AN ORDINARY SOCCER NIGHT
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That Friday night was supposed to be like any other, second Friday night of the month when three of us – Chris, George and I gathered together to drink wine, watch soccer, and chat. This has turned out into our little tradition and we have been doing it for almost eight years already, but that particular night was special - Chris was getting married in two weeks. We all felt that our drinking “boys’ only nights” were numbered – Chris’s fiancé and soon to be wife wasn’t supportive of our parties or our drinking. I think this was the reason, that Friday we were avoiding the wedding subject at all cost and pretending that everything was casual. We were talking as usual about sports, ex-girlfriends, fishing, and racing cars. George and I knew that Chris would marry first among the three of us – tall and handsome, with dark hair and light blue eyes, he always scored the most chicks when we were going out. George and I were far away from marriage – George was still recovering form a long, draining relationship and had lost his interest in dating lately and I was single; still living with my parents. I personally didn’t mind getting married but I have always been chubby and shy and never too popular with women. That night I envied Chris but I also felt, I was loosing an old friend.
“Cheer up guys!”, Chris opened the second bottle of red Chilean wine. “I still think Liverpool has a chance against Barcelona tonight”, he said.
“Forget it Chris”, George said bitterly, “the Spaniards have more class, and they will demolish Liverpool”. George was looking at soccer the same way he was looking at the world - in his typical pessimistic way.
“It’s not only a matter of class, Georgy boy. It is a mind game, OK? Tonight’s clash will be decided on the basis of mentality and winning mindset.” I knew Chris could be stubborn and pick up an argument over a soccer game. “Remember how I kicked that big dude’s butt last summer?”, he laughed, “Boy, that guy was huge!” Chris liked to brag about old girlfriends and bar fights. He always had something to brag about especially in the company of dorks like George and me.
“Doc, speak up man”, he slapped me on the back, “tell him, that having guts is as important as having skills”.
I didn’t want to get involved in this argument but he was looking at me, waiting for support.
“I think both are equally important”, I was a born moderator.
“Listen”, Chris said, “I’m not denying the importance of having certain qualities, and all I’m saying is that few players showing strong character can win half of the battle”
“I thought that having a good goal keeper wins half of the battle”, George said sarcastically.
“Doc, I can’t argue with this moron!”, Chris’s face turned red, “You’ve seen sick dudes in the hospital, right? Doctors have to be mentally tough, right? Look at you for example. You may have read all the books in the world, but if you are a chicken, your knowledge will be useless because you’ll panic in front of the patient.”
“He is a chicken anyway”, George chuckled.
“No, he isn’t!”, Chris has always defended me, “Tell him bro!”.
“I don’t know guys. May be I am a chicken”, I was trying to cool off the atmosphere in the room.
“I think you are too modest Doc”, Chris calmed down, “I’m sure there were times that you have shown some backbone, right? C’mon, share some cool medical stories with us”.
“Well, there is nothing to share…except may be that time when I got fired”.
They both looked at me with curiosity.
“When was that?”, Chris asked.
“Did you kill someone?”, George added and started laughing at his own dumb joke.
“Not exactly”, I ignored his remark, “I think you would remember longer than that, boys. I was fired back in 1992”.
I tasted the new wine. It was good, slightly tangy but aged and strong.
“Looks like the good doctor has a story to tell. Wine, anyone?”, Chris filled our glasses without waiting for an answer.
I took a sip, lit up my pipe and said:
“I have to warn you gentleman, that there were no glorious fights of academic minds, surgical wonders or a spicy affair with a voluptuous nurse, so feel free to interrupt me when you get bored” - I could be theatrical at times. Actually, I was quite flattered that I can tell a story for once during our little meetings. I was usually the listener, enjoying their stories.
“So, as I said, this happened in 1992. You guys probably remember the galloping inflation, the poverty and the desperation in Bulgaria and the whole Eastern Europe during these days. At that time, people were waiting for hours for food stamps; the whole nation was at the brink of civil war.”
“It was all because of that communist government, or I should say mafia?”, George mumbled.
“Hush you mouth dude”, Chris snubbed him. “Doc, keep going”, he encouraged me.
“I worked at the Children’s Hospital at that time. It wasn’t a real Children’s hospital - we were situated on the fifth floor of the main hospital. The poverty didn’t spare the healthcare system too. Patients were bringing their own linen, gauzes, and food – everything you can think of. The patients also had to pay out of pocket for the medications - antibiotics, painkillers, and sedatives. The winter was cold, parents were bringing their kids late because they couldn’t afford the hospital expenses and we were extremely busy with sick children. Besides, we were short staffed – the hospital had closed the residency-training program and all four of the remaining docs were overworked and tired. One day, we admitted a five-year-old boy – his name was Zachary, who was recently diagnosed with leukemia. If you treat leukemia aggressively, the patient has a fare chance, if you don’t treat it – the child dies. I remember that day, when I was rounding with the professor - only the two of us, and Zach was our next patient. The poor little fellow was sleeping exhausted burning from the high fever; he looked so pale and fragile on the large hospital bed. His parents were sitting at the bedside on a broken armchair waiting for us. Once Professor Teneff completed his exam, the father stood up at looked at him.
“Jordan Gosheff”, he introduced himself,”What’s wrong with my son, professor?”
“He has leukemia”, Professor Teneff said, “It’s a deadly cancer of the white blood cells”.
Zachary’s mom bursted into tears and Mr.Gosheff crumbled his hat in his large hands.
“Is there a treatment for that, professor?”, he asked.
“The treatment will be very expensive”, Dr.Teneff replied cautiously.
“How much?”, Mr.Gosheff asked and I could feel the glimpse of hope in his voice.
“Just for the induction phase, you will need around five thousand dollars”. Professor Teneff sounded like a judge reading a verdict.
“Five thousand dollars!”, Mr.Gosheff yelled, “I barely earn hundred bucks a month in the factory”.
“I am terribly sorry folks but there is nothing much I can do”, Teneff said. “We have to discharge Zachary from the hospital. There are other patients waiting for beds”.
“Professor, are you sending my child to die at home because we are poor?”, the father’s voice was breaking down. “I’ve worked hard my entire life”, he started sobbing, holding his wife’s hand.
“Mr.Gosheff, as I said, I am truly sorry. The whole country is bankrupt now. The government cannot support the children’s hospital anymore. I will fill the discharge papers tomorrow morning”, Professor Teneff turned his back and walked out of the room. I stood there speechless, just watching little Zachary curled down on his bed, covered with a gray military blanket – a gift from some British charity organization.
“Dr.Koleff, will you continue rounds, please”, the professor called me from the hallway.
“Professor, we can start the induction with the drugs that we already have?”, I whispered in his ear. I knew Teneff had few boxes filled with chemotherapy medications that were send by a French humanitarian group named “Help without Boundaries”.
“Dr.Koleff, the French gave us a generous gift and we have to spend it wisely. We will offer treatment only to patients who can afford it. This way we can buy other supplies for the hospital. It’s a civil war out there young man. You have to be practical”, he patted my shoulder.
“We can’t let this kid die, Professor. We have the meds, we should start the chemotherapy”, I insisted.
“I decide what we can and cannot afford!”, his tone was cutting like a razor, “It is my obligations to manage and guide the pediatric ward during these stormy times”.
“With all due respect professor, we are doctors and our first obligation is to care for our patients”, I was surprised at my self because I had never talked to Professor Teneff like that before.
He looked at me angrily.
“Listen, Koleff - it’s my ward and I make the decisions. There are plenty unemployed pediatricians out there. If you don’t want to be one of them, better shut up and carry on with the rounds!”, he slammed his clipboard on the cart we used during visitation rounds to carry our charts around.
I still don’t know how I finished rounding that day. I kept seeing Zachary and his poor family in front of my eyes. I was mad at this old crook – the professor, who just sentenced the kid to death, so he can pocket the money from the charity drugs but was also ashamed of my own weakness and helplessness. I reminded myself that I needed the job and didn’t raise the subject any more. During the next two days I was following Teneff as usual and everything looked routine again, until Thursday morning when I went for the morning report and Teneff wasn’t there. “He had a heart attack last night and is in critical condition in the CCU”, Nora, our charge nurse said and wiped her tears. I rushed to the CCU and found the cardiologist. “The old lad won’t make it”, he said, “his heart function is poor and his kidneys and lungs are failing”. “Two-three days at the most”, Dr.Ovanesian added. I felt, I might have skipped a heartbeat of my own when I realized what the cardiologist had just said. What happened to Teneff was Godsend. “It is kind of ridiculous that the old prick has to die in order to save a life, but that is what God had intended”, I thought. Without wasting any time, I went to his office and opened the cabinets where he was keeping the chemotherapy meds. Then I took the logbook of all admissions and tracked down four more kids that were sent home because they couldn’t afford paying for the therapy. I called Zachary’s parents first and told his mother that the department had just received a gift from “Help without Boundaries” and we should start treatment as soon as possible. I called the other four families and asked them to come back to the hospital. I pulled all the boxes and carried them myself to the pharmacy. Nora was waiting for me there; her hands were on her waist; her glasses were barely holding on the tip of her bulbous nose and she was looking at me like an owl preying on a mouse.
“Professor Teneff will be really upset when I inform him about your actions”, she knew the old man intimidated me and tasted her victory.
“He told me to do that”, I lied in cold blood. “The professor changed his mind - now he wants to treat everyone. You can go and ask him”, I couldn’t wipe my evil smirk. Nora almost dropped her glasses on the floor. She had worked with the professor for so long that she could smell the lie but couldn’t prove it.
“I will remember that”, she said coldly and left the pharmacy.
Here, I interrupted the story to fill my glass with wine and light my pipe again. Both Chris and George were staring at me.
“What happened next?”, Chris asked.
“Well, the professor miraculously got better – he not only survived the heart attack, but went through a rehabilitation program for several months and returned to work. Of course he found what happened in his absence and fired me immediately”.
“What happened to the kids?”, George asked.
“I lost track of most of my patients. I used all the medications that were in the boxes and couldn’t find more. The French decided to send shoes and blankets for the county orphanage this time.”
“Rough times”, Chris sighed, “What happened to Zachary?”.
“He died. Had a bad infection and died two years later. His mom called me for the funeral.”
“What a horrible story”, George blew his cigarette smoke to the ceiling, “Did you go to the funeral?”
“No, I didn’t”, I lied.
“All right guys, let’s talk about something more cheerful, will you?”, Chris suggested while reaching for the remote, “What channel is the game on?”, he started flipping the channels. He found the sports channel at last.
“Go, Reds!”, he cheered and poured more wine in our glasses.
We watched the game and Barcelona won. It was great game. We also finished the wine and talked like in the old times until early morning hours. What I didn’t tell that night my best friends was, that actually I did go to the funeral. There were only five people – Zach’s mom and dad, his sister Annie, an aunt I haven’t seen before and myself. The family couldn’t afford a bigger service. Mr.Gosheff kneeled down by the coffin, holding Zach’s marble white hand and started crying quietly. Mrs.Gosheff just stood next to me – pale, skinny woman staring at the little grave; she looked like an empty shell that had lost her only gem to the stormy sea. She touched my sleeve and whispered:
“I tried to be strong for Jordan and Annie. Jordan is loosing it. He loved Zachary so much.”
“I’m sorry”, I could barely moved my lips.
“There is one thing I wanted you to have”, she pulled a wrinkled white sheet out of her purse. It was a picture.
“Zach drew it for you” - she handed it to me.
I looked at the picture. It was a drawing of me; pretty accurate I have to admit – beer belly, narrow shoulders and balding hair; standing in a white coat and giving a medicine to a little kid. I couldn’t see weather it was a boy or a girl. I took the picture, put it in my pocket and walked back to the bus station.