One Percent


It’s Saturday night and I’m huddled in a doorway to escape the rain, pleasantly buzzed after a few drinks with a beautiful Russian girl I will never see again.

The sky is wet iron, tinged with bronze from the reflected light of San Francisco. Rain patters the concrete and nips at the hem of my jeans. The moment is broken when a distinguished black man gets hurries towards me and says:

“Listen, you’ve gotta help me. My name is Roland Chase. I’m from Burbank. I was driving up the coast when I was carjacked. They took my wallet, man.”

Up close I can see that his salt-and-pepper beard is shaved very close. Clean leather shoes, but a cheap watch. He’s awfully dry for someone who had been carjacked in the rain. Noticing details is part of the training.

“My wife and kids are in the car waiting for me. I called the CHP and they won’t help me. It’s only 12.87 for a can of gas…”

Not twenty bucks. 12.87. Scams work better with specifics. To him I must look like another kid on the town with more cash than sense. I wish I had gray hair to match my years of cynicism.

Clouds pout overhead. 80% chance of downpour. 99% chance of scam.

***

I’m an ER doctor. I trained in the worst neighborhoods of LA and Philadelphia. The paramedics would bring me the freshly-dead, all gray and blue and colors that people shouldn’t be. I’d pump on their chests to try to bring them back. I’d juice them with adrenaline, shock them with electricity, even cut open their chests to squeeze their hearts back to life.

Dead stays dead. When you don’t take care of your diabetes or your high blood pressure, you’re asking for reprisals. Crack cocaine and Mad Dog don’t make for good bedfellows. With every death, I got weaker. I got smaller.

But I never lose kids, I used to say. No child dies in my ER. I had to draw a line somewhere.

Baby Jessica was only eleven days old when her parents rushed her in. She was small even for a newborn. I’ve eaten bigger burritos. Her skin was cold and her arms lay limp at her sides. We put a tube down her tiny throat and pumped in oxygen. We gave her saline and sugar and antibiotics.

She was twelve days old when she died. Her parents stared at me without speaking. The pediatrician, a prim tiny woman that could have been anyone’s favorite aunt, tried to console me. I didn’t stand a chance, she said. One percent at best.

***

“Sir, can you just help me out with a little something….” Chase pleads with me, pulling at the sleeves of his coat like a junkie. I feel his need burning.

By my final year of training I was burned out. I had lost too many times. I hated medicine. I hated pumping on dead people and I hated trying to take care of idiots that didn’t care for themselves.

It was Christmas Eve when the paramedics rolled Rosalita in while she flailed in the throes of a seizure. She had just had a baby six weeks earlier, and her sister, stained with tears, told me she had tried to kill herself. She writhed around the stretcher. We pumped her full of sedatives but she kept thrashing. If I didn’t figure out what she had taken, her brain would fry in her skull.

Only small detail of the EKG tracing stood out. The QT interval was too long. Consistent with tricyclic antidepressant overdose. One of the most dangerous manmade toxins, tricyclics turn your blood into acid and cause unending seizures. I picked up an syringe of sodium bicarbonate: baking soda in water. It a long shot. Less than one percent.

Rosalita awoke three days later. I watched her take the first steps of her new life. “My legs hurt,” she whined. “Can I have a pain pill?” I would have liked gratitude, but I don’t need it. Every year on Christmas Eve I toast to myself that there is one less orphan in the world.

***

Yesterday a gallon of blood drained onto my shoes while I struggled to keep a man alive after he flew off his motorcycle on the freeway. At seventy miles an hour asphalt is like a grinder. I still try to convince alcoholics to go to AA, smokers to quit, diabetics to take their insulin. I still scream at them “Don’t you die on me!” and yet they still do. Even children.

I handed twenty dollars to my Mr. Ronald Chase, or whatever his name was. He rushed off, his heels clapping wet pavement. Ninety-nine percent chance he was off to buy a forty or crack or black tar heroin or whatever.

But maybe, just maybe, he would be filling his gascan and rescuing his family from a dark street on a rainy night.

I have to believe in my one percent.

originally published in Articles of Faith in California magazine here