Our bus pulls into the parking lot of the clinic. The building seems pretty plain in design. Granite exterior, lush green grass in need of landscaping, and a sign that simply reads “ Eff Cancer.” Bold. I kinda like it.
As the school bus doors whoosh open, we all funnel out, walk across the parking lot’s blacktop, and open the front glass double doors. Once inside, we congregate in the lobby until a young woman greets us and introduces herself as Olive.
“Hello and welcome to Eff Cancer!” Olive says. “Thank you all so much for taking time away from your studies to learn about what we do here. I think you’ll find it’ll be a rewarding experience. Why don’t we head over to the conference room so you can watch the orientation presentation? Just follow me.”
As we fall in line behind Olive, we pass by a larger area with a few tables and chairs, possibly a waiting room, as well as several doctors’ offices and nurses’ stations. Deep inside the building, we finally reach the conference room. It has a large wooden table and one of the interior walls is made from a clear material—maybe plexiglass—so it’s easy to see inside. There’s also a big screen TV hanging down from the ceiling and a laptop labeled, “Conference Room,” across the top of the monitor screen. It’s sitting in front of the first chair closest to the conference room door. We each take a seat as the light in the room dims and the video presentation begins.
The presentation opens by talking about the history of the clinic and how it was founded the previous year by a team of professors and other educators from around the country. Their objective: to tirelessly research, pursue, and one day cure the deadliest forms of cancer so people can live happy and healthy lives.
In the video, they feature interviews with several patients that tug at the heartstrings. They also have clips of doctors and nurses talking about their commitment to this worthy cause. Throughout the video, the name “Toter Corp” pops up several times—a company I’ve never heard of. Strange name. It was on the introductory screen of the video, and I spotted their logo in various spots around the clinic as we walked through.
After the video comes to an end, Olive moves to stand in front of the screen and asks if we have any questions.
I guess Lashey finally woke up because she’s the first to ask a question, “What types of cancers does this clinic specialize in treating?”
“Very good question,” Olive says. “We’re making progress with some of the most aggressive cancers like pancreatic, prostate, lung, and various blood cancers, such as Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and leukemia, just to name a few. We still have a lot of work to do and a long way to go.”
“Any other questions? That’s why I’m here.” Olive smiles.
I raise my hand.
“Yes, go ahead,” she says, looking at me.
“What’s Toter Corp?”
“You have a good eye for details,” Olive replies. “I love that. To answer your question, Toter Corp is our primary donor. It’s the company behind the clinic that keeps the lights on, funds our research, and allows people to seek treatment at no cost.”
Another long silence.
“Okay, if there aren’t any more questions,” she says, “let’s get you suited up into scrubs so you can begin the most exciting part of your day. Follow me.”
She leads us out of the conference room and down the hall to a couple of changing areas. “Inside each of the stalls, you’ll find scrubs just like the doctors and nurses wear on TV. Find your size and get changed. If you have any valuables, you can leave them here with me and we’ll store them safely until you’re ready to go home.”
After changing into a pair of blue scrubs, I emerge from the dressing room to join the rest of the class. Olive leads us down another hallway and one by one she assigns each of us a doctor or a nurse to shadow. I’m handed off to a Dr. Bohdan Franko. A little nervous, I barely manage a shy, “Hello.”
I watch as the rest of the group keeps walking down the hall and I’m left standing in the doorway of Dr. Franko’s office.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“My name is Ricky.” I can feel my heart beating a million miles an hour. I’ve never helped a doctor before. The work they do here is so important. I don’t want to mess up by doing something stupid.
“Nice to meet you, Ricky.” He extends his hand. I quickly do the same and we shake. He’s got a serious grip.
“What can I help you with, Dr. Franko ?” I ask.
“For now, we’re going to make the rounds to all my patients, get their vitals, and check in on their progress. Basically, get the scoop on what’s going on with them. I usually do this first thing in the morning, but I knew you’d be coming, so I delayed it. I thought you might enjoy the experience.”
“I appreciate that. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Of course. You can hold my clipboard for now and just observe. You really want to jump in with both feet, huh?”
“Yes!” I say with a little too much enthusiasm. “Well, I’m considering a major in biology when I go to college and then going pre-med, so the sooner I can get into it, the better.”
“I like your energy, but you need to relax. I also have to warn you that being a doctor in the real world may not be as glamorous as you see on TV. I’ll do my best to impress, though.”
“Okay, Dr. Franko.”
“No need to call me Dr. Franko. Franko or just Frank for short—either is fine.”
As we leave his office and proceed to the first patient’s room, I am beyond nervous. What if I say something dumb? I can feel my stress sweat starting. I can’t remember if I put on deodorant this morning. And when I’m nervous, it manifests itself through sweat and a bad habit of pulling at the corners of my eyebrows. Yeah, it’s weird, but it helps to diffuse my anxiety… and my eyebrows are always on fleek, too.
Franko enters the first room. The patient is an old man. He seems unresponsive or maybe he’s just asleep for now. He’s bald and wrinkly. Though the most unusual thing about him is his skin. It looks a light brownish-gray, and you can clearly see his dark veins showing through. It’s as if his skin is translucent or somethin’.
“What’s wrong with him?” I ask.
“It’s a little bit of a mystery, but we believe he has bone cancer. Basically, we think his blood is sucking the life out of his bones and we don’t know why. And the worst part is that it’s spreading. We can’t seem to stop it no matter what treatment we administer.”
“Aw naw,” I put my hand over my mouth in shock. I don’t know why I didn’t realize the patients here would be in such bad condition.
“We’re not giving up, though,” Franko continues. “He’s a fighter and we’re not going to let him down.”
“Is he in pain?” I ask.
“If he is, he hides it well. We’re doing all we can to keep him comfortable.”
As Franko reviews his chart and takes his vitals, like blood pressure and such, I just stand there, watching the patient. He seems peaceful until his eyes suddenly pop open.
I’m spooked. I jump, and I take a step back. He sits up quickly and makes a horrible hissing sound, then reaches out, grabs my scrub top, and pulls me close enough I can see the veins pulsing through a gray haze covering his eyeballs.
“Kill me,” he mutters.
“Stanton!” Franko shouts. “Stan! What are you doing? Don’t frighten him! Stop it!” He unhooks Stan’s hand from my top, helps the patient back down onto the bed, and tries talking to him to get him to calm down.
“How are you feeling today, Stan?” Franko asks.
There’s no response. Stan’s just lying there in bed with his eyes wide open, staring at nothing in particular.
“Stan?” The doctor snaps his fingers in front of his face.
Franko grabs his phone out of his pocket and punches in a few digits. “Nurses’ station, please.” There’s a pause as he waits for an answer. “Yeah. Hi. It’s Frank. I’m in room 207. Send up an orderly, all right? Our patient has become a little more unpredictable. He needs to be restrained.”
“Franko…” I say, still recovering from the patient scaring me.
“Is this guy going to be okay?”
“That’s tough to say, Ricky. We’re an experimental clinic, so all the hospitals send us their toughest cases. Just know that we’re doing everything we can to help him.”
Moments later, an orderly rushes through the door with straps. He wraps them around Stan’s arms and ties them to the bed frame. He does the same with his legs. He even puts a couple straps over Stan’s torso.
“He shouldn’t cause any more issues,” the orderly says. “He’s in there pretty good now.”
“Thanks, Tito,” Franko says. “We have to continue our rounds. Could you stay here with Stan for a few minutes and just watch him? I want to make sure he’s all right.”
“Sure thing, Frank,” Tito says as he pulls up a chair and sits down. “I’m not gonna complain when the boss wants me to take a break.”
As we leave the happy-go-lucky orderly to his babysitting detail, we move to the next room, where Franko and I visit with a young woman who’s conscious, but she appears to have some nervous and quite disruptive facial tics.
“How are you doing today, Nina?”
“F-Fine, D-Doctor Frank. H-how are y-you?” she replies. As she speaks, it looks as if her jaw is having trouble following along with her words, like it’s moving involuntarily. And it keeps happening over and over again. It’s as though she’s chewing on something that isn’t there.
“I’m doing well, Nina. I want you to meet Ricky. He’s shadowing me today. He’s from Carver High School and he thinks he wants to be a doctor someday.”
“N-Nice to meet-meet y-you.” Nina’s neck is jerking uncontrollably so she can’t keep eye contact for long.
“Nice to meet you as well,” I reply, keeping a smile on my face to keep the mood light.
“M-Maybe y-y-you can help-p D-Doctor Frank f-figure o-out w-what’s w-wrong w-with meh-me?” She tries to smile, but her face contorts into a creepy smirk instead.
“I’ll do my best,” I tell her as I watch Franko check her chart. He takes out his stethoscope and walks to the other side of her bed. He gently takes her arm and puts the flat side of the instrument onto the inside of her wrist and listens. He then checks her blood pressure.
“Can you lean forward, Nina?” he asks. “I want to check your breathing.” With his help, she scoots forward. “Inhale deeply for me, all right?”
“Go ahead and exhale.”
She inhales again, but this time she coughs a phlegmy, deep bark.
There’s that disturbing cough again.
“Inhale one more time for me,” Franko says.
She concurs. Her breathing goes back to normal this time.
“You did good, Nina. Ring the buzzer if you need anything, all right?”
We take our leave from Nina, exit her room, and begin to walk farther down the corridor. Right before we make it to the third patient room, there’s an ear-piercing scream.
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