First Day on the Job

Simon took a deep breath. All the training to prepare him for this moment did nothing to relieve his anxiety. It was his first day working at St. Stephen’s Hospital, and though he knew he’d have to do this at some stage, he hadn’t expected it so soon. He wiped a drop of sweat from his temple, knocked on the door and entered.

Immediately he was struck by how depressing the patient’s room was. It was cold, grey and dim; the only light came from a sliver of morning sun sneaking in beneath the window shade. In the corner sat a man and a chair of about the same age, apparently in a contest to see which of them could look more pathetic. Next to that sad pair was a small round table, upon which a wilted bunch of gerberas remained trapped in the finest vase four dollars could buy. A middle-aged woman stood by the bed, biting her nails. She wore the brave-yet-defeatist look common among boxers facing Mike Tyson in the eighties. Finally, in the bed, was the elderly lady. Her hair was white and messy, her body pale and thin. She had an uncertain look on her face, which seemed to be a polite imitation of her visitors more than a display of actual worry.

Simon nodded to the visitors, being momentarily unable to recall any verbal form of greeting. He approached the bed, leaned down, and with a gentleness that gave no confidence to the hearers, said, “How are you, Mrs Wesley?”

She turned to him and smiled. Simon didn’t know if she had heard her. He felt sick with nerves, but tried to look professional. The woman by the bed leaned over. “I don’t know if she understands you,” she said. “She’s not in a good way. Is there any news?”

Simon didn’t know what to say to her. The man in the chair leaned forward. Simon looked at him, but didn’t know what to say to him either.

“What are the options?” asked the man earnestly.

When the ensuing silence became uncomfortable, Simon ventured an answer. “Look, what I need to do…”

“Just give it to us straight,” said the woman.

“Yes… okay. Well, uh, Mrs Wesley is, uh…”

The woman put her hand over her mouth and turned away from the bed. She exhaled audibly, nodded and then turned to face Simon with tears in her eyes. “I knew it,” she said. “I could tell. All right, we just want what’s best for Mum. What are you thinking—euthanasia?”

Simon’s mouth opened, but no words came out.

The man in the corner stood up from the chair and walked over to the bed. “Euthanasia?” he said. “That’s serious, right? What are the side effects?”

Mrs Wesley stirred in the bed and tried to lift her head.

“Just relax, Mum,” said the woman.

Mrs Wesley tried to speak, but her voice was frail.

“You just rest, Mum,” said the man, patting her hand. “We’ll take care of this.”

With a desperate effort, Mrs Wesley raised herself and said loudly, “Peaches and custard!”

“What?” said the woman.

“I want peaches… and custard,” said Mrs Wesley. She laid her head back on the pillow and tried to catch her breath.

Simon took a plate from his serving trolley and put it on Mrs Wesley’s bedside table. He put two small plastic tubs, one with diced peaches and one with custard, onto the plate. “Here you go, Mrs Wesley,” he said. “I’ve put your dessert here on the table for you.”

The woman by the bed nodded. “You’re a good man, Doc,” she said.

Simon shook his head and began wheeling his food trolley out of the room. “No, I’m not a… I just… I’ll get, uh… I’ll get a doctor… to come in. I just…”

He closed the door behind him as he left the room and breathed a sigh of relief.



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