"They might," she snapped back. "I wouldn't blame them. A nurse should be in the peak of health when she's responsible for patients in an intensive care unit. I'm keenly aware of my limitations. That's why I insisted that they have another RN on duty with me, just in case." She smiled faintly. "I didn't tell them why, of course."
He shook his head. "You're playing a dangerous game. You could die."
She got up from her chair. "We all do, eventually."
He got up, too, scowling. "Don't wait too long," he pleaded. "They love you at O'Keefe. I have patients there, so I hear all the gossip." He studied her wan face. "You never told Cortero why you weren't with his wife when she died. Why not?''
"Because he wouldn't listen," she replied. "And now, it doesn't matter." She pushed back a loose wisp of blond hair. "It's easier for me if he goes on hating me. Please don't ask why."
"I won't. But promise me you'll do something soon."
"I will," she agreed. She drew in a long breath. "It's just thinking about the length of time I'll lose from work. I don't know how I'll survive."
"There are all sorts of agencies that can help. Your
aunt and uncle endowed a whole pediatric wing at St. Mary's. Surely they'd help you."
She laughed. "They hate me even more than Ramon does," she told him. She shrugged. "It's just as well. If I die on the operating table, nobody's going to grieve for me. Nobody in the world."
She thanked him for his time and went out, clutching the prescriptions she'd persuaded him to give her, to stabilize her heartbeat and thin her blood, and buy her just a little more time before she had the surgery. In another three weeks, she'd have enough saved to pay her rent for two months in advance. If her insurance paid eighty percent of the hospital bill, which it was supposed to, she could almost manage financially.
"You look like death warmed over," Brad Donaldson muttered as she came onto the ward. Brad was a technician, and a good one. He'd started at O'Keefe about the same time Noreen had, four years ago. He was the only real friend she had, although it was just the friendship of colleagues. Brad was eating his heart out over a young lady doctor who was working as a resident in the emergency room. She couldn't see him for dust. It made for fellow feeling that they were both dying of unrequited love, even though Brad didn't know who Noreen was pining for.
"I feel like death warmed over," she told him.
He cocked his blond head and watched her closely. "Your color isn't very good."
"I know." She took a steadying breath. "I'll be all right. The doctor gave me something to help stabilize my heartbeat."
"Talk to me," he said.
She smiled, and shook her head. "No. It's my problem. I'll handle it."
"You worry me," he murmured. "What is it about nurses that they never admit when they're sick?"
"All guts, no brains?" she ventured, and smiled. "Come on. We've got treatments to give and lunch on the way, and doctors about to make rounds. Let's get this show on the road."
"After you," he said with a flourish.
A female valve patient was brought up to the ward an hour before Noreen was due to go off duty. She supervised the porters as they got the woman to bed, and then connected the oxygen and the drip, checking the chart for any other medications that the surgeon had ordered. This was one of Ramon's patients. She knew the signature scrawled on the white form.
The woman's eyes opened. She looked white and sick and frightened.
Noreen put a hand on her forehead and gently stroked her gray hair back from the clammy skin. "You're on the cardiac ward. We're going to take wonderful care of you. I'm Noreen. If you need anything at all, just push this button." She guided the woman's thin fingers to the button on the bed rail. "Okay?"
"Dry," the woman croaked. "So...dry."
"Do you have any family to stay with you?" Noreen asked.
"Nobody," came the wan reply. Her eyes closed on a sigh. "Nobody...in the world."
Noreen's heart ached for the poor soul. That's how she felt, and this was how she was going to be after surgery, too - all alone without even a friend to sit
and hold her hand. She was going to have her surgery in Macon, to be sure that Ramon knew nothing about it. So even Brad wouldn't be there to sit with her. It was a sobering thought.
"I'll get you some ice," she promised the woman. "It will help a little. You're due for medication, too. I'll bring that back with me."
"Thank you," the woman whispered hoarsely. "It's my job," she replied with a gentle smile. "Back in a jiffy.''
She went to the ice machine and found one of the other patient's wives there filling a bucket.
"I'm superfluous," she told Noreen with a weary grin. "He can pour his own juice and get his own ice now, so I'm just company in between television programs."
Noreen's eyes twinkled. "I don't suppose you'd like to feed cracked ice to the new patient down the hall from you? She has no family and she's dying of thirst."
"I'd love to" came the reply. "Poor soul. There are so many of us in my family that we had volunteers for every hour of the day, but Saul just wants us to stop bothering him so that he can watch his soap operas." She chuckled. "You don't know what a joy it is to see him sitting up in bed and smiling again. I thought we were going to lose him."
"He's tough. I'm glad he came through. Mrs. Charles would be very grateful for any time you could spare to sit with her."
"I'd love to. It will give me something to do with all my spare time." They filled ice buckets and Noreen took her in to
introduce her to the elderly woman. They struck up an immediate friendship, as well.
Noreen went back to the circular nurses' station that she shared with the other people on her shift, pausing long enough to sip some coffee while she keyed the vital information about Mrs. Charles into the computer.
Brad paused beside her chair. "Should you be ingesting all that caffeine?" he asked so that only she could hear.
She grimaced. "I didn't think. No, I probably shouldn't."
"You need looking after, honey child," he teased, and laid a big hand on her shoulder as he smiled down at her.
Ramon, coming onto the ward, saw the way Brad was leaning over Noreen, saw the smile and the familiarity of that hand on her shoulder. Fury shot through him.
He stopped in front of the nurses' station and glared at Noreen, who noticed him belatedly and stopped smiling at once.
"I want to see Mrs. Charles," he said without preamble. "If you can spare the time?'' he added with a cold glance at Brad, who actually blushed.
"She's in here," Noreen said, leading the way to Mrs. Charles's room without looking at her companion. That comment had been unfair and unkind. She worked as hard as he did. Brad was only being nice, but it wouldn't occur to Ramon that anyone wanted to treat her kindly. He thought she was a murderess, someone without feelings of any sort.
She led the way into Mrs. Charles's room. The elderly lady smiled warmly when she saw Ramon.
"Thank you," she said weakly, extending a hand. "You saved...my life."
"My pleasure," he replied, and held the hand. "I've ordered something for pain. Take it when you need it. It won't hurt you. Rest is the very best thing right now. In a day or so, we'll have you up on your feet and get you moving." He frowned. "Do you have any family that we can notify?"
She shook her head. "All dead," she said sadly. "But Mrs. Green feeds me cracked ice. It was this nice young lady's idea."
Ramon glanced at Noreen. "Saving yourself some steps?" he asked in a soft, but accusing, tone.
Noreen ignored the comment and busied herself straightening the sheet over Mrs. Charles's thin body. "If you need us, just call," she said.
"I won't," came the kind reply. "You've all been very good to me."
"It's easy to be kind to someone as nice as you," Noreen replied, smiling.
Ramon checked his patient, murmured with satisfaction and called a cheerful goodbye as he went out of the room and pulled the door closed behind him.
"How dare you put a visitor in charge of nursing my patient?'' he demanded with pure fury in his voice the minute they were out of earshot of the patient.
Noreen's heart jumped and ran away with an annoying lack of rhythm. She had to get her breath before she could even answer him. "I didn't," she said. "Mrs. Green's husband is almost ready to go home and he doesn't want her standing over him. She wanted something to do, and I don't have time to feed cracked ice to your patients every five minutes. I know my job. You don't need to tell me how to do it, sir," she added deliberately. "Mrs. Green volunteered her time. I didn't ask her to."