STONE BABIES--A Black Comedy (and a Mystery) About Practicing Medicine in New York in the Late '90s
BY DAVID HELLERSTEIN
(c) DAVID HELLERSTEIN, MD
HE AWOKE to heat, unbearable heat, and the thumping of machinery nearby, and to one of the nurses calling him to get up, get up, Room 2 was having late decelerations, and when he stood he nearly fell over. Must have been asleep all of twenty minutes, after a night of God knows how many deliveries, and he was totally dehydrated--reeling, dazed, bewildered--despite having chugged cup after cup of lukewarm orange juice all night.
Sister Jolie stood outside, yelling at him:
First child, mother began laboring three a.m., back labor, external monitor shows dropping pulses, she's hemorrhaging now, pressure's falling, you'd better get out here fast!
He stumbled, willed himself into awakeness. His greens were crumpled, and his shoes--when he jammed his feet into them--were soggy from the madness of last night. How many babies had he already delivered this shift? Nine? Twelve? Two babies delivered in the hallway, one in the supply room. A flood in Delivery Room #3. A brownout during the last C-section that lasted nearly ten minutes--and they stood there praying that the emergency generator would kick in before the woman died. And then, while he was holding the woman's uterus in his hand, the boyfriend, a cheerful drug dealer, wouldn't stop rapping about how he had dusted a rival gang member, first shot, then stabbed, then throttled with bare hands, how he "wouldn' go ta sleep."
Now Jay came out into the nursing station, blinking at the red Bronx dawn, and squinted over the chart. It was stifling out here, palpably hotter than the windowless call room where he had been sleeping--here you were under the full glare of the morning sun.
Sister Jolie led him down the long marble-floored corridor into Delivery. Pulled a mask onto his face, tied a heavy blue gown behind him. The woman was howling, and when he came around the table he began howling too: the umbilical cord hung down between her legs. Prolapsed.
Get oxygen, 100%!
There's no oxygen, doctor, Sister Jolie responded.
Then we've gotta set up for a C-section.
I don't have the staff. No anesthesiologist. Only two nurses for the whole floor.
Then what am I supposed to do?
Deliver it fast.
He did. Rather, the mother did. Reacting to the heat, the screaming and clanging, she grabbed the sides of the delivery table, and with a great rush of fluid expelled her child into Jay's midsection.
Meconium! Fetal distress! Jay roared. Where's pediatrics?
Not in yet! shouted Sister Jolie.
He stopped swiping at the mother's wet bottom and turned his attention to the baby, searching for some kind of suction apparatus. He fell back on holding the baby upside down, ripping off his gloves and sticking a bare, none-too-sterile finger into its toothless mouth, then smacking it until it wailed.
"All right!" he whooped, euphoric, crazily ecstatic.
The mother wept in gratitude. Drenched in sweat, Jay leaned over and presented the glistening purplish-black infant to her.
"A perfect baby boy!"
He nearly passed out: the mother, with puffy tearstained face, and neat pink barrettes holding back cornrow braids, was a girl no more than 14 years old.
That was how the day began: in Hell.
It didn't help that the air conditioning at Sacred Lamb Hospital had died weeks ago. Early summer had been mostly cool and overcast, so the AC had hardly been missed; but now, the last week of August, 1991, a record heat wave had surged through the New York area, and halted once its epicenter reached Jerome Avenue. Up and down the Cross Bronx Expressway, angry motorists cursed outside their stalled cars; in the streets below, half-naked brown bodies splashed through the few still-spurting hydrants. EMS workers pulled octogenarians, shrivelled and delirious, from steaming brick tenements. And day and night, the gleeful rattle of automatic weapons echoed through the streets.
The tropical front--bloated and overheated as the nation's post-Crash economy--billowed and swelled until the tall, ugly, yellow-brick Victorian buildings of Sacred Lamb Hospital shimmered like bakery ovens. Stifling was hardly the word--it was more as if the Sun herself rested gently against the hospital's leaky old mansard roofs, incubating some mutant offspring into the wretched landscape of the South Bronx.
After they got the girl and her baby to Recovery, Sister Jolie brought Jay up to speed for the coming day. A'wanza, the head labor nurse, had called in sick--again. Two floor nurses were out, deaths in the family. And the young residents Jay usually supervised had been pulled from L&D yet again, to cover the General Surgery service--one of whose staff doctors had been arrested for falsified credentials, and another rang last night from a pay phone outside New Delhi, to relate that he'd been deported.
The day began.
Eight women were in various stages of late labor, complicated and simple, sweltering and groaning.
And every hour, more arrived. Perhaps it was the ungodly New York heat, for from Morrisania to Highbridge, from Hunt's Point to Morris Heights, came woman after woman, swaybacked, enormous-bellied, screeching with each contraction--Dominican, Puerto Rican, Irish, Polish, Chinese, Senegalese and Mississippi black. Babies, babies, babies. Babies popped out in stairwells and elevators, in storage closets and machine rooms. It was an incredible, awful godlike high, as though every time he touched his hands to a belly he brought forth yowling new life.
Juice and coffee for breakfast. A cigarette for lunch, looking out onto the parking lot at a burning Sacred Lamb ambulance--spontaneous combustion--which sent a spectacular orange cloud into the hazy air. There were twelve, fourteen, nineteen deliveries over eighteen hours. Late-afternoon, ten New York City police officers appeared on the floor, guns drawn, sweating through their light-blue shirts: they'd gotten the message of officer in distress.
"Not here!" called Jay. Walkie-talkies shrieked: and the cops ran for C-14, the Hospital President Father Coughlin's suite.
"Another crazed gunman!" sighed Sister Jolie.
And finally, as the red sun deflated behind the hulks of ruined tenements on the horizon, and the delicate scent of ganja wafted through the rotted round-arched windows of L&D, there was a pause, and Jay was able to shower away a night of sweat and exultation. The next shift, namely, Dr. Karnow from Vladivostok, arrived. And Jay was able to pull on his suit and tie and go out through the steaming parking lot, shoes sinking into melted asphalt, and head for the stifling island of Manhattan, searching for respite.
"Well, look who's here! Back from the heart of darkness!"
Becky Okum, Eurobond trader, squealed and zoomed over to hug Jay. Her husband Mike, star of the Initial Public Offering markets, punched his shoulder.
The cool, cool darkness of Janine Stern's apartment. Full of friends.
Edmundo Jarquet and Jakki Furagama sitting on the couch discussing the Mets--or was it The Met? Louise Encard, New York Post Page 6 reporter and tireless busybody, emerging from the dining room with a radiccio-and-endive salad, and running over to kiss him. And Janine Stern, gold earrings and sequined blouse glittering--her black hair pulled straight back, her skin seared to almost-Iroquois darkness--rushing forward to kiss Jay juicily on the mouth.
It was a great party, a perfect release from months of L&D, from the entire past year. The past year's disasters had been followed by months of isolation--and then, when reality set in, when Jay realized the enormity of his commitments and the precariousness of his finances, by panic. First there was the lawsuit. Then Alli. And then the mess around his application for hospital privileges at Manhattan Medical Center. And afterward, months of frenzied attempts (by moonlighting at one hospital and clinic after another) to pay his malpractice premiums and the overhead on his Park Avenue office. Recently, though, Jay had begun to stanch the rapid outflow of funds. Not entirely--the waiting area in his Park Avenue office was still empty most hours--but at least business had grown to the point where he could pay the interest on the interest on his loans. And cover his receptionist's and nurse's salaries, and have enough left over to gas up his Subaru.
Which called for celebration.
Janine's party was a perfect way to revel. The CD player reverberated with Talking Heads, hazy partygoers danced on the terrace, a startling bouquet made the air glow above the Steinway baby grand, and the dining table sang with artful arrangements of mesquite-broiled shrimp and chalupas, and the charred flesh of endangered aquatic species, and crystal bowls of ceviche and guacamole. It was perfect. Everything he had missed during his endless years of medical training, everything he had yearned for throughout his Queens adolescence--all the riches of Manhattan, and more.
Lustful vapors filled the air-conditioned, high-ceilinged rooms of Janine's apartment. Everyone looked stunning, tanned, prosperous, at least five years younger than their birth certificates would allow. Especially Janine Stern--she looked not only more graceful and lithe than ever, but also more desirable than Jay recalled; less calculated and over-deliberate as the more cognizant parts of his cerebrum usually knew her to be. Dare he think it--she even looked sexy.
The exception to this glamour was Jay Sones, MD. Jay caught a glimpse of himself in the antique gilt-framed mirror over the dining room buffet, saw shards of Sonian flesh in a crystal obelisk that rose above the flowers on the piano. The good doctor looked stubby and disreputable, even diseased. His complexion was saturnine.
Ducking into a bathroom, Jay scrubbed the South Bronx off his face--the fifteen-year old, pregnant by her stepfather; the young mother riddled with syphilitic lesions, giving birth to a twitchy coke baby; the 33-year-old multiple rape victim who had watched her husband murdered; the 5-months-pregnant speedball junkie, no prenatal care, popping out a 1500 gram baby girl...Jay's face reflected The Lamb. He slapped his cheeks to introduce some color. A futile attempt, however; he looked merely bruised.
On his way back into the party, Elly Townsend, a blond tax lawyer, pulled Jay aside to ask some medical advice.
"Sorry to bother you," she said nervously, "but I'm really scared."
Black silk rubbed his bare forearms. Jay took her hand.
"Last weekend," she said, "I bumped myself in aerobics class. In the shower I noticed...not only did it hurt, but now...now this lump was growing." She inhaled sharply. "Can--can I ask your opinion?"
He followed her into Janine's study. A huge aquarium, phosphorescent with fish, cast tremulous turquoise shadows across them. Elly pulled aside the strap of her dress. Her lovely shoulder was warm in his right hand; he reached out and touched her bare, lovely breast with his left. A hard bump rose beside the nipple--mobile, exquisitely tender. She looked fearful.
"Nothing," he said at last, "nothing but cellulitis."
As he described the remedy--warm soaks, heat, Advil--her anxiety began to fade.
"If it doesn't get better in a few days, give me a call," advised Jay. "You might need a prescription." While she readjusted her dress he reached into his suit-jacket pocket, where he kept a thick stack of engraved business cards for just such eventualities. He peeled one off. He was sweating. "I think maybe I have...yeah, here's one of my cards. Give a call if it's not better by Monday."
"There you are! Turning my study into a satellite clinic!" Suddenly Janine was at Jay's side, grabbing his shoulder. "Elly, watch yourself with this man! He comes to parties claiming to be a doctor, he takes girls away to examine, and they're usually found floating in the East River!"
Elly winked at Jay, and Janine dragged him back into a glare of halogen and crystal.
"Honestly, Jay, please don't seduce my guests!"
Jay leaned forward and kissed her.
Janine's arm stayed around him for most of the evening, though Donna Hastings, who bought oil tankers for Chemical Bank, dragged Jay off to ask about P.M.S., Anne Fellowes, an historian, needed a refill of birth control pills, and a platinum-blond music video producer whose name he couldn't quite catch had a litany of worries about her fibroids. By midnight the stack of business cards had become noticeably smaller without considerable effort on Jay's part. After each foray Jay would return to Janine's side and she would proprietorially put her arm back around him. Around two o'clock the guests left.
Then, for the first time in fifteen months, Jay and Janine made love.
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