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How I Helped Mrs. Vastbinder

by Bill Kowaleski

Mrs. Vastbinder was really sick when I first saw her in that private room of hers, attached to IV’s, tired all the time, mostly sleeping. She won me over when I came into her room one morning to clean up. That’s what I did then, I cleaned the rooms, emptied the bedpans, wheeled the patients to their tests, all that stuff that has to be done in the hospital but nobody wants to think about.

She opened her eyes and smiled. “What’s your name?” she said. It’s a good thing my hearing is so sharp or I wouldn’t have understood. She spoke so softly.

“Stanley Nowitski, Mrs. Vastbinder. You, you d-d-don’t have to tell me your name because it’s on your b-bed.”

That’s how I have to talk now. The words don’t come out easy, and my brain gets way ahead of my mouth. I won’t drive you crazy by continuing to write like I talk.

“Well, Stanley,” she said while flashing eyes that could light up the Carlsbad Caverns, “you’re doing a great job. My room is always spotless.”

I had to stop a second and process that. She hadn’t complained about some speck of dust I’d missed, some table in the wrong place. No, she’d told me that I did a great job! That settled it. She was my friend from that moment on. Nobody had ever noticed the good work I did. Nobody except Mrs. Vastbinder. I was determined to help her any way I could.

“What’s wrong, Mrs. Vastbinder? Why are you in here?”

She sighed. “Oh, it’s pretty hopeless, really. Leukemia. Not the good kind they can get rid of; the really bad stuff.”

She didn’t have an old lady’s voice, but she sure looked like an old lady with her thin white hair and wrinkly skin. Probably the sickness.

“But I can’t really complain, Stanley. After all, death was part of the bargain from the day I was born. You don’t get to renegotiate.”

She laughed a little, so I laughed too, though it didn’t really seem that funny to me. Why should she have to die when so many awful people, like Dr. Vashnarian, got to live — and drive a big BMW too?

It seemed that whenever I thought about him, Dr. Vashnarian walked into the room, and this time was no exception. He burst through the door, his beady black eyes locking on to me immediately. He took three of his little steps toward me — his legs were so short that that was the only way he could walk — and shouted in his usual commanding voice, “Please leave at once! I must examine the patient!”

“Her name is Mrs. Vastbinder,” I mumbled, quickly turning before he could snap something clever back at me.

I stood outside the door, fussing with my cleaning cart, but listening closely to his booming voice as he lectured her.

“The disease will progress. The issue now is one of palliative care. Please consult with the pain specialist I’ll be sending over. Any questions?”

“Well, what does that word mean, palleetive, or whatever?” She was talking a little more loudly now. I took that as a good thing.

“The pain specialist deals with that. I’ve got twelve more patients to visit.”

That was my cue. He always said something abrupt and rude instead of goodbye. I started pushing my cart down the hall, narrowly missing him as he rushed out of the room and raced alongside of me down the hall taking two steps for every one of mine.

“Dr. Vashnarian,” I said to him as he came up even with me — well, almost even. His head only reached my chest. “Just what form of cancer does she have? I want to look it up and learn about it.”

“I can’t tell you that; patient confidentiality.” He veered into another room.

“Nice talking to you,” I murmured.

And so, I turned my cart and parked again at her door. She was asleep, and her chart hung from the hook at the foot of her bed. They have it all on computers now, but some doctors insist on those old-fashioned paper charts. Thank heavens for that. It took a few minutes before I found it. Relapsed, resistant ALL

That night, in my little house in Bridgeport, I looked it up on the internet, and as I read, my buried memories about ALL flooded back. Mrs. Vastbinder’s variant was a death sentence, but my mice would find a way. They held all the answers, if you knew how to ask.

I wasn’t sure then why I knew so much about mice — special mice I had to send away for. The accident had shut out so much of my memory. But things made sense when I worked with those mice, so that’s what I did every night. Still, I wanted to help people, not just mice. So why not start with Mrs. Vastbinder? After all, the doctors were just going to stand around and watch her die anyway.

ALL, that’s Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Relapsed. Resistant. But not that hard for little molecular machines to find and gobble up. It took me only three days to make them and test them in my mice, and it wasn’t really much trouble. Ideas just come to me and I’ve learned not to ignore them. But Mrs. Vastbinder was not a mouse. I decided I’d better make sure she was OK with my curing her. So, I waited until late in the day, during a shift change.

I shook her gently until she awoke. She favored me with that big smile. “Well, hello, Stanley. So nice of you to visit me.”

I admit, I was kind of nervous, and she could tell. “Mrs. Vastbinder, I have something for you. I just have to inject it in your drip. Is that OK?”

“Well, I don’t know. What is it?”

“It’s the c-cure for your cancer.” I was stuttering worse than usual. She had to know how nervous I was.

“Oh, Stanley, it’s so kind of you to think you could help me like that, and how I wish it were true. But Dr. Vashnarian has already told me—”

Anger focused me, let me speak clearly. “He doesn’t care about you. He’s still got twelve other patients to see. He just wants to make more money to pay off his BMW.”

“Now, Stanley, that’s pretty harsh.”

“Why not try it, Mrs. Vastbinder? What have you got to lose?”

“Well, I think maybe we should call a nurse first, don’t you think?”

Before I could stop her, she’d pushed her call button. I knew that I had to do it when I had the chance, and now I’d need to inject it directly into the bloodstream so they couldn’t pull her drip and keep it from getting into her. I pulled the syringe out of my coat, removed her drip, inserted the needle and pushed.

Just at that moment a nurse walked in, locked her gaze onto my hand holding that syringe, and screamed. I got it all in, pulled the needle out and pushed down the nurse as I ran out the door. But a big guard caught me at the elevator.

Just a few minutes later I was in a room down in the basement, a room I’d never known about. Dr. Vashnarian was there, the big guard, and Dr. Mona. She was a psychiatrist who’d been helping me since the accident. I really liked her, so young and pretty, red-headed, green eyes — she said she was Irish. I was in love with her, actually, but I’d never dared tell her.

“What was in that syringe?” asked Dr. Vashnarian, his voice shrill as an operatic soprano’s, his fists clenched.

All that tension made it almost impossible for me to talk. I stammered, I groaned, but nothing came out. Dr. Mona put an arm on my shoulder and said, “Just relax, Stanley. We need to know what you injected into Mrs. Vastbinder. Her doctor has to know all the medications she takes.”

I looked at that horrible little man, and anger filled me with confidence. “Don’t you still have twelve more patients to see?” I shouted at him.

The guard quickly stepped between me and Dr. Vashnarian. He turned to Dr. Mona and said, “Should we take him down to the restraint room?”

She shook her head. “Stanley, please, let us in on what you did. Were you trying to put her out of her misery?”

Before I could say a word, Dr. Vashnarian had pulled out his cell phone and started to bark orders about things to do to poor Mrs. Vastbinder in case I’d poisoned her. That did it, I had to tell them what I’d done.

“It’s the cure for her cancer. Nanoparticles will eat the cancer cells.” It took me a good minute to say all of that, what with all my stammering.

Dr. Vashnarian’s face filled with the most awful scorn. He could teach a course on scorn and disapproval, they were his special competencies.

“Oh, so the man who cleans the rooms knows how to cure a recurrent, aggressive leukemia. I see. How foolish of me not to consult with you, Dr...” he looked at my nametag. “Dr. Nowitski.”

“Actually,” said Dr. Mona, “he really is Dr. Nowitski. But that was before the accident.”

Nobody seemed to pick up on that. They just wanted to know what I’d injected into Mrs. Vastbinder. I told them again, adding, “I tested the nanoparticles in my mice first; the particles are safe and effective. But it’ll take time to see that. Just leave her alone, you’ll see.”

Dr. Vashnarian’s cell phone rang. For once he just listened, nodding, grumbling “I see” a few times. He put it away and said, “No evidence of toxicity. All vital signs as before. Initial screen of that syringe shows no toxins. We’ll continue monitoring in ICU for now. He probably just injected some saline.”

They put me in the locked ward for crazy people. I tried to tell them that my mice would need feeding, and they said the police had already found them and brought them to the hospital’s research lab. So that was my thank you. They stole my mice and locked me up. If only I could explain better...

Dr. Mona visited me every day in the Psych Ward — that’s what she said I should call it. I ended up liking it in there because I could see her so much. We talked, and I told her a lot of things. She just laughed when I said that I loved her.

“Oh, Stanley, you just miss your wife,” she said.

But I didn’t even remember that I’d had a wife. “She died in the accident,” Dr. Mona told me. “You lost part of your brain, but worse than that, you lost your career. You were one of the best. Your loss was our loss, too.”

Well, yeah, I realized that I’d lost my career. Except that I knew it was still in me somewhere. But how could I find it stuck in that psych ward?

A few days after I’d injected the nano-machines into Mrs. Vastbinder, a man in a suit accompanied Dr. Mona on her daily visit to my room. She told me he was a detective.

“Call me Steve, Stanley. I just want to talk about Mrs. Vastbinder. Is that OK?” I’ve got some brain damage, but I’m no fool. Dr. Mona must have coached him to be nice, to use that soothing voice, that phony smile, so I wouldn’t get rattled and totally tongue-tied. But Steve was not my friend.

“Stanley, this morning, Mrs. Vastbinder went into renal failure. Why do you think that might be?”

I closed my eyes and tried to let the knowledge rise up from the depths where it hid. Since the accident, reason couldn’t help my recall.

“Now, Stanley,” said Steve, “don’t ignore me. I could be arresting you for murder if she dies before I leave. The more you help, the better it’ll go for you.”

I opened my eyes in time to see Dr. Mona put her hand on Steve’s shoulder. That made me so jealous. Why would she touch him like that? “Detective,” she said, “remember what I told you. Keep it—”

“Okay, okay,” Steve said. “I’m reverting to my usual tactics. My mistake.”

He painted the smile back onto his face and stared at me with his suspicious eyes. “You do want Mrs. Vastbinder to live, don’t you, Stanley?”

I don’t know why, but that got to me. Words burst out like they hadn’t since before I’d awakened, confused and lost, in that same hospital, three floors up. “I’m the only person who wants Mrs. Vastbinder to live! Dr. Vashnarian just wants to pay off his BMW, and you, don’t you have twelve more cases to solve?”

Steve didn’t get that one. His smile melted into a look of pure confusion. But before he could say anything, the door to my room flew open and Dr. Vashnarian slithered to my bedside.

“Now you will tell us, Dr. Nowitski, just what was in that syringe! My patient’s life depends on it.”

I realized something at that moment: Dr. Vashnarian did care about his patients. Why, I wasn’t sure. Because their deaths might reflect badly on him? Or, could it be? Might he really want to help them? But he was finally listening to me. This was my chance, and I took it.

After I’d carefully explained what I’d done, I added, “And so I think the problem is that you haven’t adequately hydrated her to—”

“To flush out all the dead cancer cells and nanoparticles,” he finished. “Yes, precisely.” He pulled out his phone and began barking orders into it.

After he finished, Dr. Vashnarian turned his black eyes toward Steve.

“And who are you?”

Steve explained.

Dr. Vashnarian turned on his scorn, saying, “You are wasting your time. Dr. Nowitski was trying to save Mrs. Vastbinder, and while his methods are controversial, they are not criminal. Don’t you have some more cases to investigate?”

“At least twelve,” I chimed in.

* * *

I’ve thought a lot about how the accident so terribly damaged me, killed my wife, almost obliterated my career. And yet, without it, I might not have saved Mrs. Vastbinder. Today I have my mice back, and the same nice lab they tell me I worked at before the accident. It’s right next to the hospital, and I can study those nano-machines full time. Other people clean the rooms and transport the patients now, but I’ve gone back to my old job just long enough to perform one final task.

After they hydrated Mrs. Vastbinder, she improved fast, and a month after I’d injected the nano-machines into her, I learned she was being discharged. I rushed out of my lab so I could push her wheelchair to the door where her son was picking her up. At the hospital entrance, she turned to me and said, “Stanley, or should I say Dr. Nowitski, you’ve performed a miracle. I prayed for one, and you were sent. Thank you.”

Her son held the back door open as she stood and took six steps along the sidewalk then into the car. She looked strong. She looked healthy. And then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and faced Dr. Vashnarian.

“I also must thank you, Dr. Nowitski,” he said. I’d never heard his voice like that, so soft, almost contrite. “I wish I’d known about your, ah, situation. I wish I had realized who you are. I was rude to you.”

He offered his hand and I shook it. But I had to say something. “Dr. Vashnarian, I accept your apology, but remember me the next time someone you think is insignificant crosses your path.”

He nodded and smiled, then added, “And remember me also. Maybe someone is short with you because he’s overwhelmed with his caseload.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I’ve learned something from you, too. Thanks. But I’ve got to get back. I have twelve more tests to complete today.”

Copyright © 2018 by Bill Kowaleski

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