A Drop in the Ocean

by Fabrizia Faustinella

One of my attending physicians, during residency, made sure that every patient who had a birthday while in the hospital would be celebrated. He would step inside the room, followed by students, residents, and nurses and present the patient with a card, a cupcake with candle, and a “Happy Birthday” song. The patients were very touched by it and, for a moment, would forget their hardships. This made an impression on me. How wonderful, I thought. What a nice thing to do. I’m one of those people who grew up thinking I could save the world. I wanted to save the world. I wanted to spare people from suffering. I wanted to heal them, comfort them, give them their lives back, make them happy and whole again. Eventually, I came to realize that more often than not, it wasn’t going to happen, although I continued doing everything in my power to get as close as I could to that ideal outcome, amidst frustrations and heartaches.

Later in my career, now a faculty member, my division chief asked me to work in one of our county clinics, in addition to other numerous responsibilities. A temporary position, he told me, while waiting for a new physician to be hired and replace the one who just left.  Being already stretched very thin and faced with chronic short-staffing, I had to remind myself of something I heard a long time ago from an acting coach:  “Bloom where you’re planted!”

The vast majority of patients we saw in the clinic had very little or no resources at all. Many of them were indigent; many of them had no family, no roof over their heads; they lost all they had due to unfortunate life circumstances. Some of them wouldn’t even eat every day, or would eat out of the garbage containers downtown or in the parks, or get a meal at local churches, soup kitchens, and shelters. They were facing the daunting challenges of homelessness, poverty, abusive relationships, lack of education, mental and physical illness, and the shortcomings of our own healthcare system.  

To brighten my days at the clinic, I brought in a beautiful, colorful bouquet of silk flowers. I placed it on my desk, in the narrow, windowless workspace that was assigned to the physicians. The flowers seemed real. Occasionally, I would catch staff members sniffing them and then laughing for being fooled by their natural appearance. I would inadvertently smile at the sight of them. Sometimes I would sigh while looking at them, and wonder how the world, so full of beautiful things, could also be so ugly. I found it comforting that the flowers wouldn’t
wither, but remain fresh, and shine with perennial beauty. They would remain intact. One less reminder of how time, inexorably, rips everything away from us.

One day, at around 7:30 p.m., just thirty minutes before closing time, a woman came in with complaint of joint pain. She had three young children with her, blond and blue eyed, the oldest one about twelve years old, all of them raggedly dressed.  She looked fatigued and deeply concerned, her hair uncombed, her clothes warned out.  She was twenty-eight years, but looked much older than her age. She had lost almost all of her teeth and her face was terribly sunburned, with damaged and wrinkled skin.  Then I noticed a faint bruise under her left eye and a few more on her arms. The unmistakable signs of abuse and violence. How awful , I thought.

“What happened, ma’am? How can I help you today?” I asked.

“We were evicted early this morning.  I have my three children with me. We don’t know where to go and what to do. We haven’t had anything to eat since last night. I don’t really have joint pain; I mean, I have some, but that’s not why I came. I need help, a place to spend the night and some food for the children. We have nothing left.”

What a terrible situation, I thought. I so wished the visit would have been about the joint pain! Instead it was about a life, many lives, coming apart, like the petals of a wilted flower.

“I’m very sorry to hear that. It must be terribly hard. We’ll call the social worker and we’ll get you to a shelter. Don’t worry. There are several good facilities in town, and one of them will be able to help you.”

I stepped out of the patient’s room to get one of our nurses and start the chain of calls. As I was looking at her chart more closely, I realized it was her birthday. I thought, What a sad day that must have been, evicted, with three children, on her birthday! What could I have done to lessen the pain, to show her that I cared, that we cared? One of the nurses placed orange juice, bananas, and assorted snacks in a plastic bag, knocked on the door, and entered the patient’s room. I heard the children’s excitement over the unexpected gift and the many “thank you”s from their mother. I had nothing. I thought of my colleague with the cupcakes, candles, and birthday cards, entering the patients’ room with students, residents, and nurses, and singing the “Happy Birthday” song. I looked around the empty, desolated physicians’ room. There was nothing, except for the flower bouquet, right next to my computer station, and I thought, Yes. This is it. I picked it up; I walked into her room and said:

“I noticed it’s your birthday today. This is for you. Happy birthday.”

She looked puzzled. “ My birthday…” her voiced trailed away. “So much has happened in the past couple of weeks that I forgot my birthday was coming up…”

Tears started pooling in her eyes and then came streaming down her cheeks. The children paused, looked at their mom, worried by the sobbing, and hugged and kissed her. “Happy birthday, Mom!” they said with tentative smiles on their faces.

“Oh my goodness, Doctor! Thank you so much! I’ve never seen flowers so beautiful!” she said, bringing her face close to a white rose.

“They’re not real, ma’am. But I’m glad you like them. I wish I had magic powers and could conjure up a cake with candles, and balloons and everything you wish for, but here I am, with no magic powers, and no good singing voice. This is the only thing I could come up with.”

We hugged.

Eventually, the social worker arrived and took her and the children to her office, outside the clinic. My last words to her were, “I hope it’ll all work out for you.” I waved goodbye, then I stepped into my office. I knew I would never see her again. I thought of the sadness of the entire situation. I thought of all the hardship she was going to have to face with her children, and felt overwhelmed and defeated by not being able to do more. A bouquet of fake flowers was all I could come up with. A drop in the ocean, I thought. Just a drop in the tumultuous ocean of her life, soon to be swallowed by taller waves.

Category: Featured, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing