Chapter 1: The Call
Senior Pediatric Resident Sarah Belden shuffled into the doctors' on-call room, her eyes hazy, half-open, her shoulders drooping. Glancing at her wristwatch, she groaned: three-fifteen in the morning. Twenty-one hours into her shift at Memorial General Hospital she still had three hours to go before she could sign out. Alone in the tiny windowless room, she was surrounded by drab grey walls barren except for metal hooks and an old mirror speckled with dark streaks and spots. A pair of steel bunk beds tantalized her with a promise of blissful sleep, but a black wall phone hanging between the stacked beds loomed like a bugler threatening to blare reveille at any moment.
Eager to shed clothes grungy from her long day caring for sick children, Sarah removed her white coat, hung it on one of the hooks, then peeled off her crumpled green scrubs and tossed them onto an overflowing laundry hamper. When she glanced at her reflection in the mirror she chuckled at seeing her trim young body in the matronly underwear she wore for sheer comfort during the long hours on duty. Baggy white cotton panties hung like bloomers around her shapely hips, while a soft, oversized brassiere cushioned her ample breasts. She had the urge to collapse onto the bed in her underwear but couldn't risk the embarrassment should one of the male residents enter and catch sight of her old-lady undergarments. So she pulled on a starched pair of clean scrubs just before she dropped onto one of the lower bunks, not bothering to get under the covers. She closed her eyes, hoping against hope that her exhausted body would let her fall asleep instantly, that she was not so wired she would lie frozen in semi-consciousness while the intense scenes from her tedious day swirled in her head. In an earlier life Sarah had been a deep sleeper but now the anxiety of being on call kept her on edge, knowing that any second she might be summoned. Mercifully, exhaustion gave way to light sleep.
But not for long. Barely fifteen minutes had passed before the shrill ringing of the telephone startled her wide awake. She bolted upright from her pillow, nearly smacking her forehead on the bottom of the upper bunk. She pulled the handset from its cradle, coughed to clear her throat and said, "Dr. Belden."
A shrill voice pierced her ear, the words urgent, hurried, more pleading than commanding.
"This is the charge nurse in Obstetrics and Delivery. We have an emergency, you'd better come stat to the delivery room. Preemie, extremely small, any second."
"On my way."
Sarah jumped out of bed, tossed the phone into its cradle, pushed her feet into her slip-on shoes and charged out of the on-call room. She flew down the hall to the nearest stairwell, contorting her body to pull on her white coat as she ran. Exhilaration and alarm surged through her in equal measures. This was her moment, this was what she had gone through medical school, internship, two years of junior residency for. This was it, now she was the senior pediatrician in the hospital, it was all on her to deal with a life-and-death situation. The life of someone's baby would depend on her.
But what would she find? Would she be up to whatever challenge awaited her in that delivery room? Her heart pounded in her chest as she raced up three flights of stairs two steps at a time, gasping for air. She pushed through a heavy metal door with a faded sign that read "Obstetrics," ran down a hallway jammed with empty hospital beds, gurneys, and random pieces of medical equipment, and burst through a pair of swinging doors into the small washing-up area just outside the delivery room. She ripped off her white coat, pulled a pair of paper shoe covers over the slip-ons, tucked her hair into an operating room cap, tied a surgical mask over her face, and started scrubbing her hands under the high faucet in the oversized stainless-steel sink. Yellowish-brown antiseptic foam bubbled over her fingers and nails as she brushed them with iodine soap and warm water. Still panting heavily, Sarah glanced over her shoulder through the large windows in the delivery room doors.
What she saw made her heart leap in her chest. Her knees went limp, she staggered from foot to foot to keep her balance. Her stomach twisted into spasms, the foul taste of bile filled her throat. She belched hard and swallowed back the surging vomit.
"NO!" she screamed into her face mask, drowning out the muffled sounds of her paper-shrouded foot smashing repeatedly on the floor. "NO!"
The woman on the delivery table was Martina Johnson. Again.