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3. Medical Service

On the pediatrics floor of San Francisco General Hospital, Shannon Carter, RN, hesitated outside Room 221A. She moved the hypodermic set in her left hand around behind her back. Maybe if the girl inside didn’t see it this time …

“And how are we today?” Shannon sang out as she opened the door and entered the room, moving fast and making her best effort to sound cheerful and excited.

In the far bed, the bald little girl with no name was sitting up. Her knees were drawn up under her chin, and her spine curved forward, away from the bed’s raised head portion. Her pose was an angular caricature of the fetal position except that, instead of being comatose and withdrawn, the girl was terribly, almost hyperactively, alert. Her head snapped around like a spring-loaded machine. Shannon felt the cold, gray stare of those eyes pass through her like a ghost. There was no other response.

“It’s—uh—time for your medicine,” Shannon said.

The girl’s body tensed. That is, it was already tense and now it started to vibrate.

“This won’t hurt a bit,” Shannon said, bringing the hypodermic with its pediatric dose of Seconal into view for the first time.

The girl glared at the needle as if it were a knife aimed at her heart. “No!” she said in a deep, hoarse voice that reminded Shannon of all the demonically possessed little girls in films about exorcism.

“This will help you relax,” Shannon said as she laid the needle on the tray table and opened a cotton swab saturated with orange antiseptic.

“No!” The girl pushed herself back up the slope of the bed.

“It’s on doctor’s orders, so it’s good for you,” Shannon explained carefully.

“No!” The girl had her back against the green-painted wall by this time, wedging herself among the instrument fittings and gas outlets.

“Come on now,” Shannon reasoned. “It’s on your chart. If you don’t take the injection, I could get in trouble.”

The girl looked to the left and right, seeking a way to escape. Shannon herself was leaning over the near side of the bed, blocking the path back down the mattress. The other side was obstructed by the tray table. If the girl bolted that way, she would have to go over the remains of her lunch and put her weight, however briefly, on the wheeled table—which would probably roll away and dump her. Shannon could read the calculation in the girl’s glance.

“Gotcha!” she said to herself.

She moved the swab toward the crook of the girl’s arm.

The girl froze, watching as if it were a burning brand.

Shannon touched the saturated tip to the pale skin.

The girl didn’t move, although the skin visibly twitched right at the point of contact. Taking such docility as a good sign, Shannon moved the swab in a small circle, painting loops on the skin. The girl stared down, as if fascinated by the sudden coolness of evaporating alcohol.

While she was distracted, Shannon leaned forward—to block the girl’s line of sight—and took the syringe from the edge of the tray table. She moved it slowly, almost languidly forward, toward the prepared spot above the vein.

When it came into view, the girl’s attention was instantly riveted on the needle.

“That’s okay,” Shannon crooned. “Nothing there. So tiny you can hardly see it. You won’t feel a thing.”

When the tip was still six inches from her arm, the girl heaved. With her head and shoulders braced against the wall, her feet against the mattress, she arched her back and shoved Shannon aside with a deft thrust of her stomach. Then she was making a straight run down the bed.

Without a thought for safeguarding the syringe and where the needle might stick, Shannon tackled her.

The girl rolled and kicked, accurately striking Shannon just below the sternum and knocking the wind out of her.

Before Shannon could lift her head, the girl was across the room.

Just at that moment, a Candy-Striper came through the door.

“Don’t let her get away!” Shannon ordered breathlessly.

The Candy-Striper bent her legs and spread her arms.

The girl veered toward the bathroom. Shannon let her go in, then signed to the Candy-Striper to close the door. There was no way out except back through the room. And even if there were another exit, the girl’s only possession—a skuzzy paperweight made of fused glass and metal—was still perched on the windowsill. She would never stray far from that thing.

“What’s all the fuss about?” the Candy-Striper asked.

“She hates needles,” Shannon said mildly.

“I guess,” the younger woman said.

Then Shannon saw that the syringe was sticking out of her own leg at an angle. Luckily, the plunger had only depressed a half-centimeter or so—maybe a third of a child’s dose of sedative. Oh well, she was at the end of shift anyway. She withdrew the needle and threw it onto the tray table in disgust.

Outside, at the nurse’s station, Shannon met her shift supervisor, Ann Maccles.

“Any luck?” Ann asked.

“Now what do you think?”

“I’m guessing she fought.”

“Like a wild animal,” Shannon agreed.

“Poor kid, her chemo must have really been bad.”

Shannon shook her head. “My experience is that children become inured to the injections, rather than fighting them. For a few cc’s of Seconal—compared to what she normally gets—this gal should be putting out her arm with a smile.”

“Not all of them become blasé,” Ann said. “Some are terrorized. It’s just an emotional reaction.”

“She was terrorized before she saw the needle. She was vibrating like a tuning fork even before I got to the room.”

“Well, consider what she’s been through: the cancer, the chemo, and now that awful explosion and being abandoned. It’s a hard life for a little girl.”

“Uh-huh,” Shannon said dubiously, rubbing the sore spot below her breastbone. “I’m reserving my sympathy for a patient who doesn’t kick like a mule.”

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