A story crafted from three random words: Olmsted, feather headdress of a coastal Incan fertility and dealth god, M.G.H. You can thank the March 2005 National Geographic magazine for these randomly selected phrases that I will now turn into a witty story this morning…
Doctor Luella Roswurn just could not explain it, not by any medical means. The patient had a little success at first, then by summer, left her ward to recover within weeks of terminal diagnosis. His family had come in with jubilant babies and grannies, giddy, wistful Peruvian pipes, singing their songs and shifting the plastic curtain so loud that Mrs. Branson nextdoor stabbed the nurse call-button until long, unclipped fingernails stuck into the clicker’s white plastic housing.
A month before the balloons, back when the patient was still fully in her care, the family of Elmer Costales had come in to mourn without mourning–that is, smile at the old man, pat his hand, and promise that they were praying for him to recover. Doctor Roswurn had seen it done before. On that rainy spring day, she had backed down the hallway to give the family privacy. She then took a breath to distance herself in another way, before coming in to give that final diagnosis: the cancer was in Elmer’s kidneys, in the marrow of his bones, everywhere. No recovery.
While she was thus disconnected and hearing them say such hopeful things, Doctor Roswurn recalled having the strangest brain activity she ever remembered. Not that she had a running chart in her head, but there was, at times, a dark display going in the background. A green seismic meter made wild leaps against cranium walls or plunged into deep black-blue subconscious depths while she pondered. Doctor Roswurn would never admit that to someone else that part of her consciousness really had convinced itself that it was a fierce machine of physiological analysis, but she did find the silly internal scan to be useful. She could breathe deep and think back to her happy place, with the trees by so much serene water, and then enjoy a gentle raise and ebb in heartbeat, tamed green lightning across her mental screen.
In her meditation, she overheard the Costales family speak of ‘el muerte.’ Doctor Roswurn knew that word. She remembered eating it, a sugar candy skull while doing graduate research in Mexico. Pasa unos momentos más, y los Costales dicieron ‘we love you’ también…
And then her brain would lapse back into Spanish. This simple pulse would evolve into an advanced cat scan machine, flare, shift into the red, blaze, fairly salsa with all its machinery that couldn’t exist yet (because she was going to invent it). Language certainly evoked feeling, and Spanish reminded Doctor Roswurn of getting a hangover during that last week abroad with her professor. Wild, risky insanity, but he was so good at what he did and better at what he could teach her. Old, sad joke. Not that Luella saw herself as one of those women, but it was hard not to take that diploma from Professor Esteban’s hand, months later, and not feel that girlish, devilish shame anymore… just dirty.
“Pachacamac y Cristo se te mantiene el alma, querido Elmer…Amen.”
Green flatline. Doctor Roswurn never did reach the beautiful place she coveted, that could lower her heart rate and decrease brain activity the moment she glimpsed it again. ‘Amen’ was a very old Hebrew word–it was necessary to keep words academic, logical–and ‘amen’ was as clear in a Spanish accent as in any other language that dressed it. ‘Amen’ came at the end of things. So wake up girl, the Costales family had just finished their prayer. Now to go and tell them God didn’t exist.
Pachacamac was too good of a vibration on her mental Richter Scale to pass up, it turned out later. Doctor Roswurn learned that Pachacamac was an Incan creator god, through one half-hearted image search (as a break for her eyes) that brought up an ancient but strikingly beautiful feather headdress of a coastal Incan fertility and death god , and also the name of a town in Peru. She feared to assume los Costales had been praying directly to Pachacamac on that day, or just reminding their patriarch that the ruins and Lima itself would always be near to him?
This realization came after her magically recovered patient quit her care and even the hospital when funding for the radical treatment was cut. Her mind wandering once more as she waited down the hallway. Another jade flatline, another dying patient. This one’s family was Irish. Amen.
Doctor Luella Roswurn had many patients. But this one from Peru turned out not to be like all the others. Mr. Costales’ miraculous recovery, and his sudden offended flight from her hospital bed, her ward, became maddening. Luella found herself stalking the hallways with green meters flashing and ripping behind her eyes, she covered her ears on a cot in the breakroom to keep out all that pretty pipe music, the stamping, the clapping, the praising of Pachacamac or God or whomever, out!
Thankfully, M.G.H. was in Boston and not far from the physical place Luella sought with her energy, on the most stressful days. Luella went to Lake Waban, about twenty minute’s drive away from Boston. Once there, she stood and pushed glasses up over her brow to rest on top of her head, like shades. Old, old habit that she never trained herself out of believing was a cool look in med school labs. Or, in sweaty Mexico.
Elmer Costales had been terminal.
So many years of medical school…
They rejected my care, turned to experimentation, fled my ward.
Simply prayed him out of it.
Who in the HELL was Pachacamac! Why didn’t Professor Esteban protect her on that night? How long before all this foolishness, these bright calculations could get out of her head and before a team of MIT software engineers? When? At the end of her career? Wouldn’t it be too late by then, to start critical research on stimulated emotional centers of the brain in cancer patients? To finally learn whether or not sick people who prayed really were better off? Brain waves pulsated beyond the charts, to the white bone top of her head, standing all her wiry hair on end as it grew out of its relaxer, even now. Touch it up as many times as you want, girl, you don’t have the power to fix yourself.
Not that Doctor Luella Roswurn resisted belief in great, sacred things. She just felt sure that gods and spirits and whatever else was energy, which life implies, released into the air around human beings, homo sapiens, whatever animal-thing people still were. And it could be moved around, projected, given away to two individuals who didn’t belong together on an impossible night in Mexico City, re-birth them into a stellar doctor who, sometimes, if she worked hard enough, really could heal her patients, and a professor still capable of molding his students, after matriculation.
Professor Esteban emailed back that he was happy for Luella, and that no, he’d never before heard of Pachacamac. But couldn’t she also theorize that this Incan god might be like her Olmsted?
Another image search after a long day of staring at rows upon rows of falling statistics, bleak black and white. Doctor Luella Roswurn cussed at herself when she at last got the connection. Frederick Law Olmsted had designed Wellesley’s campus.
Around Lake Waban.
“He died anyway, I found out.” Luella told Professor Esteban at dinner. Her brain waves had flown off the charts, when she gained the courage, after so many years, to have him take her out. Luella found she needed a sip of wine first, and then to swallow, before trying still harder, “Mr. Costales lived long enough for his family to get him back to Peru and see Lima one last time.”
“But don’t you mean ‘to see Pachacamac?’ Are you still offended that they took him to another hospital once funding was cut for that trial treatment, and then he got a better diagnosis?”
“At the terminal stage? Hell no. I found out which sort of other facility they went to… one of those places that tells you what you want to hear, experiments and experiments until they can spin the results in some kind of other way. But it did scare me, for a while. I was beginning to think I was a bad doctor.”
Now he had some wine. Those same lines and dimples, they were still there. The beard was graying though. Handsome, or a little scary? “And so, Luella, you’re glad that a patient of yours died? Or, are you satisfied that Pachacamac–either the god or powerful nostalgia for the ruins–answered this old man’s prayer?”
“In that the Costales’ lawsuit won’t end my career, yes, I am happy he went peacefully.” Another bite of food. “And you know, maybe it was a chance for Mr. Costales to start over, even if brief, to fully realize hope. Just like when I go visit a park that I really love, like near Lake Waban. Not magic or religion or anything like that, but it does calm me down, the illusion of peace… Olmsted and Pachacamac have turned a page for me, a little bit. I see now, that I can ask for renewal at any time in life, strive and then really get it. One man‘s belief transported him from a dreary hospital bed in my ward and back to his homeland so that he could die with dignity. I wish I could stop worrying about the past and get another chance like that.” then Luella put down her fork, “And the case with Mr. Costales also puts things into perspective in another way. What happened with us… in Mexico, can’t end my career anymore, by comparison. Which means, after all the recommendations you wrote for me and us still hanging in there, as colleagues, we can finally talk about it.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Why not?” then he shushed her, and Luella lowered her voice, “Yes, it was–technically–consensual, but there was still a great difference in experience–I can see that now. Did you have feelings for me too? Was that how you got carried away? You owe some explanation.”
Her old professor sighed, making the candlelight flicker. He leaned back in the carved restaurant chair, until it creaked. “To be honest, Luella, I assumed that, all this time, you had forgiven me. So, I went with it. And now, we’re having dinner together.”
“I see. So, you’re glad that a student of yours went on to work at Massachusetts General Hospital because it means she made something of herself, after all? Or, are you relieved that she’s successful because now, out of some twisted sense of shame–some godlike fear–she might accidentally forgive you? Maybe even thank you for taking advantage?”
“What sin did I really commit?”
“You just admitted to knowing, that you really hurt me all these years!”
“You were and still are a very pretty girl, these things happen. Why make it into more than it is? I thought you didn’t believe in God, Luella.”
“No, it’s worse than what you’re thinking, Professor Esteban. I believe in Pachacamac. So, from now on, you’d better stay the fuck out of my life.”
And then Doctor Luella Roswurn slapped the bill shut, having swiftly paid for both their dinners.
Flatline. Flatline. Green. Amen.
Note: This story is purely fictional and definitely not based on anyone I know, as I was not a science major–if you need proof of it!
Source for today’s words: Shreeve, James. “The Mind is What the Brain Does.”, Mitchel, John G. “Frederick Law Olmsted’s Passion for Parks.”, Eeckhout, Peter. “Ancient Peru’s Power Elite.” National Geographic Magazine, March 2005: 2+, 32, 52 Print.