September 26, 2018
As the automatic double doors of the Emergency Department whooshed open, the refrigerated hospital air collided with the terrarium-like atmosphere of an autumn Galveston evening. Louise Finnerty braced herself for a twelve-hour, overnight shift. She wished she had reached Marnie earlier. I hate the way she screens my calls. It had been a challenge to provide support without invading Marnie’s grieving process. Walking briskly, transitioning into work mode, she cleared her head of home/life tasks.
“Dr. Finnerty, we need you right now!” a voice yelled.
This was not the first time Louise had heard a call for help upon entering the ER. Already in her scrubs, she threw her lunch bag on the cluttered counter the physicians used and rushed into Room 1.
“The patient is a seventeen-year-old male, first name Diego, with fever, altered mental status, hypotensive,” said Bob Janssen, the evening charge nurse.
“I’ve got a line!” called another nurse at the bedside.
“Great,” Louise countered. “One liter normal saline wide open. Let’s get another line and run in another liter. Get a norepinephrine drip ready to go. Can someone get a Foley catheter in him? We need to watch his urine output.”
Louise looked up and saw one of the techs had already drawn several tubes of blood with different colored tops—a rainbow of tubes. “Get me CBC, CMP, lactate, blood type and screen stat so we can get some idea where we are right now. Save the extra tubes until we know what else we need.”
“Doc, his rectal temp is 103,” said Bob.
“Add on two blood cultures and give him a gram of cefepime. We’ll follow the sepsis protocol,” Louise said to the tech as she watched the monitor above and behind Diego’s head. His blood pressure was creeping up but was still low at 80/50. Heart rate 150.
“Good,” Louise murmured.
Then she looked over at the Foley bag hanging off the bottom of the gurney at Diego’s feet. A few milliliters of cola-colored urine had collected.
“Not good. Hemorrhage, kidney failure, liver failure, or all three,” she muttered under her breath.
Glancing around the room for the first time, Louise saw a diminutive woman in the corner. Allowing family members into the critical care suites had improved communication and history taking, and most definitely, cleaned up the staff’s language. When the first round of orders had been repeated back and completed, the staff looked at Louise with the unspoken question, what do we do now?
She answered aloud, “Now we wait.”
In the next five minutes, Diego’s vital signs crept into the range of minimally sustaining life. She turned her attention to the silent woman huddled in the corner. “I’m Dr. Finnerty. Are you Diego’s mother?”
A nod confirmed the relationship.
“Would you be more comfortable speaking in Spanish? I could get an interpreter.” Louise’s Spanish was functional, but an official interpreter ensured nothing was lost in translation.
After the woman shook her head no, Louise continued, “He’s doing better. We’re going to take good care of him. His blood pressure was dangerously low. We can fix that, but we need to find out why he’s so sick so we can give him the treatment he needs.”
She took a seat on one of the stools in the corner next to the woman and leaned in to hear Diego’s mother.
Mrs. Jimenez spoke slowly and carefully. “English is best. We don’t want no trouble. He woke up with a fever. Then, his pain was too much. Next, he couldn’t talk.”
“Hey, Doc, look at this,” called Bob.
Diego’s clothes had been removed. His arms were covered with angry red nodules that were easily identified as bug bites in various stages of healing.
His mother had gained enough strength to come to the bedside with Louise. “Yes. Too many mosquitoes behind the restaurant where he works. He has to take the trash out there.”
At the sound of his mother’s voice, Diego began to stir. His blood pressure continued to improve, and he showed signs of waking up. He opened his eyes and started to move on the bed. His movements quickly progressed to writhing.
Louise carefully inspected Diego’s vital signs and obvious discomfort. “Let’s give him two milligrams of morphine and repeat in five minutes if his blood pressure holds.”
“He said his bones hurt bad, then he passed out and I called 9-1-1,” his mother said.
After another set of vital signs confirmed improvement, Louise gave Mrs. Jimenez a quick smile. She explained that he needed to be moved to the ICU to continue his treatment. She assured her that she would be just outside Diego’s room making arrangements to admit him to the ICU.
“We need to find out what made Diego so sick,” she repeated, as much to herself as to Mrs. Jimenez.
Louise called the ICU intensivist and placed a stat consultation with Infectious Disease. Ten minutes later, a team of residents swooped into the room.
As the sun came up, Louise felt the exhaustion that came from shift work. She finished her notes, hoping Didier, her husband, was managing the home front okay.
Wouldn’t it be nice to just kiss the kids as they went off to school and then collapse in bed?
To make sure she had not left any details unattended, she glanced at the view on her computer where all the ER patients were listed. Dread filled her heart as she recognized a name.
Gennifer Drake, 49, Critical Care Room 6, DOA.
No. It can’t be. Not Gennifer. No way was her friend the person listed as dead-on-arrival in Room 6.
Louise rushed to the room and almost collapsed when she recognized the body.
“The EMTs tried their best. We did, too. It was too late. She…” Dr. Jane Torson said, her voice trailing off. As she started to decompress by telling Louise about the resuscitation, she saw Louise’s distress.
“Oh my god, did you know her?” asked Jane.
Louise nodded and she sank into a chair. “Yes, she was a very good friend but please, go ahead and tell me what happened.”
She knew Jane needed to unload the events of the failed resuscitation. As in all ERs, the doctors in Louise’s group knew that it never gets easier when a patient dies. Barely able to understand what Jane was saying, Louise listened, knowing that’s all she was meant to do.
“She was found on East Beach by some early morning beachcombers. Their dog was checking out what looked like a pile of towels. But as they got closer, they could tell it was a body. A woman. She was already blue. They tried to see if she was breathing. The woman started CPR while her husband dialed 9-1-1.”
Jane went on and Louise followed the story, able to fill in the blanks herself. EMTs arrived and took over. They intubated and started bagging her. They placed her on a “thumper” to administer chest compressions. The heart monitor showed no activity. Unable to start an IV, they squirted epinephrine into the tube in her throat as a last-ditch effort to reawaken her heart.
The beach was a five-minute run from the hospital. Her core temperature was 92 degrees when she arrived in the ER. They gradually warmed her to avoid sending her heart into a chaotic and deadly rhythm. But, even after her body reached a normal temperature, and after a prolonged resuscitation attempt, there was still no heartbeat.
“We just pronounced her dead,” Jane concluded, whispering at this point. “Are you going to be okay?”
Louise nodded silently.
Jane finished her tale and went to complete paperwork after giving Louise a hug. Louise looked up to see Officer José Torres hovering nearby. She had known him since joining the ER group fifteen years ago. He was tall, nice-looking and wore his hair slicked back, helmet style. No matter what the weather, José was in uniform shorts that he wore at least an inch shorter than regulation. He had an infinite supply of spearmint gum and offered a piece to everyone. When José saw Louise’s shattered expression, he understood.
“You know her,” he said, and automatically offered her a piece of gum, which she took and folded up into a tiny square.
They sat together as the medical assistants prepared Gen’s body for the trip to the morgue where the medical examiner would do a forensic exam. Louise watched as the nurse opened the kit which was used to prepare the body for transport. Years ago, she had been surprised to learn that it included a filmy sack with a zipper referred to as a shroud. It had seemed like a sad supply to have on hand.
“We’ve been friends since medical school,” Louise said. “We kept in touch. I just saw her last month. She works in the lab. I mean, the Gulf National Lab. She does—did—research there.” Louise looked at José. “Did you take the call? Were you on the beach when they tried to resuscitate her?”
“Yeah. A couple walking their dog found her on the beach and called 9-1-1. I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to make it. But the guys did everything they could. They’re pretty broke up, too,” he said, unable to meet Louise’s tearful gaze.
He fiddled with his radio, then he handed her a tissue. His phone rang. “I gotta take this call. I’m sorry, Doc.” Abruptly, he left.
People came in and out of the room. It took a minute for Louise to notice the presence of Detective Iliana Sudhan who was married to Bob, the evening charge nurse. The detective was a compact middle-aged woman. Her quick movements suggested agility and strength. Her clothes were business casual, neatly tucked and pressed, which looked somewhat formal on The Island. Her smooth light brown skin made guessing her age difficult.
Louise had always respected Iliana’s calm, business-like demeanor. With her warm brown eyes, the detective imparted empathy to the victims of crime who frequented the ER. Louise had taken a fish hook out of the detective’s son and treated her mother for angina. Iliana had helped Louise when a lonely loser of a patient had stalked her. The detective had paid him a visit to explain that his expressions of love were appreciated neither by the lady doctor nor the Gulf County Police Department. Over the years, their professional interactions led to friendship.
The detective gave Louise a moment to compose herself before speaking. “Hi, Louise. So sorry for your loss. I remember meeting Dr. Drake at some of your get-togethers. I know she was a good friend of yours. If you can stand it, I would like to ask you some preliminary questions.”
Louise nodded. Iliana had a job to do.
“We found her phone in her pants pocket. It had her license and a credit card in the case. So, we were able to make a preliminary identification. I hate to put you on the spot right now, but can you confirm that this is the body of Gennifer Drake?”
Louise nodded. “No question. She’s even wearing the earrings I gave her for her last birthday. Opals were her birthstone.”
“Do you know if Dr. Drake had family here?”
Louise shook her head. “No. She grew up in Iowa, and after med school she stayed here to work in the lab. Gulf National Lab. I don’t think her family ever understood her decisions. They didn’t communicate much from what I could tell.”
Hunched over now from physical and emotional exhaustion, Louise whispered, “She’s been seeing Garrett Mancinelli, the owner of Garrett’s Seawall Trattoria, for a while.”
“Was she depressed?”
“God, not that I knew of. She worked a lot. But she was in the process of adopting another cat. People don’t do that if they plan to commit suicide.”
Iliana took in Louise’s distress. She paused before continuing softly. “We don’t know if it was suicide, an accident, or foul play. At this point, we have a person found dead on the beach. I’ll let you know what we find out from the medical examiner. Here, give me a hug. You going to be okay? Should I call Didier?”
“No, I’m okay. He’s with the kids and I’ve got my car here. I’m off as soon as I write my last note.”
With Iliana’s departure, Louise was all alone in Room 6 with Gen’s lifeless body. She walked over to Gen and lovingly took her hand. Gen still wore her favorite blush polish. Not wanting to leave her, Louise stood for a long time by her bedside, tears streaming down her face. “Oh, Gen…”
Soon, a transporter arrived to take Gen to the morgue, and Louise had to relinquish her hold on Gen’s hand. Reluctantly, she said good-bye.
When Louise left the ER at 8:15 a.m., it was already hot. She tossed her three part “office” —white coat, briefcase, and lunch box—onto the passenger seat. As an emergency physician, her actual office consisted of a hook on the wall in the physician’s lounge that she shared with nine partners.
She exited the parking garage and headed to the western side of Galveston Island. Generally, she didn’t mind her fifteen-minute drive at the end of her shift. It gave her a chance to decompress before re-entry to family life. Today it was especially needed.
Looking out over the Gulf of Mexico to her left and then the marshes traversed by fingers of Galveston Bay to her right, she wished the calmness of nature would soothe her raw nerves today. She had called Didier to tell him about the tragedy and that she would be late. He had given the children a kiss from her and taken them to school.
Louise wandered through the empty house, thankful that she didn’t have to work for another twenty-four hours. She dropped her things on the bedroom floor, stripped off her scrubs, and headed for the shower.
Clean, if not refreshed, she pulled on one of Didier’s tee shirts and collapsed onto the unmade bed. Exhaustion took over and she fell into a deep sleep.
Louise awoke two hours later, startled by the realization that the nightmare of Gen’s death was no dream. After a half hour of tossing and turning, she gave up on escaping reality.
She dressed, went to the kitchen and made a pot of strong coffee. Taking her coffee out to her veranda, she ignored the hungry egrets as they paced slowly through the grassy shallows. One question kept returning to her.
How will I tell Marnie about Gen?
Dr. Wanda Venters retired from her pediatric practice after three decades and began her second career as a writer in 2019. She lives in Colorado with her husband, two labradoodles and a Siamese cat.
Dr. Mary Rae trained in emergency medicine, which she practiced in Texas for 20 years before transitioning to primary care. During her 10 years in Houston, she enjoyed exploring the Gulf Coast. Shortly after retiring from medicine in 2020, she and her husband moved to California.
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