Ann worked harder than she ever had before in her life over the next week. She was determined to prove to Dr. Dergan that she was a person worthy of his attention. She spent every evening reading about her patients’ diseases and she stayed later at the hospital than any of the other medical students. She could hear how impressed Dr. Dergan was when she began coming up with the correct answers to his questions. “You’re going to be a really good doctor, Ann,” he told her.
On Friday, at the end of the second week, Dr. Dergan called her into his office for a chat. She came around four in the afternoon and caught him in the middle of some paperwork. She glanced down to see what he was working on and realized she couldn’t read a word of it. She guessed that it was pretty hard to write legibly without being able to use your fingers.
“Is this a bad time?” she asked him.
“No, it’s a good time,” he said. “Have a seat.”
Ann sat down and crossed her legs nervously. She cursed herself for having worn a skirt that morning.
“I just wanted to give you some feedback,” he said, “considering we’re at the halfway mark.”
“Ann, you’ve been doing a fantastic job recently,” he said. “I’ve seen a major improvement. I can see you’re really working hard and I just want you to know that it hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
“Thank you, Dr. Dergan,” she said.
“You can call me Joel,” he said, smiling at her. “I’m not that much older than you.”
She couldn’t help but blush. It’s true that he wasn’t much older than she was, but it was also true that nobody else on the team called him by his first name. It was very endearing and sweet.
“I just wish I could have found more procedures for you to do,” he went on, “but, you know, that’s medicine.” He sighed. “We’ll see what we can do in the next two weeks, but I can’t promise anything.”
“I don’t mind,” Ann said. “I’ve really been learning a lot from you.”
“Yeah?” Dr. Dergan beamed. “I’m glad to hear that. Have you given any thought to what areas of surgery you might be interested in? I could tell you a little about the different subspecialties.”
“I was thinking about vascular surgery, actually,” Ann said.
“You’re kidding!” he exclaimed. “That’s what I was going to do.”
Ann could see the excitement plain on her attending’s face and it was contagious. Lori was definitely wrong about him… he really seemed to get a kick out of the idea of helping Ann become a surgeon. And aside from his friendly gesture of allowing her to call him by his first name (which she didn’t think she’d feel comfortable doing anyway), he hadn’t done anything that would qualify as “making a move.”
She tried not to admit it to herself, but she couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that his interest in her was purely that of being her mentor. A small part of her had been hoping that Dr. Dergan was attracted to her. She knew it would be wrong to allow anything to happen between the two of them, but there would have been something exciting about having an affair with her attending. Especially an attending who was as cute as Dr. Dergan.
Dr. Dergan started going on about vascular surgery and how to find out more about the subspecialty. His brown eyes were glowing as he talked. “I know a lot of people in the field who would be happy to talk to you about it. Would you like me to make a list?”
He reached for a pen and Ann saw the way he grabbed it between his thumb and his palm. He held it much like a child would hold a crayon. He wrote down one name and then the pen slipped from his hand and rolled right off the table. “Shit,” he muttered.
The pen had fallen just out of his reach and he had to wheel out from behind his desk to get to it. Ann wasn’t sure if she should help him or not, but she figured he might take it as condescending if she jumped up and got the pen. He had to reach for it and it took him several tries to keep it from escaping his hand. As he sat back up, he slammed his head against his desk. “Shit!” he cried.
Ann saw red just below his hairline. He rubbed his head. “Damn, that was kind of embarrassing. Am I bleeding?”
She couldn’t see from across his desk. She stood up and walked around the desk to get a view of the wound. She saw little seedlings of blood oozing from the superficial cut. She noticed that the cut was just below a faded scar. “Yeah, you’re bleeding a little.”
He lifted his eyes to meet hers. “What do you think? Do I need a head CT?”
His joke did little to distract her from the intensity of his brown eyes. God, he’s sexy. She felt her pulse quicken. I’ve got to get out of here.
“Sorry, I just remembered,” she said quickly, “I’ve got a… um, I’ve got to go?”
Concern filled his face. “Ann, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine… I just remembered I have an… um, appointment, so…” She knew she was stammering but she couldn’t help it. “Are we done here?”
Dr. Dergan nodded. “Yeah, sure…”
He was still giving her a funny look as she hurried out the door.
Ann must have sat in her car for fifteen minutes before starting the engine, thinking about what had just happened in Dr. Dergan’s office. She had acted like a complete idiot, she realized it now. She felt embarrassed by her behavior, but she had never felt so drawn to a man in her life.
She should have been thinking about her patients or at least about not driving through any red lights on the way home, but all she could think about was how sexy Dr. Dergan was. She remembered what Cody had said about how he didn’t date. She wondered how long it had been since he’d been with a woman.
Ann knew a little bit about spinal cord injuries from medical school and she had been looking up information over the past few days. She wondered if he had a complete injury, which meant no movement or sensation in his lower body. And considering how high up his injury was, he probably only got reflex erections. She wondered if he was able to have sex. It seemed criminal that a man like that wouldn’t be able to have sex.
She sighed as she heard his words echoing in her ears: You can call me Joel.
Joel. His first name was Joel. She whispered it to herself as she sat in her motionless car, getting used to the feel of it on her tongue.
While Joel was driving home, he couldn’t help but think of how Ann had freaked out in his office. She was standing near him and then all of a sudden, she started to look panicked and had to make a fast getaway. He couldn’t imagine what had set her off like that, except he imagined that it had made her uncomfortable to be so close to him. He wondered if his leg had spasmed without him noticing. God, that would have been embarrassing.
On the way home, Joel passed by the medical school bookstore. It was still open and he decided to stop by and browse. It was Friday evening and he expected that the store would be close to empty. He got a good discount at the store due to his attending status, but it was generally too crowded with students to spend much time there.
Joel pulled his car into one of the two handicapped parking spots by the store. He looked around and was grateful to see that there weren’t any people around to observe his transfer. Passers-by always tended to stare at him. Joel hated the fact that he got the stares and the sympathetic looks almost constantly when he was out in his wheelchair. It was the reason he tended not to go out in public very often anymore. That plus the fact that he didn’t have any friends to socialize with.
He pulled his wheelchair out of the back, then hoisted his butt into the seat, quickly belting himself in. He then pulled his legs out of the car and fixed them in the footplates. He dusted off his shirt and pants, and shut the car door before making his way to the bookstore.
He had been correct in his hypothesis that not many people would be frequenting the store at this hour. The aisles were empty except for a lone clerk stacking books and a bored-looking girl behind the counter. When the clerk saw that Joel had entered the store, he hurried over. “Uh, can I help you, sir?” the boy asked eagerly.
“No, thanks,” Joel said, trying to be polite despite his irritation. He couldn’t go into a store these days without being offered help immediately. He was young and didn’t think he looked like an invalid, but the clerks often made him feel like he was one.
“If you need me,” the clerk said, speaking a little bit slowly, “I’ll be right over here.”
Joel suppressed a sigh as he struggled to push himself forward on the thick carpeting, narrowly avoiding a display of sweatshirts advertising the name of the university. He passed by a wall of medical supplies, such as blood pressure cuffs, thermometers, disposable stethoscopes, and penlights, then through the section on review books for medical licensing exams. He only vaguely remembered studying for those exams himself. It was hard to believe that he had possessed a license to practice medicine for nearly ten years now.
Somehow, Joel found himself in the surgery section of the store. It didn’t really make sense for him to be buying books on surgery, since he’d never be able to practice again, but a thick textbook entitled “Cardiovascular Surgery” caught his eye. He placed his palm on the spine of the book, preparing to tilt it backwards so that he could remove it from the shelf.
Joel nearly jumped in his chair and guiltily yanked his hand away from the textbook. He looked up and saw the face of Cody Hwa, the intern on his team. She was clutching a board review book to her chest. “Hi, Cody,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
Cody held up the book. “Studying for the boards, what else? But I come here all the time… I’m sort of a book whore.” She laughed.
Joel noticed that Cody had changed out of the scrubs she had been wearing that morning at the hospital and she was now wearing a pair of tight-fitting blue jeans and a snug T-shirt that showed off her pert breasts. It was hard not to notice that Cody was one of the most attractive women in the hospital—he often overhead other residents and even attendings discussing her more superficial attributes. But she was more than just beautiful—she was also one of the sharpest interns he had ever worked with.
“What are you doing here?” Cody asked him. “I thought you’d still be rounding with Raj or something.”
“No, I do go home eventually, believe it or not,” Joel said. “I thought it would be interesting to look around here a little. I figured most of the med students would be out tonight.”
Cody glanced around the empty store. “I guess I’m the only loser who doesn’t have a date on Friday night, huh?”
Joel smiled wryly. “Don’t feel bad, I don’t have any exciting plans either. Of course, you’re young… you should be out enjoying yourself.”
“Yeah, and you’re an old man, I guess,” Cody teased, gently slugging him in the arm.
Even though Cody was a friendly girl, he was a bit surprised and not displeased by her familiar gesture. He wondered if she was just sucking up to him, but she didn’t seem that insincere.
The store clerk approached to regretfully inform them that the store was closing in five minutes. Cody purchased her book and mentioned she was going to the Starbucks next door to study. “You should stop in and get a cup,” she said. “They have great coffee.”
“All right,” Joel agreed. “But I’m not much of a coffee drinker.” He decided to omit the information that high doses of caffeine didn’t mesh well with his bladder program.
Cody laughed. “Wow, a doctor who doesn’t drink coffee… what an oddity. I’m a coffee addict. I’d fall flat on my face if I didn’t have my QID cappuccino.”
Much to his dismay, the nearer entrance to the Starbucks contained five stairs. Cody started walking up, oblivious to Joel’s problem. He scanned the entranceway and spotted a ramp at the other end of the store. “I’m need to use the… uh…”
“Oh, the ramp!” Cody said, as Joel blushed despite himself. He hated when things called attention to his disability… as if she might have forgotten it otherwise.
Cody got a cappuccino and Joel got a small coffee that was at least half milk. He insisted on paying, since he knew the kind of shit salary and loans residents had. Cody tried to refuse, but he waved her away. “The attending always pays,” he insisted.
“Well, thanks,” she said. She took a long sip of her drink and a satisfied sigh left her full lips. “Ah… everyone has to have one vice, right Dr. Dergan?”
“Joel,” he corrected her. “Only my mother calls me Dr. Dergan.”
Cody beamed. “Thanks.”
It was the second time that day he had given someone on his team the privilege of using his first name. He wondered if he had gone too far, if she’d think he was flirting with her and get disgusted. He tried to turn the conversation to more professional matters. “So Cody, what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I’m doing general medicine,” she replied, taking another sip. She wiped foam off her lips with the back of her hand.
“General medicine?” Joel shook his head. “Christ, what a waste.”
Cody laughed. “Uh, aren’t you doing general medicine?”
“Right, that’s why you should listen to me,” he said. “I mean, if you insist on going through this charade of an internal medicine residency, at least become a cardiologist or something useful like that.”
“Why didn’t you do that?” Cody asked.
Joel sighed. He didn’t want to get into an explanation of how his body limited him. How he couldn’t have a career that required him to have any sort of dexterity, that his health just wouldn’t allow him to make it through a vigorous three year fellowship. But for Cody, there was no reason why she couldn’t do something more useful with her life. “I just think you’re way better than this, Cody,” he said. “You’re the best intern I’ve had on my service.”
“Really?” Cody’s eyes lit up.
He shrugged. “Come on, you know you’re good.”
“Honestly, Dr. Dergan… er, Joel,” Cody began, “you’re the best attending I’ve ever worked with. I mean, you’re just amazing… you know everything. I’ve learned so much from you.”
“Well, thanks.” He had a feeling that Cody was sort of bullshitting, but he still appreciated the compliment.
There was something mildly awkward about sitting here with Cody. There were other customers in Starbucks and he wondered if they thought he was her boyfriend or something. And if so, they probably thought she was nuts.
It had been six years since he had a girlfriend. Six years. He couldn’t even remember what it was like to be out on a date or have someone sleeping in the same bed as him. He was used to going to all the parties and dinners solo, although he usually didn’t go at all.
Will I ever have a girlfriend again? he wondered. He was beginning to think the answer to that question might be no. Might be? Almost definitely. He just couldn’t imagine a woman being interested in him like this. Maybe I should take better care of myself.
Joel glanced down self-consciously at his lower body. There was no way he’d ever be able to get rid of his gut—quad guts were notoriously difficult to overcome. And he was stuck with his skinny legs. So what else could he do? Try to get rid of the few strands of gray in his hair?
Maybe it was all about attitude. Maybe if he accepted the possibility that a woman might find him attractive, that would actually make it happen.
Quit dreaming, you pathetic cripple. Just accept it: you’re never going to get laid again for the rest of your life.
To be continued...