Al Felman

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Legend of the Feather Pillow

Chapter One

Lingering storm clouds drifted eastward, their anvil crests ablaze in the rising Florida sun as Milton Diamond swerved his faded blue Corolla into the hospital parking lot. Snatching a crumpled tie from the back seat, he dodged scattered puddles on his way to the rear entrance of the medical center.

Outside the doctors’ lounge, Milton punched the code numbers on the keypad next to the door and entered the room already filled with staff physicians and house officers. Most read the morning papers while eating breakfast at the three large tables. Along the far wall, others studied computers or talked into telephones, oblivious to a television set that hung overhead bleating out the early morning news.

The doctor approached the small steam table in the center of the room and shoveled a helping of eggs from the bottom of the pan into a carry-out carton. He added another scoop, covered it with hash-browns and piled on a couple of extra doughnuts from the counter strewn with bagels and assorted pastries.

"How’s your cholesterol, Milt?" one of his contemporaries said, smearing low-fat cream cheese on a bran muffin.

"Just something to warm the cockles of my stomach," Milton replied. He set a foam-paper cup into the coffee machine and pressed the appropriate buttons.

As he headed for the door, Mark Levin, sitting atop an antique shoe-shine chair donated by some unknown benefactor, lowered his newspaper and called out, "Hey Milt that rain last night I’ll bet they’re waitin’ for you."

"Never know," he said, balancing the coffee on the carton while he snagged a plastic fork, touched his elbow to the green ‘Exit’ pad, pushed open the door and hustled along the hallway to the emergency room suite.

The charge nurse, an ample woman in her 50s, greeted him from behind the counter. "Good morning, Doctor D."

Milton slid onto a chair, placed his food carton on the desk, opened the top and watched as she pinched a doughnut and carefully removed the adherent egg.

"Help yourself, Marge."

"Thank you doctor, don’t mind if I do, but I hardly need this."

"What’s the damage?" he asked, wiping egg from his lips.

The nurse studied her clipboard. "There’s a possible myocardial infarction waiting for a coronary angio, and two patients in X-ray from an accident." She took another bite of doughnut. "Oh . . . and a possible PE."

He swallowed another mouthful of egg and chased it with a swig of coffee. "What’s the hold-up with the angio?"

"They’re backed up in the cath lab. One of the rooms is down." He took another sip, wolfed down the remaining eggs and potatoes and stood up. "How ’bout the blue room?"

"Four . . . no, three are left. Two men and one poor old soul."

"Let’s take a look," he said tossing the empty carry-out carton in the waste basket.

They rose, and the nurse approached Milton whose tie was still hanging around his neck. "Your tie, doctor," she said, and grasped the ends, deftly looping them into a four-in-hand.

He automatically gave the knot an additional tug. "You ever think of becoming a Jewish mother, Marge?"

She smiled, and handed him a slip of hot-pink paper. "By the way, Doctor, this came in yesterday afternoon while you were tied up with that motorcycle accident. It didn’t seem particularly urgent."

He stuffed the paper in the pocket of his lab coat, and followed the nurse down the hall to a dimly lit side room.

"Smells like we’ve got a couple drunks in there."

"Don’t complain, Doctor at least we have Librium. In the days of paraldehyde it smelled like a chemical factory."

"Was that before penicillin, Marge?"

She disregarded the dig and led him into a small windowless room where they approached an unshaven figure snoring loudly on a low bench against the wall. Milton knelt and gently felt the white collodion bandages in the blood-crusted hair. "Billy-clubs?"

"The intern sutured him early this morning. Negative neurological."

"What about a CT?"


The doctor rose, stretched his legs and pointed to the clipboard. "See he gets a bath before they let him go. He might still have a head injury. Make a note to have him aroused every two hours. And let’s get an official reading on that CT before discharge."

He glanced down at the man. "Why the hell do they have to hit these poor bums? It just makes more work for everybody."

They moved to a bench in the corner where another skid-row veteran slumped over a fragmented blanket roll trying to light a cigarette stub held between his chapped, weather-beaten fingers.

Milton checked the man’s hospital bracelet, pulled a chair up to the bench and sat facing him. "Mr. Schermerhorn?"

The derelict pulled the cigarette from his mouth and stared back at Milton through yellow-brown eyes.

"Mr. Schermerhorn, I’m afraid you can’t smoke in here. Maybe you’d better try to get some sleep."

The man pressed the cigarette stub into his blanket roll and lay over on his side. Milton stood and gestured at the clipboard. "Make a note to have me go over him before discharge. I"ve got a feeling he’s been into the rot-gut a little too long."

Approaching the bundle on the third bench, Milton was repulsed by the fetid smell of ammonia-tainted body odor. In the subdued light, he leaned over to examine the woman’s deeply creased, tanned face that bore witness to a hard life and belied her blissful, secure sleep.

He straightened. "How old is she?"

"According to the record she’s fifty."

He stooped down, carefully removed a torn scarf and palpated her skull through matted, dirty-brown hair. "She looks a lot older than that. What’s her story, Marge?"

"Homeless. Came in last night with a fecal impaction. General malnutrition. They cleaned her out no other medical problems that we know of."

He stared down at the woman and counted her respirations for several seconds. "Better call Social Services and see they clean her up. Get her a decent meal and give her a good going over when she wakes up."

On the way back to the control desk, he pulled the hot pink slip from his pocket, straightened it out and showed it to the nurse. "I can’t read the name, Marge. Who’s this from?"

"I think it says Schtarker; the new volunteer’s handwriting – "


"I believe that’s who it’s from." The nurse shrugged. "Maybe it’s just paper work . . . "

A sheen of sweat dampened the doctor’s forehead as he stuffed the pink paper back into his lab coat pocket and turned toward the door. "Try to speed up that angio, will ya, Marge? And call Schtarker . . . tell her I’m on my way."

He trotted through the waiting room, now beginning to fill with patients. At the end of the hallway he dodged the line of people clutching flowers, teddy bears and each other, bounded onto the elevator just as the door opened and flattened his thumb against the fifth floor button. As the car ascended he squeezed ahead of the other passengers, strode onto the fifth floor and hurried along the hallway, known around the medical center as "Carpet Alley". Scarcely feeling the thick pile under his feet or taking any notice of the administrative offices along the corridor, he hurried past the board of directors’ conference room. Outside the last office on the left, he paused to catch his breath and give his tie a final jerk.

The bold black letters on the window seared into his brain:

G. Schtarker

Hospital Risk Manager

Milton forced his hand onto the doorknob, cracked the door and stared into a small alcove. Pushing the door open and fumbling in his pocket, he produced the pink paper and showed it to the secretary. "Hello . . . uh . . . I’m Doctor Milton Diamond . . . uh . . . I received this note."

The secretary scarcely changed her expression as she pressed a button on her phone and spoke into the receiver. "Doctor Deemond is here."

"Uh . . . that’s pronounced Dia – "

"Ms. Schtarker will see you now." The woman gestured toward a partly open door.

Milton stepped into the office and made his way toward a desk in the far corner, carefully avoiding hospital records piled haphazardly on the floor. Behind the desk, cluttered with uneven stacks of folders, papers and documents, stood a squat, gray-hued, square-shaped woman who could have started at middle line-backer on any fall Saturday afternoon. He studied her, wondering whether she was of woman born or had been quarried from the local granite pit.

The woman took a seat behind her desk and stared down at a hospital chart in her lap. "Do you remember a child about six months ago? Brothers was his name Bruce Brothers. Came in with an asthmatic attack."

Milton reached across the desk and accepted the folder with his sweaty hand. "We see a lot of cases. . . . I’m afraid I don’t recall that name." He read from a slip of yellow paper stapled to the chart’s front cover. "It says, ‘Hold for Litigation’." He dropped it back on the desk. "What is this, Ms. Schtarker, a malpractice case?"

She tapped her finger three times on a tabbed page and handed it back. "The emergency room report does that look familiar?"

His fumbling fingers tried to separate the pages until he finally focused on a typed entry on the admission sheet. " ‘Diagnosis – Bronchial Asthma, pneumomediastinum’."

Scanning further down the page, he recognized his handwriting for the first time:

Disposition of Patient: Admit stat to PICU.

Milton leveled his gaze at the risk manager’s stony face. "I don’t understand, Ms Schtarker. I did admit the child to the unit."

The woman rose from her chair, leaned across the desk and pointed her chipped fingernail near the bottom of the open page. "Is that your signature, Doctor?"

He stared for a split second, closed the folder and laid it gently on the desk. "Maybe I should take this record and have a better look . . . I don’t recall – "

"Not just yet, Doctor. Perhaps in a day or two." The risk manager picked up the hospital chart and tossed it on a shelf.

Through a parched mouth, he forced one more question. "Is there something I’m missing?"

"He died."


Dr. Milton Diamond, Chief Resident in Emergency Medicine, three months from completion of his training, pulled himself out of the chair, turned slowly and stumbled from the risk manager’s office. His head throbbed as he wandered back along the hallway and into the board of directors’ conference room where he fell onto a leather couch.

"Are you all right, Doctor Diamond?"

He opened his eyes. Are you all right, Doctor Diamond? The voice sounded familiar to his dazed brain. He fought to regain a semblance of composure. He blinked, rubbed his hands over his face, opened his eyes and stared at Millie, the venerable Indonesian who had been dispensing food and solace along hospital hallways for as long as anyone could remember. A cart laden with sandwiches, salads, canned drinks and assorted Danish caught his eye.

Millie noticed his gaze and covered the cart with a white cloth. "Are you sure you’re all right?"

He struggled to clear his brain. My life is flushing into the sewer, Millie, and you’re asking if I’m all – sure . . . I’m terrific. "Uh . . . Thanks, Millie," he mumbled, sitting upright and rubbing his eyes. "I’m all right. I’m fine . . . thank you for asking."

She positioned the cart in the far corner of the room, started to leave and turned to Milton. "That food is for the director’s meeting." At the door, she smiled and glanced back. "But the pastries are fresh today."

"Thanks, Millie and you have a good day."

After she left, Milton lingered in the solitude of the conference room, stared out the window and tried to draw even the tiniest morsel of logic from his session with the risk manager. He dragged himself to the table, lifted the cloth, squeezed a piece of Danish, let the cover drop and departed.


Back in the emergency room, his mind was a blur of conflicting thoughts and feelings. Although the episode in the risk manager’s office threatened to cloud his judgment, he fought to carry on with his clinical duties, avoid stupid mistakes and contain his emotions that ran the gamut from anger to paranoia to resignation. Between cases, he called his wife Winifred, in the Department of Pathology, where she was also working as a resident in training, and from her he tried to milk whatever solace she could provide.

When 7:00 p.m. finally arrived, he hurried from the medical center, jumped into his trusty Toyota and zoomed out of the parking lot. He hardly saw the campus bell tower, the gigantic football stadium, or the massive azalea bushes sprouting their traditional spring blooms of pink and white. Even the tight-fitted coeds meandering along the walkways failed to excite his interest.

Off campus and onto the main north-south avenue, the Toyota sputtered beneath the grandfather oaks lining the road, their limbs draped with Spanish moss, standing like bearded sentinels, guarding Greek-symboled mansions in the gathering twilight. At the intersection of Thirteenth Street and University Avenue in the center of the small north-central Florida college town, Milton cursed a lone bicyclist crossing the street against the light and causing him to have to stop and wait for the next change. Turning south, he passed by Leonida’s Pizza Parlor and the Touchdown Club, where students congregated for their regular evening of non-scheduled extracurricular activities. A solitary figure slouching in the dim light of the University Laundromat reminded him of bygone days and the dividends of married life.

At the outskirts of the town, Milton turned into his apartment complex, parked the car and trudged up the two flights to his apartment.

In the kitchen, Winifred leaned against the counter in front of the microwave oven, watching the cooking meter turn and drumming her long fingers on the Formica.

"They could have something, Winnie," he whined, tossing his briefcase on a chair. "After all, the kid died."

"They’re probably just fishing. What’s your pleasure, turkey or meat loaf?"

"How about soup? Cream of cyanide."

"Milton, are you going to go crazy over this? It isn’t the end of the world, for gosh sakes. You don’t even know whether there will be a suit."

"They’ll sue, all right. With my mazel – "

"What do you want to drink?"

"Hemlock on ice." He took a beer from the refrigerator, slouched into a chair by the table and flipped open the can. "Why now of all the piss-ass, cotton-flicken times to get clobbered with a malpractice suit "

Winifred took the pre-fab dinners from the oven and placed them on the table with a knife and fork next to her tray, and a spoon next to his.

"What’s this?"

"You’re a suicide risk. I just mopped up the floor and I don’t want a lot of blood all over."

He took a knife and fork from a cabinet drawer. "Thanks a lot, Winnie – but you’re not so damn funny."

"You want catsup?"

"I wanna die."

"With or without catsup in your stomach?"

He slouched deeper into his chair.

Winifred placed the catsup bottle on the table with a thump, took a seat across from her husband and studied him at close range. "You know, of course, these cases all start out alike."

He sighed and picked at his food. "How so?"

"Paranoia . . . nobody ever wants to admit they did anything wrong. Every doctor that thinks he’s going to be sued gets paranoid. It’s a natural response to – "

"But that’s just the point, Winnie." He rocked back on the chair, ran his fingers through his hair, and grimaced. "How in God’s name do you ever know . . . how do you ever know whether you did anything wrong? Will you please tell me that?"

"Well did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Do anything wrong?"

"How am I supposed to know? I don’t think so, but I don’t have any of the details. That’s why I have to go over that chart." He pushed his plate away. "After all, I was the one who admitted the kid to the hospital. He died up on the ward. Somebody up there must have screwed up."

"Well, what about tomorrow? They’re expecting us and I’ve made arrangements with a real estate agent to look around the area. We have to decide whether to go."

"My God, yes. This damned business with that risk manager . . . I almost forgot about the interview with Dr. Brodsky."

"How can you forget? Everything’s been arranged for weeks."

"That was before all this happened. I need to get into that case in detail before we go driving down to Havendale to see some clinic."

"Have you considered what Brodsky will think if you back out now? What are you going to tell him?"

"What difference does it make? When he finds out about this suit, he won’t hire me anyway."

"But it’s not even a lawsuit yet. Isn’t he the one who took care of you when you were growing up?" She picked up the TV dinner trays and threw them in the trash can. "You told me he was your hero . . . he encouraged you to become a doctor."

"That’s just the point, dammit. What’s he gonna say when I tell him I might be sued for malpractice? What will anybody think, for that matter?"

"What about me? I need to find a job for myself, you know."

Milton removed a carton of ice cream from the freezer, picked a spoon from the drawer and sat at the table.

"I just don’t think we should go now . . . maybe later, when things quiet down."

Winifred gathered a pile of papers and microscope slides. "Well, I have to get ready for a slide review conference. Do whatever you want, but just make up your mind and let me know." She disappeared into the spare bedroom, their makeshift home office.

Milton shuffled to the living room, clicked on the TV and started eating from the ice cream carton. She’s usually right, he told himself. Married three years and I can’t remember the last time she was wrong. But this time . . . ?

The TV program failed to catch his interest and he returned to the kitchen, placed the half-empty carton of ice cream back in the freezer and joined Winnie in the bedroom-office.

"We can’t go now Winnie, we just can’t. I have to find out more about that case."

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