Oath of Office

Michael Palmer

St. Martin's Paperbacks

OATH OF OFFICE (Chapter One)

One hour down. Three hours to go.

The afternoon was turning out just as Lou had hoped it would. Enough traffic through the ER to keep things from being boring for Emily, but nothing that would leave her with a lifetime of nightmares and therapy bills. Not that the teen wouldn’t be able to handle just about anything that came down the pike. But in an inner city emergency room—even a small satellite facility like the Eisenhower Memorial Hospital Annex, the pike, on occasion, might be carrying violence of the highest order.

“Okay, Em, Mr. Schultz is being a perfect patient. Ten stitches and not a peep out of him. Two more and we’ll get him bandaged, up, and home.”

“Thank you, Doc,” the man beneath the saucer-shaped light said in a raspy voice that could have cut stone. “I didn’t feel a thing. Your dad does great work, miss.”

“Thank you. I know,” Emily replied. “He loves sewing my jeans when they tear, and he was always stitching up my stuffed animals, even when they weren’t ripped.”

“My son’s school has Take Your Kid to Work Day, just like yours,” Schultz said, “but I’m a roofer. Three stories up with the wind blowing doesn’t seem like a great place for a nine-year-old, so Marky went to the nursing home with my wife and helped her put the trays together. What does your mom do, miss?”

“My name’s Emily, Mr. Schultz,” she reminded him. “Emily Welcome. My mom’s a psychologist. Mostly couples therapy. She didn’t think her patients would enjoy having her thirteen-year-old kid sitting in on their sessions.”

“I can see why she might feel that way.”

“But for a second choice,” Lou said, tying off the final stitch, “I believe Mom might have chosen to send Emily up on the roof with you, rather than into this place.”

In fact, the first argument he and Renee had gotten into in months was about her belief that there had to be a rule against bringing a doctor’s family member into an emergency room—even one with only three nurses, a licensed nurse’s aide, an armed security guard, a receptionist, one ER resident, and one board-certified emergency specialist. The Annex essentially served as a walk-in center to reduce the volume of the massive mother ship, just six blocks away.

“Let me send her into the office with Steve,” Renee had pleaded.

“Steve’s not her father. I am. Besides, how interesting could it be for her to hang out surrounded by a bunch of starched shirts and musty law tomes? I can hear her now reporting to her class: ‘I spent my day with my mother’s new husband, Steve, watching him making piles of money off a bunch of unfortunates who are suing a bunch of other unfortunates. Or you might as well send her to my brother’s office. Graham does even better at making money than Steve. Plus it might actually give him something to talk to me about besides my lack of a 401(k).’”

Even though Lou had ultimately won that round, he had to admit that as usual, Renee had a point, and he had told her so when he apologized for sounding like a jerk. For whatever reason, he had been feeling sorry for himself on the day the forms were due back to the Carlisle School. And despite some misgivings of his own about exposing Em to the raw underbelly of D.C., he had decided to turn Take Your Student to Work Day into Little Bighorn.

Two hours and thirty-five minutes to go.

So far, so good.

Despite a steady stream of patients, Gerhard Schultz was about as challenging a trauma case as the Eisenhower Annex typically saw. Lou missed the action in the main ER, but in his past life, he had squirreled away enough action points to star in a video game. For now, part-time shifts at the old Annex would do just fine.

Not surprisingly, the patients and the staff loved Emily to pieces. There was a grace and composure surrounding her that won people over almost as quickly as did her dark, unassuming beauty. Thirteen going on thirty. People loved to say that about their kids—especially their daughters. But the old saw, though true in Emily’s case, invariably brought Lou a pang. It was hard not to believe that in many ways he had robbed those seventeen years from her.

“Okay, Mr. Schultz,” he said, “one of the nurses will be in to dress your arm in just a few minutes. No work until next Monday. If you need a note, the nurse will put one together and I’ll sign it. Last tetanus shot?”

“A year or so ago. I … um … tend to bump into sharp things.”

“Sharp, rusty things,” Lou corrected. “We’ll give you a wound-care sheet.”

“Your dad’s a good man,” the roofer said again. “I been around a lot of doctors. I can tell.”

“I’ve been around a lot of fathers, and I can tell, too,” Emily said.

Lou wouldn’t have been surprised if her smile had healed Schultz’s nasty gash then and there, in addition to curing any illness that might have been lurking inside him.

Looking utterly perfect in her sky blue scrubs, she walked back to the doctor’s lounge, shoulder to shoulder with her father.

“Well, that was fun,” she said when he had settled her in on the sofa, around a cup of hot chocolate from the Keurig machine.

“You think you might like to be a doctor?” Lou asked, remembering that he could have answered that question in the affirmative when he was four.

“I suppose anything’s possible. You and Mom are certainly good role models.”

“She’s a terrific shrink.”

“It’s hard for you, isn’t it.”

“What’s hard?” Lou asked, knowing perfectly well what she was talking about.

“The divorce.”

“It wasn’t what I wanted, if that’s what you mean.”

“People get remarried to their exes. It happens on TV all the time.”

“Em, Mom is remarried. You got that, bucko? Add me to the mix, and you get a sitcom that would compete with Modern Family.”

Emily chewed on her lip and picked at a fingernail. “I’m glad you won out and brought me in with you today,” she said finally.

“I didn’t win anything. It’s Take Your Kid to Work Day, and you’re my kid. You always were, and you always will be.”

Lou crossed to the door and glanced over at the two new arrivals in the waiting room—a Latina woman and the extremely ancient man he assumed was her father. The fellow’s color was poor, and he was working for each breath.

“Check an oh-two sat on him, Roz,” he said to the nurse, “and have Gordon start going over him right away.”

“Thanks. I’m glad you feel that way,” Emily was saying. “What would you say if I told you I was losing interest in school?”

Lou narrowly missed spraying out his coffee. “You’re, like, tops in your class. You get all A’s.”

“I’m looking out the window and daydreaming a lot. That can’t be anyone’s idea of an education.”

“You don’t go to school to get an education.”

Emily immediately perked up. “What do you mean?”

“Call it Welcome’s Law. You go to school for the degree. Anything you learn while you’re there is gravy.

Her eyes were sparkling now. “Go on.”

“Every single day that you manage to stay in school translates into ten thousand people in the world that you won’t have to take BS from in your life. The more degrees you have, the fewer little, small-minded people there will be who have big power over you. I stayed in school long enough to get an M.D. degree. Now, nobody can boss me around.”

“What about Dr. Filstrup at the Physician Wellness Office?”

Lou groaned. In terms of insight and verbal sparring, Emily was her mother’s daughter.

So much for Welcome’s Law.

Lou’s affiliation with the PWO went back nine years—to the day when his medical license was suspended for self-prescribing amphetamines. He had always been a heavier-than-average drinker, but speed, which he took to handle the sleep-deprivation of working two moonlighting jobs, quickly brought him to his knees. Enter the PWO, an organization devoted to helping doctors with mental illness, physical illness, substance abuse, and behavioral problems. The PWO director arranged for an immediate admission to a rehab facility in Georgia, and kept in close contact with Lou’s caseworkers and counselors until his discharge six months later. After that, a PWO monitor met with him weekly, then monthly, and supervised his recovery and urine screens for alcohol and other drugs of abuse. After a spotless year, his license was restored and he returned to work at Eisenhower Memorial. Three years after that, he was hired as the second of two PWO monitors. For the next year, things went perfectly. Then Walter Filstrup was brought in by the PWO board to head up the program.

“You know, bucko,” Lou said to his daughter, “sometimes you’re too smart for your own good.”

Although he seldom went out of his way to discuss his job frustrations with his child, neither was Lou ever one to measure his words. And the kid was a sponge.

“All right,” he said. “Consider my current position with PWO the exception that proves the law. Now, let’s get out there and see some patients. You ready to stay in school?”

Emily cocked her head thoughtfully. “For the moment,” she said.

“That’s all I can ask for. So, let’s not fall behind. In the ER business, you never know when something’s going to come out of left field and slam you against the wall.”

OATH OF OFFICE. Copyright 2012 by Michael Palmer.