A VISIT FROM ST. DOMINICK by Ray Flynt

 

Paul Dominick sprinted through the snow covered parking lot, but stopped as he remembered the packages on the back seat of his car. The hospital was collecting toys for kids, and he kept forgetting to drop off the hook-and-ladder-style fire truck—like one he’d played with as a kid—and the talking doll with curly brown hair he’d purchased for their toy drive. He scurried back for them.
     In the hospital’s lobby he found the now empty foil-wrapped collection barrel and deposited his gifts; no longer optimistic that any child would be playing with them this Christmas.
     As a first-year resident, Dr. Dominick drew the short straw to work Christmas Eve. He’d be back the next day too, covering for a friend who wanted to spend the holiday with her new baby. The ninety-bed Hamilton Community Medical Center, located in a small city two hundred miles from Johns Hopkins where he’d earned his medical degree, operated with a skeleton crew. All but the most serious cases were released before the holiday, with twenty-eight remaining patients on two floors. He might as well work, Dominick thought, it would keep his mind off the fact that he’d be all alone for Christmas.


Tom Marley swabbed the terrazzo floor, occasionally rinsing his mop in the adjacent bucket, and placed a “Caution Wet Floor” tent-sign ahead of his work so no one would slip. Tom felt like he was finally getting his act together. His life had
fallen apart when, at age eleven, his dad was killed in an automobile accident. By the time Tom turned twelve he and his new step-dad were butting heads. Then he fell in with the wrong crowd, dropped out of school at sixteen, participated in a few burglaries and landed himself on juvenile probation.
     His life changed for the better when, at eighteen, he earned his GED. Tom had become the “man of the house” after his stepfather abandoned them. Thanks to the help of his probation officer Tom secured a janitorial job at the local hospital and his uncle gave him a hand-me-down junker of a car that he could use to get to and from work. Tom hoped to bring Christmas cheer to his family. But his plans had gone south when the car broke down and it took all his ready cash just to get it in working order; so much for playing Santa. What he wouldn’t give to be able to provide his step-brother and sister with a beautiful tree, like those he saw decorated throughout the hospital.
     As Tom mopped his way toward the lobby door he spotted one of the new doctors hustle in carrying two boxes under his arm. Tom watched as the doctor dropped the packages in the toys for kids bin. Didn’t he know that December 22nd
was the deadline? What had the doctor left behind?


The doctor spent several hours on the second floor, making rounds and comforting family members of the children that had to spend the holiday. It was after ten p.m. before he arrived on the third floor, and Nurse Laura Simmons guided him to the end of the hall to visit their newest patient. Just outside the room a four-foot tall Christmas tree decked in multi-colored lights and trimmed with red and green tinsel sat on a table, adding a festive atmosphere to the otherwise dark hallway.
     The nursing staff had scattered Hershey’s Kisses under the tree, and the doctor grabbed one before entering the room.
Dr. Dominick took Tom Marley’s chart from the nurse and glanced at the now sleeping patient.
     “He works here,” Simmons said softly, pointing at the ID tag that hung around the patient’s neck. “Earlier this afternoon they found him lying on the lobby floor. He was scrubbing it at the time, and they first suspected he’d slipped.
The ER took blood and did an X-ray.”
     The doctor studied the chart. “Doesn’t appear to have a concussion. Not diabetic. Blood work’s normal. Have you talked with him?”
     “Briefly. He kept muttering about buying groceries.”
     “Family?” Dominick asked.
     “The ER notified his mother.”
     The faint refrain of Hark the Herald Angels could be heard from a television in a room across the hall.
     The doctor gently shook Tom Marley’s shoulder, saying, “I’m Doctor Dominick.”
     The young man’s eyes fluttered open. Dominick extracted a tiny flashlight from his pocket and asked Marley to follow the beam of light with his eyes.
     The young man urgently said, “My list?”
     “I think he means this,” Nurse Simmons said, and reached for a folded piece of paper on the night stand. “I found it in his shirt pocket.”
     Dominick looked at the paper and found the words ham, sweet potatoes, green beans, and pumpkin pie. “Don’t worry. Rest and we should have you out of here in the morning.”
     The doctor continued his rounds.
     “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” Simmons asked when they’d returned to the
nurses’ station.
     “Thanks.” Dominick smiled. “A little sugar, please.”
     Simmons retrieved a gingerbread cookie from a plastic container on the counter to serve with the coffee. “Here, that ought to hold you till Santa arrives.”
     “But we don’t have a chimney!” the doctor said, echoing the way he argued with his parents when he was a child.
     “Oh, he comes through the laundry chute.”
     They both laughed.
     “You don’t mind working tonight?” The doctor dipped the gingerbread into the steaming coffee.
     She shrugged. “My husband has to work. I might as well be here.”
     “What’s he do?”
     “He’s a police detective,” adding proudly, “Twenty-six years.”
     “Wouldn’t he have enough seniority to get the night off?”
     “Sure, but he says Christmas is for the young ones.”
     Dominick nodded. “You have kids?”
     “A daughter. She lives in LA.”
     “Married?”
     “Not yet.” With crossed fingers Simmons added, “My husband and I keep hoping.” After a pause, she asked, “What about you?”
     Dominick smiled. “Happily single. My folks are in Seattle, and my younger
sister is spending a year in Mauritania for the Peace Corps.”
     The elevator doors opened in front of them, and a woman, her eyes straining with fear, stepped hesitantly toward the nurses’ station. Her clothes were shabby but clean, and in spite of below freezing temperatures she wore only a knit woolen shawl. “Pardon me,” she asked, “but where can I find Tom Marley.”
     “Visiting hours are over,” Simmons announced.
     “But he’s my son,” the woman whispered. “I couldn’t get here before now.
     The doctor intervened. “I think we can make an exception. I’ll take you.”
     The woman said her name was Edith. “He’s here under observation,” Dominick assured her as they stood beside her son’s hospital bed. Noting the rhythmic breathing, the doctor added, “He’s just asleep.”
     The woman leaned toward her son, grasped his hand and then reached to feel his forehead. “He feels warm.” She sounded alarmed.
     “He’s not running a fever,” the doctor said. “He probably feels warm to you because you’ve just come in from outside. He fell, or passed out; nobody seems to know for sure. Has that ever happened before?”
     “No… No,” she protested. “I take good care of my children.”
     “No one said you didn’t,” he assured her.
     “I do the best I can for them,” she said, plaintively staring at the doctor.
     “How many children do you have?”
     “Three. Elizabeth is four and Henry is almost six.”
     “Is your husband with them now?”
     His question was met with silence. “You didn’t leave your children alone, did you?”
     “My neighbor promised to look in on them,” she explained. “They’re sleeping. They got ready for bed early tonight,” then added, “The City Mission sent over clothes that I’ll wrap and leave out for them in the morning.”
     A lump formed in Paul Dominick’s throat as he thought about the contrast of his fortunate life compared to hers. He decided there were worse things than spending Christmas alone. “You should go home to your other children. We’ll
probably release him in the morning. If there’s any change, we’ll call you.”
     The lines on her face deepened with worry. “I don’t have a phone,” she explained. “I can give you a neighbor’s number.”
     As Dominick copied the information, she added, “Tell her you need Edith in apartment 3C it’s not far from here at 894 W. 23rd St.”
     “I know where it is.” Dominick pictured the desolate stretch of public housing a half-mile west of the hospital. “We’ll take good care of your son,” he promised. “Now go home, Edith. It’s Christmas Eve.” Her bemused smile as the elevator
doors closed drew attention to the irony of his remark; for her it was just another bleak night.
     As he turned toward the nurses’ station, the loudspeaker blared, “Dr. Dominick, call 637.”
     “That’s the Emergency Room,” Simmons said, reaching for the phone.
     He waved her off. “Forget it. I might as well head down there. I’ll see you later.”
     “I get off at midnight,” Nurse Simmons reminded him, just as he ducked into the stairwell.

It was several hours before Dr. Dominick finally returned to the third floor and spotted Laura Simmons sitting at the nurses’ station. “What are you still doing here?”
     “Trying to stay awake, “Simmons said, stretching. “My relief called off shortly before eleven. I get the privilege of working a double.”
     “Any problems?”
     “Nothing I can’t handle. Mrs. Graves yanked out her IV. Mr. Stahl tried to smoke in his room. I put a stop to that. What about the ER?”
     “Two-car accident. One driver fled the scene—probably drunk. Two people needed stitches. Does your husband know you’re stuck here?”
     Simmons nodded. “He’s tied up investigating a hit-and-run; maybe the same people you saw.”
     “Neither crime nor illness take a holiday,” Dominick said.
     “Go rest in the doctor’s lounge,” the nurse said. “I’ll call you if there are any problems.”
     Dominick yawned. “I’m going to keep moving. I’ll take another cup of coffee if you’ve got one.”
     “I just put on a fresh pot.”
     “Great. I’ll look in on Tom Marley. I promised his mother.” The doctor rubbed his tired eyes. As he wandered in that direction the hallway seemed especially dreary, and there was an eerie quiet as he entered Marley’s room. No sound of breathing. In the bed, he discovered two pillows shaped like a body beneath the sheets.
     As he turned to leave, Dominick spotted Marley’s grocery list on the night stand where he’d left it earlier. He tucked the paper in his pocket, turned off the night light above the patient’s bed, and closed the door behind him. As he stood in
the dim light of the hallway, he realized what else was missing. Dominick glanced at his watch, and noted the time as 3:26 a.m.—already Christmas.
     Returning to the nurses’ station he found a fresh cup of coffee sitting on the counter, and Simmons resting her eyes. He decided not to wake her.

 

Dominick returned to his apartment when he got off duty at 7 a.m. He showered and changed before heading out to a grocery store that advertised it would remain open ‘til noon on Christmas.
     As he pulled to the curb at 894 W. 23rd St., the building was devoid of holiday cheer. He found the front door ripped off its hinges. There was no heat in the stairwell and Dominick’s breath was visible as he climbed the three flights to
Edith’s apartment. He hesitated before knocking, but finally gave three short taps on the door with his college ring while cradling the groceries with his other arm.
     The door swung open, answered by young Henry.
     “Is your mother here?” the doctor gently inquired.
     The boy stared up at him with wide-eyed inquisitiveness. “Are you Saint
Nick?”
     “I’m Doctor Dominick.”
     “Mommy,” Henry shouted, “Saint Dom-nick’s here.” Then he disappeared into the apartment.
Edith came to the door, instantly recognizing her visitor.
     “Oh, doctor. I wondered if I’d get a chance to thank you and now that you’re here…” she clasped her hands in front of her, “I don’t know what to say. Everything you… such a surprise. Please, come and sit down.”
     As he moved toward the living room nothing quite prepared the doctor for what he found. There in the corner stood a familiar looking Christmas tree glowing with colored lights and red and green tinsel. The room came alive with the squeals
of a young girl playing with her curly haired doll, while her brother whooshed a hook and ladder truck across the wooden floor. He smiled as he pieced together what Tom Marley had been up to overnight.
     “When I heard the knock in the middle of the night and found the tree and presents, I just knew you were responsible,” Edith gushed. “And having Tom back is like a miracle.”
     Tom Marley emerged from a bedroom and stopped in his tracks when he saw Doctor Dominick. “Oh hi Doc,” He said sheepishly.
     “You’re looking well,” Dominick quipped.
     Tom whispered, “I hope you’re not upset?”
     Dominick glanced at his watch. He didn’t need to be back at the hospital until three o’clock, and he wouldn’t have to spend Christmas alone. He handed Tom the bag of groceries and smiled. “There’s no time to be upset. I’ll need your help to fix Christmas dinner.”