Sabrina Thomas clutched the leather-bound notebook to her chest and tried not to be impatient as the elevator in the south tower of Texas Hospital near downtown Dallas stopped once again on its climb to the eighteenth and top floor. But it was difficult.
Dr. Cade Mathis, the bane of her existence, would reach Mrs. Ward’s room first and then there’d be hell to pay. Sabrina jabbed the button to close the doors as soon as the last person stepped onto the already crowded elevator. Evenings were always busy at the hospital with the staggered change of shifts and people dropping by to visit after work. Usually she didn’t mind the crowd, but today wasn’t usual.
Dr. Mathis wasn’t going to be happy with Mrs. Ward’s decision to postpone her surgery, and he wouldn’t be shy about voicing his opinion.
The elevator finally stopped on the eighteenth floor. As soon as there was enough space to allow her to slip through the doors, Sabrina stepped off the elevator, excusing herself as she brushed by people trying to get on. Hurrying down the hall, she almost groaned on seeing Dr. Mathis’s tall, imposing figure. At six foot three, he moved with a smooth, unhurried grace as he entered Mrs. Ward’s room.
Sabrina increased her frantic pace.
Cade Mathis might be the best neurosurgeon in the country, but unfortunately, too often he had the disposition of a warthog in heat. And no one, at least as far as Sabrina knew, questioned him or went against his medical dictates. The hospital’s board had gone all out to woo him from the Mayo Clinic. Housewife Ann Ward, in her mid-twenties, and her loving blue-collar worker husband a few years older, wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of standing up against him.
No one on the staff even tried. As patient advocate for Texas Hospital, it was Sabrina’s job to try. Her eyes narrowed. She’d do more than try.
Two steps from the door she heard Dr. Mathis’s clipped, precise voice that could be as lethal and as cutting as the scalpel he wielded so skillfully. She didn’t waste time knocking, she just went in. What she saw confirmed her fears.
Ann, in a patient’s gown, was sitting up in bed. Her husband’s work-worn hands clutched hers as he hovered over her as if to protect her from Dr. Mathis. Unfortunately, it would do no good. Dr. Mathis was a law unto himself and listened to no one, but that wouldn’t stop Sabrina.
“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Ward,” Sabrina greeted. “Dr. Mathis.”
The Wards’ frantic gazes swung to Sabrina, clearly begging her to intervene. Dr. Mathis, hands on his lean hips, didn’t even glance in her direction. Clearly he thought her insignificant. Tough. “Is there a problem?”
Ann nodded, swallowed a couple of times before she could get the words out. “I-I just told Dr. Mathis I want to postpone my surgery like I mentioned to you yesterday.”
Finally Dr. Mathis’s gaze, cold and cutting, swung to Sabrina. Since she’d been subjected to his disapproval before, she didn’t cower as most of the staff did. Her first responsibility was to the patient. A fact that had put her at odds with her last supervisor, and the reason she had made the difficult decision to transfer from a Texas Hospital affiliate in Houston to Dallas six months ago.
“You knew about this yesterday?” he accused.
“Yes,” she admitted, aware that her chin had jutted.
“And did she tell you why?” he asked, his tone no less cutting.
“Her daughter’s birthday party is Saturday, the day after her surgery and she doesn’t want to miss it,” Sabrina answered.
Dr. Mathis’s midnight black eyes narrowed, then turned to his patient. “You have a tumor in the brain. Every second we wait to go in is a second too long.”
“I feel fine,” Mrs. Ward said, seeming to draw strength from her husband, who now had his arm around her shoulders. “The medicine you’re giving me is helping the headaches and my other symptoms. Clarissa, my little girl, wants me there with her Saturday. I’ve missed so much because I was sick for so long and could hardly get out of bed, let alone play or take care of her. I can’t disappoint her.”
“If you don’t have the surgery, you might not live to see her have another birthday,” Dr. Mathis told her.
Ann’s lips began to tremble, tears flowed freely from her big hazel eyes. She burrowed into the arms of her husband and sobbed. Her husband looked scared and angry.
“Dr. Mathis—” Sabrina began, only to be cut off.
“The next time one of my patients makes a critical decision, I’d advise you to tell me and not wait for the patient to call me less than sixteen hours before the surgery,” he said to her, then strode from the room.
Sabrina considered throwing the notebook at his retreating back, then wisely went to Ann to try to console her.
“What kind of doctor talks to a patient like that?” Mr. Ward asked, his body trembling as much as his voice. “Don’t listen to him, honey. You’ll be there to dance at Clarissa’s wedding. Isn’t that right, Sabrina?”
Two pairs of eyes, begging for reassurance, fixed on her face. “I hope you’ll invite me,” Sabrina told them. She’d made it a practice never to lie to patients. They had to trust her. She just hoped the evasive answer was enough.
“Let me talk to Dr. Mathis, and I’ll be right back.” Sabrina left the room and went straight to the charting area for doctors behind the nurses’ desk. Dr. Mathis was there, his broad shoulders rigid, his mouth set in a tight line. The charge nurse, standing beside the secretary, kept throwing troubled glances at him. When Dr. Mathis was unhappy, heads rolled. Two other nurses decided they could finish charting elsewhere and moved their carts away. Sabrina didn’t hesitate.
“Mrs. Ward was frightened enough without you adding to it.”
Dr. Mathis finished making his notation on a chart in quick, slashing motions before looking up. He stared at her as if she were some icky bug that had dared cross his path. The look angered her just as much as the annoying unsteady pulse. He might have the manners of a warthog, but he was as gorgeous as forbidden sin.
“It’s critical that Mrs. Ward have surgery sooner rather than later.”
Sabrina trusted his knowledge. It was his professionalism that set her teeth on edge. “You could have told her differently.”
Dr. Mathis slowly stood, towering over her five feet four inches, his unblinking black gaze locked on hers. “She’s playing Russian roulette for a birthday party that can just as easily be postponed. The surgery can’t.”
“Is dying, Ms. Thomas. Enough time has been wasted already. Patients are too emotional. They don’t always think clearly. I thought it was your job to help, not make matters worse,” he said.
Her temper spiked at his accusing tone. Knowing she shouldn’t didn’t stop her from stepping into his space. “Making things worse is your specialty, Dr. Mathis.” She spat out the last word as if distasteful. Clutching the notebook, she spun to see two other doctors there. Disapproval was clearly visible on their shocked faces.
Sabrina cursed inwardly. In the short two years Dr. Mathis had been at Texas his reputation as a top neurosurgeon had grown. He was revered as much as he was feared. No matter what Drs. Mims and Carter might personally think of Dr. Mathis, doctors stuck together against the lesser mortals on the hospital staff. Doctors were never reprimanded—and certainly not in public.
And before now, she’d had a good relationship with both doctors. Her rash actions might have endangered that relationship. Even the charge nurse frowned at Sabrina.
One thing life had taught her early was not to falter over what couldn’t be changed. Head high, Sabrina walked from the nursing station aware that the efficiency of the hospital grapevine would have their conversation all over the hospital in a matter of hours.
She didn’t have time to think about it. Right now, a family needed her help. But how? She loved her job as patient advocate, but it wasn’t an easy one. Often there were hard choices to make. Her job was to ensure that patients had the information needed for them to make the best possible decisions.
She knew firsthand how important that was. If someone hadn’t been there to speak for her when she was too young to speak for herself, she wouldn’t be alive today.
Stopping in front of Mrs. Ward’s door, Sabrina took a calming breath. The patient’s decision had been based on emotions, but reasoning—not anger—was needed to help her decide if her decision was the best one. She opened the door and wasn’t surprised to see Mr. Ward still holding his softly crying wife in his arms. He glanced up.
In his gaze she saw helplessness, fear with a good dose of anger. “He had no right to upset Ann like that. I’m reporting him to the medical association.”
Sabrina let the door swing closed. “Dr. Mathis is brusque, but he’s also the best neurosurgeon in the state, possibly the country. He was at the Mayo Clinic for three years before coming to Texas two years ago. Patients come from all over the country to see him.”
“That doesn’t give him the right to scare my wife,” Mr. Ward said, clutching his wife closer.
Sabrina knew he was doing his best to hide his fear. “Despite Mrs. Ward doing better, Dr. Mathis believes it’s in Mrs. Ward’s best interest to have the surgery tomorrow as scheduled.” Sabrina stopped at the foot of the hospital bed.
Mrs. Ward lifted her tearstained face from her husband’s chest. “What do you think?”
Sabrina had been asked her opinion many times in her job and always answered truthfully. “Dr. Mathis might not have the best bedside manner, but few neurosurgeons have his skill in the operating room. He was sought by some very prestigious hospitals. Texas is fortunate to have a man of his gifts and accomplishments.”
“He’s rude,” her husband snapped, clearly not wanting to let go of his anger.
“And gifted, as I said. He diagnosed your wife’s condition when no one else had been able to,” Sabrina reminded them gently. Grudgingly she had to give Mathis points for not pointing that out to her during their conversations. She’d never heard of him bragging. His accomplishments spoke for him.
Mrs. Ward glanced at her husband, then tucked her head. “The surgery has risks. He told us that. I just wanted to be there for Clarissa’s birthday—in case—” Her voice broke, trailed off. Her husband pulled her closer.
Sabrina went to the bedside. “I might not have any children, but I understand why you made the emotional decision. Dr. Mathis made his decision based on your test results.”
“If you needed a neurosurgeon, would you use Dr. Mathis?” Mrs. Ward asked, staring at Sabrina intently.
Sabrina didn’t even have to think. “He’d be at the top of my very short list.”
Mrs. Ward looked at her husband, then spoke to Sabrina. “Thank you. If you don’t mind I’d like to talk to my husband alone.”
“Of course. If you need anything else, just have me paged. Good-bye.” Sabrina left the room, hoping that she had helped, annoyed with herself that she hadn’t handled things better with Dr. Mathis, and even more annoyed with him.
* * *
Sabrina Thomas annoyed the hell out of him, Cade thought as he went through the hospital’s double exit doors and headed for his car. He paid no attention to the hot blast of June air that enveloped him. He might not have been in Texas for long, but he was used to the stifling heat. What he wasn’t used to was being questioned.
His mouth tight, he activated the locks on the black Lamborghini. No one at Texas Hospital, not even the chief of staff, had questioned Cade in the years he’d been associated with the hospital. Doctors from all over the country sought his advice. He was respected, feared, revered. He knew he was maligned—but never to his face.
Except by Sabrina Thomas.
Yanking open the door, he slid inside and started the engine. His mind still on Sabrina, he backed out of the space and headed for the exit gate. At first he’d thought she was on a power trip until he’d seen her more than once holding a less than clean child while talking to a patient or family member or buying food from the vending machine for patient family members. Dirty bedpans didn’t even faze her. She didn’t appear to mind doing menial things for patients or working late to push departments and agencies to help a family in need.
Sabrina Thomas cared about her patients. But she had to understand that patients didn’t look at their medical conditions logically. Unfortunately, neither did she, which made for a bad combination, especially since he preferred a calm, nonconfrontational life at work and at home. His life had been too chaotic and uncertain growing up not to crave peace. He wasn’t going to get that when they had the same patient.
The ringing phone interrupted his thoughts. He pushed ACCEPT on the wood grain control panel. “Dr. Mathis.”
“Dr. Mathis, you have a call from Mrs. Ward. She says it’s urgent,” came the cool, efficient voice of his office manager, Iris, through his radio. “Your three late appointments just signed in.”
He stopped at a red light. “Please tell them I’m on the way and put them in a room. I’ll be there in less than five minutes.” Some of his patients had difficulty getting off work so he had late appointments one day a week. “Put Mrs. Ward through.”
“Dr. Mathis?” came the tentative voice. By all rights she shouldn’t be alive. He’d stopped believing in a higher power for himself long ago, but he realized that for others there was such a thing.
He was different. He ruled his destiny, not some unseen force.
“Yes, Mrs. Ward.” She sounded shaky. “Are you feeling all right?” As much as he disagreed with her decision, she was still his patient and deserved his best. He never wanted to give less.
He’d gone into medicine to show a man he hated that he wasn’t worthless as he’d been told all of his life. Yet, somehow along the way he’d learned he could make a difference in people’s lives, and perhaps make up for the fact that no one had been there to make a difference in his.
“Mrs. Ward, I have patients waiting at my office.”
“If it’s not too late, I want to have the surgery in the morning as scheduled.”
Frowning, he pulled through the light. “I haven’t taken you off the schedule so there shouldn’t be a problem. What changed your mind?”
Surprised, he turned into the underground parking lot of his office building. “Ms. Thomas?”
“She said if she needed a neurosurgeon, you would be at the top of her very short list.”
Stunned—a rare occasion for him—Cade was momentarily at a loss for words, an even rarer occasion. He’d had the impression that Sabrina Thomas didn’t think too highly of him. He hadn’t minded. Usually, he could care less what people thought of him. Never had. Had always thought he never would. “I’ll see you in the morning. Good-bye.”
Cade disconnected the call, pulled into his reserved parking spot, and got out of his car. He had patients to see and then he was going to track down Sabrina Thomas. They were going to figure out a way to work together without all the friction.
Which meant she wouldn’t interfere with his patients’ care and he would have his calm, quiet life back, just the way it was before she’d come into it.
Copyright © 2012 by Francis Ray