passed out and almost got ourself a concussion,” Theresa scolded him. He snarled at her like a playful child. I grabbed the tablet from the front of his bed and took a look at his chart.
His symptoms were vague; unexplained weight loss, body aches, fatigue. The only symptoms of concern were stabbing pains in the abdomen and back and fainting spells.
They had already run a battery of tests on him, too. X-rays, multiple blood panels, an echo, and now an MRI. “Come for an STD screening, stay to find out you have some un-diagnosable, mystery disease,” he said tongue-in-cheek. “I never thought I’d prefer to have syphilis.”
I couldn’t keep myself from laughing. He gave me an accomplished smile.
“We will figure out what is wrong with you and get you on your way soon enough,” Theresa assured him.
“I don’t know . . . I think you’re trying to keep me here as long as possible.” He winked at her. “Must be this sexy hospital gown driving you girls crazy,” he said, stretching it out in front of his chest. I stifled my laughter. Theresa shook her head at him as we reached the elevator lobby.
I pushed the button and we waited quietly. I looked down at him and smiled. He raised his eyebrows suggestively. I tried to not roll my eyes.
Suddenly, a faint blaring sound came from down the hall. Theresa looked in the sound’s direction and her eyes narrowed. “It’s a code. I’ll meet you up there.” She started to run off. “Fourth floor to the right!” she yelled as she hurried away. I was convinced she read minds, too.
“Are you new here?” Mr. Ziegler asked.
I snorted. “Is it that obvious?”
I left my last job in a hospice because it was affecting me more than it should. I knew I wanted to work with people who needed the empathetic, emotional support I love to give, but what I hadn’t known was that I would miss the medicine, that I would miss the chance to see my patients get better. That last part was everything.
The elevator arrived. I pushed the bed inside and pressed the button for the fourth floor. Mr. Ziegler laced his fingers behind his head and laid back against his pillow, looking up at me. “So, what’s your first name, Ms. Brennan? Mrs. Brennan?”
“Miss. It’s Sabine.”
"Sabine,” he repeated with a growl. He rolled to his side and propped up a knee under his blanket. He appraised me with his eyes, and asked, “Are you Italian? You don’t look Italian.”
“My grandmother was. You can thank her for the name.” My nonna had married a nice Irishman, moved to America, and made my father who went on to marry my lovely, Palestinian mother. The sun made my skin darker, my brown hair redder, and everyone else more confused. “Yours is Neil, right?”
“Yeah. My friends call me Ziggy. You can call me Ziggy if you want.”
“Sure thing, Ziggy.” The elevator chimed and the doors open.
On the way to imaging, I took a wrong turn at some point. After a few more, I resorted to following the signs like a visitor, my patient laughing all the way. We finally made it to the room. The radiologist barely looked up from his magazine to invite us inside. At least I knew I was in the right place.
“Alright, I need to you transfer to this table for me,” I patted the spot in question.
“Do I get to take this stupid dress off?”
“And be naked?” I laughed. “No.”
“Ah, you’re missing out.”
I helped him climb onto the table, though he didn’t seem to need it. He was in good shape; slim and noticeably muscular. Everything about him made it seem like he was in perfect health. I started to get excited about the idea of figuring what was wrong with him and fixing it. “Are you claustrophobic, Ziggy?”
He chuckled to himself. “No, I’m quite fond of sticking myself into tight places.”
A groan of disgust escaped me before I could stop it. He laughed at my misfortune as he lied down. “You are too much,” I said.
“That’s what they all tell me,” he quipped with a suggestive smile. There was no winning with this one.
I pushed the button to move him into the machine. He tried to hide the nervousness from his expression as he moved into the tube. “How long does this take?”
“Just a few minutes. If you hold still.”
I left the room to let the scan begin and sat next to the silent radiologist. He slurped his coffee periodically while he did his thing, but was still engrossed in his Men’s Health magazine. When I glance back through the window at Mr. Ziegler, I found his hands fidgeting the way mine did when I was nervous.
I pressed the button to speak to him. “Just a couple more minutes, Mr. Ziegler.”
“Cool,” he said with a bit of apprehension. It sounded like he needed a distraction.
“What was it you said you do for a living?” I asked him, knowing he had never mentioned it before.
“I’m a photographer.”
“Well, that’s awesome. What kind?”
“Fashion mainly, but I do all types of portraiture. Anything with people and the possibility of drama.”
He seemed passionate about what he does, so I stayed on topic. “Anything I’ve seen?”
“I’ve been in GQ a handful of times. Vogue once.”
He allowed himself a small laugh. “Way.”
“Deep breath for me, sir,” the radiologist interrupted. He did as he was told, his fingers started to move as they had before. “Good.”
I watched him exhale, then watched his toes begin fidgeting as well. “I bet your Instagram is super cool,” I said tongue-in-cheek.
His fidgeting stopped when he moaned. “Oh, don’t tell me you’re one of those people.”
“What, a wannabe influencer? A hipster?”
“Sure. Let’s call it that.”
“I think my taste in clothing and music might suggest that.” The computer beeped and the images started to come in. “But, for the record, my Instagram latte pics are very original.”
That got a big smile from him. “Don’t make me laugh, I’m supposed to be still.”
The radiologist gave me the thumbs up. “Go ahead, you’re all done,” I told him.
“Already.” I walked back into the room and pressed the button to let him out, being sure to scan his legs for any signs of mysterious discoloration or something else to support the doctor’s claims. “Are you feeling okay?”
“Yes, of course. Though I’m disappointed to find out my hot nurse is basic.”
“Excuse me. Basic?” I said with a playful grin.
He laughed, sitting up as the machine came to a stop. I pulled the gurney closer and helped him stand. “I’ll still give you a chance. Maybe you’ll . . .” he stopped short, his face twisting in pain.
His eyes rolled back and he went limp. I recklessly jumped in his path, catching him in my arms. His weight pulled me down hard onto my hip, but I managed to keep both of our heads from hitting the ground.
My heart pounded rapidly in my chest as I yelled, “Page the attending, please!”