Pita bread, hummus, carrots. I’m surveying the items in my shopping cart Nikki and I are gathering for an overdue girl’s night in. This bounty is in serious need of candy. Nik is vigilant about what she eats but I have an insatiable sweet tooth and baby carrots were not going to cut it.
“Wine. We need lots of wine,” Nikki is telling me knowing full well that in our fifteen years of friendship I rarely ever drink. I’m distracted by something familiar about the guy standing ten feet away from us on the opposite side of the aisle comparing boxes of rice noodles. In a split second, I realize who it is. I’d seen him a hundred times before but I was thrown off by the denim jacket and khaki cargo shorts, having never seen him without his long white lab coat outside the confines of the hospital.
I do what any mature thirty-year-old grown woman would do when she sees a guy who she’s crushing on and panic. Grabbing Nikki by the arm, I duck around the corner before he sees me, rushing away like some scared little girl.
“What the hell!?” Nikki looks at me like I have ten heads. I point down the aisle and explain my actions in two words. “Hot Doctor.”
“Ahh!” she sneaks a better look at him. “That’s him!? He IS a Hot Doctor! For cripes sake go talk to him! You look fantastic. Remember the cafeteria incident? You said that if you ever saw him while you were out here in the real world looking normal that you would do something about it. Do something about it!” She gave me a little shove.
Dr. W has been the resident working alongside my doctor for over a year. I could tell the first time I met him that he was going to be an incredible doctor. He listened. He actually made eye contact. More importantly, he understood that sometimes when tests don’t have all the answers, that patients themselves may have better insight than scans and textbooks. He treated patients like people. You would think it would be a given that most doctors would know your first name without first having to check your chart. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
Six months earlier…
Chips, chocolate bars, pop. I’m in the hospital cafeteria at 2 a.m. standing in front of a vending machine daydreaming about the powdery neon orange cheese flavoring on Doritos. I've been an in-patient a little over five months and the only nourishment that enters my body does so via an implanted catheter in my chest which pumps in all the vitamins, minerals, nutrients, fluids and lipids I need from the bags hanging on this IV pole I’m leaning against. This Cadillac of healthy diets chemically predigested straight into my blood stream costs well over eight hundred dollars a day but does nothing to squelch the cravings and desire to taste the actual juicy, crunchy, sweet, sour, creamy flavor of anything between my teeth and on my tongue.
“Please tell me you are not seriously considering cheating on me here?” Doctor W was attempting to look at me very sternly but the crinkles by his eyes gave his lightheartedness away. He was ridiculously handsome and so genuinely nice it could almost make you roll your eyes skeptically that guys like this actually exist. “Nothing in there is worth the progress we've made. Plus, I’ll totally tattle-tale on you to crazy Cathy the nutritionist and she’ll lecture you for hours about why your digestive tract needs a rest.”
“Tattle-tale? You know, you are way too comfortable around me for a doctor.” I smiled. I didn't mind at all and he knew it. Over the past five months, a budding friendship had started to emerge. At first, he would stay behind after his team of physicians had moved on questioning me about my illness. Seeing as how I have such a complicated – and in some aspects, very rare – medical history, visits could easily last an hour. Eventually, he started asking the inevitable question: how has spending upwards of eighty months in the hospital over the course of a single decade effected my quality of life. Our being so close in age we also soon realized we shared some mutual friends from university and before long talking medical history gave way to become more personal.“How about you just sit here and watch me drink a disgusting coffee from that ancient machine over there?” The coffee vending machine with fading seventies diner decals sputtered and hissed in reply. Laughing we sat down at a table. You would never know it was the wee hours of the morning had it not been for the emptiness of the cafeteria tables. Throughout most of the hospital, there are no windows and artificial lighting remains turned on endlessly. Hospital nurses, lab workers, doctors, and other staff are always busy working. Patients are catching naps here and there throughout the days but are rarely ever sleeping. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and scheduled medication times are the only indication that the time inches on. Days are identical on weekdays, weekends, or holidays. Blending together, they drone on separate from the outside world.
For the next three hours, we sat in the cafeteria as anything but Doctor and Patient. I knew before that night I was attracted to him in the way that every woman can appreciate a handsome doctor. It was a welcome treat to sit down with him as two people enjoying good conversation not revolving around my hospital chart. But on that night a very tiny spark started to flicker down in the pit of my stomach. I started to be attracted to him. A man who once performed fake CPR on a kitten his distraught six-year-old niece was adamant was no longer alive because it had been asleep for longer than ten minutes. A man who could quote my favorite old Kevin Smith movies. A man who kept telling me repeatedly how it finds it fascinating I could be so sick and worn down, and yet honestly happy with life at the same time.
When Doctor W asked, I told him about how my past relationships hadn't had the strength to deal with the backbreaking weight of my illness. I told him I did not plan on ever putting another person I cared about through the ordeal again in the future. He insisted that the right guy would understand. He said that someone who really loves you doesn't care about anything else.
My mind started to wander. Would it be possible that a doctor could fall for a patient? Of course, there are ethical issues, but in the late/early night/morning over-tired haze of cafeteria light, I considered it. Who better to understand the physical and emotional toll of an illness? Someone who would fight alongside you to make sure you were getting the best care and treatment options. How amazing would it be to not have to always worry that he would bail out because he couldn't possibly have known what he was getting into? Could someone like him, someone who would truly know the extent of what living my life entails, possibly love me despite everything…
“Doctor W? Will you be joining the team for report?” Dr. Lisa Lea, a tall, pretty brunette general medicine intern snapped me back to reality. Without us noticing, the morning medical staff had started to trickle into the cafeteria to stock up on caffeine before morning rounds. Dr. Lea was trying to be subtle about sizing up our little gathering with a critical eye. “Feeling well, Jane? Everything okay through the night? It’s good to see that you've gained some weight. Don’t worry too much about all that steroid puffiness in your face. That will go away.”
I was quickly sucked into the pitiful realization of the situation. I was not a person that Doctor W ended up realizing was remarkable and wanted to hang out while he had some free time. I was a pathetic sob story. He felt sorry for me. Here I was, his age and instead of living life I was staring at a vending machine wishing for a taste of greasy chips. I was hooked up to machines, so bloated from fluids, my face a gray medicated pallor. I was so angry at myself! I wanted to jump out of my seat and convince him that I wasn't like this all the time. I used to be pretty and I know we could get along and have fun out in the real world.
“She’d be doing a lot better if I’d have let her sleep at all instead of making her listen to my bad jokes and keep me company during a slow night of on-call duty. Get some rest, kiddo," Doctor W walked away to join his colleagues without even once looking back.
And with that, I was deduced to humiliated and pathetic. What the hell was I thinking?! Guys don't look at me the way they look at girls like Dr. Lisa Lea. I was so angry for even letting myself think for a split second that he saw me as more than a friend. Ha! Even 'friend' seemed like a joke! Hot Doctor only felt sorry for me like a jock would take pity on a dork sitting alone in the school cafeteria. I thought we had actually gotten along. Clicked in a way that made him want to spend that extra time with me. Why could I not have run into him while out downtown with my friends? All dressed up and having fun like a real human. Another joke – that was never going to happen.
It wasn't downtown and I certainly wasn't dressed up, but I was eighteen pounds thinner, wearing makeup and a cute sundress from a day out shopping with Nikki. I took a breath. All I wanted was for him to see me like a normal person. To know he's seen me look how other girls do. I needed me being some really nice sick girl he felt sorry for not to be his only impression of me. I wanted him to know that from now on when he does see me sick, it isn't impossible for him to imagine me as anything more.
“Doctor W?” He looked at me and said ‘Hi’ with the polite vacant smile of someone who has absolutely no idea who you are. Oh my God. I want to disappear right now. This is my worst nightmare. I’m about to foolishly remind him he’s been my doctor for the past eighteen months when I see my face register with him.
“Jane?! Oh my gosh! I completely did not recognize you! Wow...you look gor-g- great! You look great!” He is smiling that million watt smile at me and I finally start to breathe again. We spend the next ten minutes talking and catching up. He asks me all about my summer pausing frequently to look me over and comment on how wonderfully healthy I look. Finally, I say I need to be getting back to my friend. “It was really good to see you, Jane,” he said.
I walked back over to Nikki making sure to keep composed while I was still within his view. Doctor W had finally seen Jane the girl. In a nice dress out in the real world and had a real conversation with her. Not out of doctor-patient necessity. Not out of pity. As two equal acquaintances bumping into each other.
“Tell me everything! He’s is so frigging cute – no wonder you call him Hot Doctor!” Nikki begged for the details as soon as we were out of earshot. I was looking forward to telling her every word but first, without turning around, I asked her, “Do one thing for me? Check and see if he’s watching me walk away.” He was.