Flora drifts into the hospital parking lot, still floating on cloud nine from the previous evening, just as the sun is making its appearance in the far east. Dean is a man who knows his way around business and the bedroom. It’s almost not fair for so much talent to be held by one person. That is the sort of thing that should be spread throughout the species.
Flora wraps her stethoscope around her neck and clips her badge to her scrubs before checking her hair in the rear-view mirror. As soon as her hand angles the mirror at her face, she sees a woman and a boy rushing toward her car. The woman is seemingly distraught. The bottom drops out of Flora’s stomach as she reaches for the handle and flings the door open. Adrenaline is now streaming through her veins, thinking there is some sort of medical emergency, but reality hits her like the concrete wall at the end of a test drive when she recognizes the face of the distressed woman.
It’s the mother of the baby that died last week, with a red and tear-streaked face, accompanied a little boy who appears to be around the age of nine. She is speaking frantically at a rapid pace in Spanish, none of which Flora understands.
Flora tries to calm the mother down and tells her in her limited, broken Spanish that she can’t understand her. The little boy begins to translate for her as she continues her frantic rant in Spanish, tears and hands flying through the air.
“My mom, she says that she wants to know what happened to her baby. She says that he was fine when they came in and grabbed him from her. She said you were there and saw that her baby was fine.” The little boy with the Spider-Man shirt drops the biggest bomb Flora has ever heard. “She says they stole him from her, and she needs your help.”
“I wasn’t there when he got sick,” Flora responds. Her mind spins in this tornado of events while she waits for the little boy to translate.
“My mom, she says that he didn’t get sick. They just came in and took him,” the little boy says. His small frame looks too small to be delivering such powerful statements. His voice is unshaken.
“Tell her she needs to go to the police if she thinks something happened to her baby. I’m so sorry, but I’m just a nurse. There’s nothing I can do for her,” Flora says, her heart truly aching at the sight of the desperate mother and her child translator.
The little boy shifts his weight from foot to foot and wrings his small hands while relaying the message. Flora notices the sun is higher now and quietly hopes this awkward confrontation will soon be over.
The small boy with the heavy responsibility turns to her again. “She says she can’t. They will deport her.”
Flora searches for the answer to give these poor people. “What about the father? Can the dad report it?”
She glances at her watch, discreetly, while she waits for her response. She only has five more minutes to clock in before she’s late. Flora’s never been late.
“No. He will be deported too,” he says.
Flora searches the depths of her brain for an answer. Maybe not even an answer, just something to say. “Why me?” is what eventually comes out.
“My mom says she doesn’t know who else to ask. She says she could tell that you cared about her.”
Although flattered by the notion, Flora feels completely inept to fulfill this impossible request, and her soul is crushed to admit so. She studies their somber faces and the desperation that is emitting from this poor mother’s eyes. She checks her watch and then her sanity when she hears her voice say, “Yes. I will look into it.”
The mother thrusts herself on Flora and squeezes her, babbling in Spanish. Flora pats her back and looks at the little boy. “I have to go in to work now. What your mom’s name? I don’t remember.”
“Estella Hernandez,” the little boy tells her.
“And your name?” Flora asks.
“I will do what I can, Juan, but tell her not to expect much. Write your phone number down for me.” Flora peels herself from Estella’s clutches and fishes out her pocket calendar for him to put the number on. As soon as he’s finished, she trots toward the door and the ticking time clock. She glances back at them when the automatic doors open. They are clinging to one another, and Flora’s heart sinks as they gaze at her with every hope they have.
One Week Before the Encounter
“Code pink. Fifth floor. Cut band. Code pink. Fifth floor. Cut band.” The overhead alarm blares through the hospital.
“Not again,” Flora says to Jaymee. “This is the third time this month, and we’re only two weeks in.”
“Crazy, I know. I’ll cover this exit while you cover that one.” Jaymee points a finger to the exit behind Flora.
Flora walks over to her designated door to make sure nobody leaves with a baby, which is part of her responsibility as a nurse in the mother/baby unit.
“You’d think these parents would figure out that if a baby has a security tag on its foot, the alarm will sound if you take it off,” Jaymee says. Her eyes roll so far back in her head, the dark brown of her irises is completely replaced by white, giving contrast to her dark brown skin.
“I know.” Flora laughs. She can’t resist Jaymee’s dry wit. It’s something that took a while to get used to when she started her orientation here straight out of school a year ago.
Flora stands in front of the large metal door, glancing down the long hospital corridor and also through the rectangular window on the door, making sure nobody is using the staircase as an underground railroad of sorts to smuggle a baby through.
“What’s getting me is all the babies that have been dying lately. Is it normal for there to be this many? It seems like when I started here last year, we would only have about one a month, if that. There are so many now,” Flora asks. “Do these things come in waves or something? Something in the water maybe?”
“Not unless you are considering the water between here and Mexico,” Jaymee blurts out, obviously satisfied with her quick wit.
“You’re so bad!” Flora says.
“I’m serious. I think it’s because these moms cross the border and don’t have any prenatal care. Think about it. It’s happening almost exclusively to illegal immigrants,” Jaymee states. She places her hand on her chin and glares off into the ceiling as though it holds the answer. “Come to think of it, I can’t think of any white or black babies that’ve died.”
Flora gives this long thought. “Maybe,” she says. “We don’t get as many of those around here though, anyway.”
“There’s no maybe about it, sugar. No prenatal care equals poor outcomes most of the time. It’s no coincidence, if you ask me,” Jaymee says.
“All clear on the code pink,” the overhead voice announces.
“Thank God, because I was getting tired of standing around waiting for the boogie man to come running through the halls with a baby. I didn’t want to have to get my new scrubs dirty tackling him,” Jaymee says.
Flora has no words for her friend, so instead she shakes her head and goes back to the nursery, where the sound of several babies crying is so loud, the sound waves are almost palpable.
“SHHHH, it’s okay, babies, time to go back to your mommas. You’re all done here,” she reassures them as she checks their ID bands and crib cards to ensure she delivers the right baby to the right momma. She has to bring the babies into the nursery to do their blood work, because there was an incident not too long ago where a dad punched a nurse for making his baby cry during a routine lab draw. It was terrifying for the nurse and demanded a new procedure to be implemented to prevent it from happening again.
The buzzing sounds of IV pumps, call lights, and a nurse speaking into an intercom are not enough to stop the cry of a mother whose baby died yesterday from spilling over into the hallway, announcing her grief for all to hear. That poor mother, Flora thinks as she walks past room 524 on her way to deliver the last baby to her mother. Flora was present for his birth, since there is always a nursery nurse present for a birth, and he seemed to come out fine. Soon after she left the room, there was a buzz going on with people flying in and out of the room. Flora was already attending another delivery, but Dean told her all about it at dinner last night. They think the baby had a congenital heart defect, and as soon as his heart switched over from fetal circulation to normal circulation, he just died. Dean said as soon as the baby showed signs of distress, they whisked him into the stabilization area, but he couldn’t be saved. It was too late.
Come to think of it, that mom is an illegal immigrant; there was no social security number on her chart, and no record of prenatal care. Maybe Jaymee is right, Flora thinks. If she had care, they would’ve most likely found a congenital heart defect and possibly prevented this. What a shame.
“Knock, knock.” Flora knuckles the door before opening it. “Mrs. Garcia, I have your baby.”
“Jyes, jyes.” The woman in her early thirties winces in pain as she pushes herself to a sitting position to receive her baby.
“I just need to check your armband to match it with the baby,” Flora tells her as she grabs the band and reads the numbers aloud.
“Me amore,” the mother says as she presses her baby’s face against hers. The smell of a sweet new baby rivals any other smell in this world, and there is nothing more powerful than the bond that the pheromones create. This beautiful scene of unconditional love is happening simultaneous with the unrelenting heartache down the hall.
“If you need anything, just press the call button,” Flora tells her.
“Si.” Mrs. Garcia doesn’t move her eyes from her newborn as she responds.
Back in the hallway, Flora walks through the dense cloud of mourning that is hovering around room 524 on her way to the nursery.
“That is horrible,” Flora tells Jaymee, who is washing her hands at the opposite side of the room.
“What is, sugar?”
“You haven’t walked past there? The mom in room 524?” Flora asks.
“Oh, her? Yes, it’s horrible, but what’s even worse is the fact that she may have been able to save her baby, if she just went to the doctor,” Jaymee says as she lowers her forehead. “Some of those things can be treated right away if they’re prepared for it.”
“Were you in there when he crashed yesterday?” Flora asks.
“No, I thought you went to that delivery,” Jaymee says. “I was stuck in here by myself with the babies. I couldn’t leave the room.”
“I did, and the baby came out fine. After I dried him off, I gave him to the mom to hold and went for another delivery. It wasn’t until I saw Dean run in there that I thought anything was wrong, but I was stuck in another delivery, so I couldn’t go help.”
“Speaking of Dean, how was your hot date last night?” Jaymee asks.
Flora’s cheeks burn. “It was fine, but you’re changing the subject.” “Yes, because I want to hear all about your hot date! That baby is dead, and no amount of talking about it will bring it back, so let’s move on to the juicy stuff,” Jaymee probes. “You are terrible! I don’t know how you sleep at night!” Flora half teases, half seriously wants to know. “Much easier than you would think,” Jaymee says. “Now get on with the details.” Flora has been dating Dean for a few months, and things are steaming up, right along with the Texas Valley weather. “It was good.” Flora brushes off Jaymee’s insistence on details. “Good? That’s all you can give me? Good? Where are my details? I need the nitty-gritty. You know I’m single and vicariously living through you and that fine specimen of the male species. Have you let him round third base yet?” Jaymee raises her dark eyebrows and purses her cherry-red lips. “Jaymee, you are crazy.” Flora shakes her head, but not really surprised. “We’ve established this. Details, please. Don’t make me beg. It’s a poor, pitiful sight for a forty-something woman to have to beg for someone else’s love life details because they don’t have any of their own.” Jaymee sticks out her bottom lip and gives her best puppy-dog eyes. “Maybe. Maybe not.” “You haven’t, have you? You prude,” Jaymee accuses. “What are you two doing in here?” Charlotte pounds the door open so hard that the wall shakes. Thank God there are no babies in here right now, otherwise she would have sent them into their Moro reflex. “Only thing I can see from the hall is the two of you flapping your mouths.” Flora defends herself. “I just brought the last baby out to her mom, so I was about to chart.” “Yeah. Me too.” Jaymee’s agreement drips with sarcasm. “Well, pretend like you’re doing something other than moving your mouths, because you’re on the clock. We’re all under deep scrutiny right now with the financial mess going on. The hospital can’t afford to pay for people to chit-chat,” Charlotte says, exiting as quickly as she entered. “You’d think the money came directly out of her pocket by the way she talks. She’s not even the director. She’s just the social worker,” Jaymee says, clearly annoyed. “That is a woman who needs to get some right there. I’m single, but it doesn’t make me act like that.” “How bad do you think it is?” Flora asks. “What? The finances? I don’t know, you’re the one dating the house supervisor. Maybe if you let him round third base, he’d tell you.” Jaymee slaps her knee, laughing. “I kill myself sometimes.” “Maybe I will,” Flora resolves out loud. “What? Let him have it?” Jaymee’s ears go up almost as much as a German Shepherd’s on a drug hunt. “No, ask him. Even if I did let him have it, I wouldn’t come share it with you.” Flora puts Jaymee in her place. “Some kind of friend you are,” Jaymee says and turns to bury her head in her computer. Flora, on the other hand, is having a hard time focusing on charting. Thoughts of the baby that died and the new thought of job insecurity swirl around in her mind like a cesspool. Could she have saved that baby if she noticed something was wrong in time? If she had maybe listened more closely to his heart, could they have sent him to the NICU? The thought of her being even partially responsible for that baby’s death, and the mother’s subsequent suffering, is almost unbearable. To top that off, Charlotte mentioning the financial struggle the hospital is currently under is enough to send her into a tailspin. She heard rumors, but nobody has specifically told her about it before. Gulf Regional is a relatively small hospital for a midsize city like Corpus Christi. At three hundred beds, it doesn’t have the capacity to absorb financial struggles and to recover from significant loss. To further complicate things, she just closed on her first condo, and with so little work experience and savings, she would be hard pressed to survive if she lost this job. Lord knows she can’t go back home, if there even was one. That bridge was burned down so long ago that the ashes are buried deep under the soil. Focus, Flora, focus, she tells herself in an attempt to make her fingers do the seemingly mundane task of typing the assessments, despite the conflict that spirals in her head. Her fingers comply, and, uncharacteristically, Jaymee doesn’t interrupt her with her need to gossip. As soon as she finishes charting, she wills herself to think of the positives, a skill she learned to rely on during adolescence. At least I have a job, she reminds herself, because she had several friends that weren’t able to secure nursing internships when they graduated. Just like them, she is not bilingual, and that is a drawback when so much of the population in this area primarily speaks Spanish. The bilingual grads definitely had an advantage when it came time to apply for jobs. This job also allowed her to stop working the late shift at The Pelican Perch, a dive bar across the street from the salty winds of the gulf shore. She had to put up with belligerent drunks, but the tips afforded her to share an apartment with three other girls and bus fare to get to school. “Hey, beautiful,” Dean says, interrupting her self-appointed pep talk. She was so immersed in thought that she didn’t notice him walking into the nursery. “Hey,” she says, hurriedly smoothing her soft brown hair with her palms. This relationship is too fresh to show any signs of dishevelment. “I was wondering if you would be so kind as to join me on a date to the charity ball,” Dean says. His eyes sparkle a crystal light blue that only can be mirrored in the perfection of the hues in the sky. How could she say no to them? “Maybe … when is it? I might be working,” she says. A girl can’t give a guy what he wants that easily. “This Saturday, and don’t you worry about getting off. I know your boss,” he says as he runs the back of his knuckles across her cheek and winks those perfect eyes at her. “What are you two lovebirds whispering about over here?” Jaymee inserts her large torso almost directly between them. She wasn’t lying when she said she was vicariously living through me, Flora thinks. If I didn’t know any better myself, I think she would switch consciousness with me if it meant she could get closer to Dean. “I was just inviting Flora to the charity ball with me.” Dean flashes her his smile, and his teeth seem to sparkle under the fluorescent light in the nursery. “Charity ball? Are you serious right now? Charlotte was just in here yelling at us for chit-chat, and you mean to tell me that Gulf Regional has enough to give to charity? What is wrong with this picture?” Jaymee asks. Her upper lip twitches with every word. “Well, you know, Jaymee, there’s always room for charity,” Dean says in his ever so calm, everything’s going to be alright attitude. Even his demeanor seems to command calm. “I don’t mean to get all hot and bothered, but if we have enough money for charity, we have enough money to pay for chit-chat.” Jaymee furiously waves her hand back and forth in front of her face, willing the beads of sweat that have formed to dissipate. “Someone needs to have one of those chit-chats with Charlotte, because she acts like the money is coming out of her own pocket.” “Oh, you know how Charlotte is. She’s been here so long, she probably thinks it is coming out of her pocket. I wouldn’t worry about it,” Dean reassures her in a manner only he can. Her admiration for him is obvious for anyone with ocular vision. “Besides, the hospital is only throwing the event. All the money is coming from donations.” “Yeah, but I know how much those things cost to put on. My cousin had a huge wedding at a ballroom a couple years ago. My aunt and uncle had to take out a second mortgage to pay for it. Stupid if you ask me, they’re in their mid-fifties, it’s not like they have thirty more years to work. Who does that? Seriously?” Jaymee asks. “Well, obviously Gulf Regional and your aunt and uncle,” Dean responds in a lower than normal tone. Jaymee chuckles and shakes her head. “You got me there. I guess I’ll let you two get back to your love talk. I’ll just be sitting over there. At my computer. Eavesdropping.” Jaymee continues to laugh at herself as she shuffles to the other side of the room. Her large thighs glide together like stationary skis, making it difficult to maneuver through the space. “Now, where were we?” Dean leans his face so close to Flora’s that his warm, humid breath is moistening her cheek. “I was about to tell you that you’re in luck, because I’m off that weekend,” Flora says. “Oh, I’m not worried about luck. I know your boss, remember?” Dean asks. His voice is smooth as silk. “I know, but you know I can’t play hooky,” Flora says. “You’re such a rule follower. That’s what I like about you,” Dean says. “I’ll pick you up at six o’clock.” “I can’t wait,” Flora responds.