The Road Back Home
by Lynne Norris
© February 2001
Regina strode into the brightly lit emergency department and made her way to the nurse's station. All twelve beds were filled and there were several stretchers lining the wall with patients that were still being triaged. One of the technicians walked hurriedly by her pushing two IV poles and carrying a warming blanket in his other arm.
"Geez, are they giving something away?" she asked the harried looking unit clerk as he hung up the phone on the desk.
"It's been non-stop since the minute I walked in the door this morning. It must be a full moon or something," the young man replied and snatched the phone up again as it started ringing. "Emergency Department." He listened and then squeezed the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. "Sir, you have to call 911 if it's an emergency. No, sir we don't pick patients up. Sir, I have to put you on hold." The unit clerk looked up at Regina and gave her a cheeky smile. "Tell me again why I do this."
Regina just smiled back at him. "I'm looking for Terry Edwards."
"Thank God. Her parents have been driving me crazy. Her Oncologist is out of town and they wouldn't agree to let anybody else see her. She's on the third stretcher in the corridor off to the left." He handed the chart to Regina and leaned over the desk to point out the stretcher.
"Thanks," Regina replied as she opened the chart and read the nursing admission sheet. Fourteen- year old female presents with fever of a hundred and two, nausea and vomiting for past twenty-four hours. Great! That could be anything. On her way to the girl, Regina ducked into a supply room and grabbed several items from the shelves, including an IV kit and a bag of Ringer's Lactate solution.
The blonde walked over to the stretcher and looked down at the sleeping girl. "Terry?" She touched her shoulder and watched as red-rimmed brown eyes blinked and slowly focused on her. "Hey, kiddo." Regina glanced around looking for the girl's parents but didn't spot them.
Terry grimaced and curled up on her side. "Everything hurts."
"When did it start?"
"Day before yesterday," she whispered and licked her dry lips.
"Have you been able to keep anything down?"
"No, I can't eat."
"Let's take a look." Regina pulled a pair of gloves from a box on the wall next to her. "Say, ah." She ripped the paper off around the tongue depressor and flashed a small beam of light from a flashlight at the back of the girl's throat. "Looks good."
"Does this hurt?" she asked as her fingers gently probed the lymph nodes along the girl's neck.
"It hurts a little."
A movement to her left caught Regina's attention and she looked up to see Terry's father walking toward them. His expression as he stared at Regina was filled with nothing less than contempt.
"Hello, Mr. Edwards."
He nodded and averted his eyes, choosing instead to focus on his sick daughter. "Do you know what's wrong with her?"
"Not yet. I need to run some tests first." Regina peeled off her gloves and stepped back tossing them into a wastebasket by the nurse's station.
"Tests," he spat the word out. "That's all you Goddamn doctors know how to do is run tests."
"Tim, stop," his wife pled as she stepped up beside him, giving Regina an apologetic look.
Regina regarded the adolescent girl as she lay on the stretcher drifting in and out of a restless sleep. "Terry, I'm going to start an IV so we can get some fluids in you," she explained as she slipped the rubber band around the girl's bicep and felt for a vessel.
Expertly, she slipped the catheter into a vein, piggybacked the IV tubing to it and taped it securely in place. In response, the girl murmured something and clutched feebly at the blankets covering her fever-racked body.
Regina turned to Terry's parents and motioned them to follow her. She walked purposely down the hall, pushed a wheelchair out of the way that was blocking the small consultation room available for families and then held the door open for them to walk through. She closed the door behind her and faced the distraught and frightened couple.
She chose her words carefully and spoke in a quiet but firm voice. "Mr. Edwards, I understand you being angry. I would be to, but it's not going to do Terry any good to see you get this upset about what's being done for her. She needs to have confidence that what the doctors plan to do will help her get better. What chance do you think she'll have if she doesn't believe in what we're doing? Think about that. She needs you to be strong for her right now."
Regina waited for a moment and then reached for the doorknob. "Stay here if you need to take a minute before you go out to see her. I'm going to go write the orders for the tests I need to run for your daughter. The results will determine what we do from here and if we need to admit her to the hospital."
Alex parked her Jeep in the doctor's lot after she let Regina out by the Emergency room entrance. They had agreed on the drive over to the hospital to meet in the cafeteria after Regina was finished seeing her patient. She debated whether she wanted to just sit and listen to the radio in peace or venture up to her office and wade through the paperwork she knew was sitting on her desk.
An educated guess told her Regina's consult would take the better part of an hour if not longer. Alex turned the Jeep's engine off and stepped out of the vehicle. Paperwork be damned, it would be there on Monday. What she needed right now was food
She stopped in the cafeteria and purchased a bottle of water, some frozen yogurt and a banana. Her breakfast was long since gone and her stomach rumbled in protest at the lack of food.
Since it was Saturday afternoon the cafeteria was relatively quiet so Alex drifted to one of the back corners of the room and settled into a booth where she ate half the banana and then cut the rest of it into her yogurt. With her concentration focused on her task, she didn't hear the footsteps approaching her until a shadow fell over the table and she glanced up in surprise.
"Hello, Alex. Mind if I join you?" the petite, platinum blonde psychologist asked with a smile.
"No, go ahead." Alex motioned with her hand and leaned against the back of the booth as she continued to eat her chocolate yogurt.
Patricia Burke was thirty-nine and had been on staff at the hospital for over fifteen years. Alex knew her professionally having referred several patients to her over the years that needed counseling.
"It's good to see you again," Patricia commented as she settled herself in her seat and smoothed her skirt out over her shapely thighs.
Alex's gaze met the psychologist's briefly. "Thanks."
The woman shook her head. "Frankly, I'm amazed you're back. Are you working today?"
Alex swallowed a mouthful of yogurt, before she spoke. "No, I'm waiting for a friend."
Patricia smiled and titled her head, hoping that her instincts were right. "Someone special?"
The brunette stared at the psychologist and then allowed a small smile to cross her lips. "I should know better than to talk to you about this."
The psychologist rested her elbows on the table and folded her hands together, resting her chin on them. "I think anyone who knows you Alex, saw something different in you over the past few months." She hesitated, before she spoke again quietly. "Before you got shot, I mean."
Alex set her Styrofoam cup down and rested her arms on the table, folding them in front of her. "After...Lana," she took a breath, surprised to feel a tightening in her chest when she said her name. "I had pretty much resigned myself to being alone."
"Ah, but we're so much better when we're with someone we love, Alex."
Alex felt a warm flush on her cheeks and rolled her eyes. "Enough about my personal life."
"Ok, then. You've been back for what about a week now?" the psychologist asked and then sipped her coffee as she continued to study the blue-eyed woman sitting across from her.
"Yeah." Alex opened the bottle of water and took a long swallow, feeling the coolness trickle down her throat as she swallowed the clear liquid.
"So how has it felt to be back?"
The brunette shrugged and twirled her spoon in the yogurt, making a well in the center of it. "Physically, it's been a challenge to keep up with the pace. It's not the most user friendly environment to work in."
The psychologist smiled at her remark. "No, I don't imagine that it is. Are you still taking pain medication?"
Alex cast a sharp glance at Patricia as she began to wonder if she was here on just a friendly visit. "Just ibuprofen to take the edge off. The narcotics make me feel like I'm in a haze all the time."
Patricia nodded in understanding. "How are you doing otherwise?"
"I'm surviving." Alex frowned at the question, feeling a little defensive at the implication.
"Surviving?" The woman leaned forward in her seat and folded her hands on the table. "Alex, you had more than just a close call you almost died."
"Thanks for the reminder, Patricia." Alex closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead in frustration, trying to hold onto what little self-control she still had at the moment. Come on, Regina. I wish you were done already so we could get the hell out of here.
Undaunted by Alex's reaction Patricia continued speaking. "Alex face it, you are right back in the same environment where you got hurt. You can't convince me that you haven't thought about that and probably had some second thoughts about being back here at all."
The remark was right on target and stung her sharply. Alex hung her head. "Listen, can this be between just you and me, Patricia?"
She fiddled with her spoon nervously before she looked up. "Everyday I ask myself if I can still do this. Honestly, I don't know if I can anymore. I've been sleeping like shit and it's starting to wear me down. I'm afraid I'm going to make a mistake and I can't afford that to happen."
"I think that's pretty normal, considering what you've been through, Alex. Do you want something to help you sleep? I can write you a prescription."
"No, no." She shook her head emphatically, remembering all to well what happened when she took sedatives the last time she was having difficulty sleeping. It almost cost her career and she was not about to walk down that path again. "That's not a good idea."
"You need to take care of yourself, Alex. I know the medical profession well enough to guess that nobody's bothered to ask you how you're really doing. They're all just sitting back waiting to see how you handle the stress of your job and if you fall, you can be damn sure you're going to have an audience there to watch."
"I'm well aware of that." Alex was irritated that she had allowed herself to be drawn into this conversation at all.
The psychologist leaned back in her chair and sighed. "I'm sorry, Alex. I don't mean it any other way than as a friend who's concerned about your well-being. I guess it's just hard for me to know what you went through and not think that there aren't some lasting affects that are lingering inside waiting for an opportunity to ambush you."
"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence," Alex snapped, her eyes flashing in anger at the doctor sitting across from her.
"Alex, it's great that you're back to work, but that's just one part of who you are. You need to be able to take back the rest of your life. Whoever you're involved with, personally and professionally, is going to take their cues from you and how you feel about yourself."
The dark-haired woman laughed sarcastically. "Save it, Patricia, I'm not one of your patients. If I need to have my psyche examined I know where to find you." She stood up abruptly and took two steps away from the table almost bumping into Regina before she realized the blonde was walking toward her.
"Whoa." Regina held up her hands and danced out of the way at the last instant to avoid colliding with the taller woman.
"Sorry, I didn't see you," Alex said, her eyes darting nervously away from the intense scrutiny of Regina's gaze.
"Are you ok?" The younger doctor reached out, touching Alex's arm in concern. She glanced back at the blonde-haired woman who sitting at the table, wondering what had transpired between them just before she arrived in the cafeteria.
"I'm fine. Dr. Burke and I were just finishing our conversation," Alex replied stiffly and squared her shoulders back, trying to reign in her conflicting emotions. Damn you and your probing questions Patricia!
Regina tilted her head as she was finally able to place where she knew the woman from. "Patricia Burke from psychology?"
The doctor smiled up at Regina. "In the flesh."
"Hi, I'm Regina Kingston. I just referred two kids to you that are up on pediatrics."
"Ah, so you're Dr. Kingston. I saw your name on the list of new attending physicians last month. It's nice to meet you. Congratulations on joining the medical staff here." She held out her hand and Regina returned the warm handshake.
"Thanks." Regina turned back to Alex, swaying slightly as she did. "Sorry, it took so long. I...um." She hesitated and rubbed her forehead with the fingers of her right hand. "I had to talk to the parents and it took a longer than I expected."
"It's ok," Alex replied, her voice softening slightly.
Regina suddenly reached out and grabbed Alex's arm, steadying herself as a wave of lightheadedness gripped her momentarily. "Ugh, I think I need to eat something," she moaned and clutched her forehead.
"Here, sit down." Alex guided Regina to the table. "You haven't eaten anything since this morning have you?" she chastised her gently.
She knew from past experience when Regina didn't eat regularly her blood sugar sometimes plummeted and her normally cheerful and easy-going lover could turn cranky and irritable within seconds. "What do you want to eat?"
Regina shrugged and made a face as she slumped into the booth. "Anything they've got that's edible and a Coke, please."
"You got it. Be right back," Alex said, relieved for any excuse to be away from Patricia's prying questions for the moment. They stirred unpleasant memories for her, ones that she wasn't prepared to deal with, let alone confront head on.
Regina watched Alex walk away and then regarded the doctor sitting across from her. "That's what I get for not eating enough," she offered with an embarrassed smile.
"I know." Patricia waved her hand. "It happens to me all the time. So tell me about the two kids you referred to me."
Without thinking, Regina untwisted the top from Alex's bottle of water and took a sip, unaware of the amused expression on Patricia's face.
"The boy is sixteen. He suffered a closed head trauma and needed surgery to remove a blood clot. He's awake but very withdrawn and isn't being very cooperative with the nursing staff. As of now, we've had no contact from any family members." Regina glanced up and shrugged, feeling badly for the boy. "The girl is fourteen and has a malignant tumor in her leg. She's not responding well to the chemotherapy and I just re-admitted her today with dehydration and a fever. She's depressed and her parents are struggling themselves."
"Sounds like quite the pair," the psychologist remarked. "I'm not sure if I will have time today but if I do, I'll go introduce myself today before I leave." She paused and then spoke again. "Did you do your residencies here?"
Regina glanced up and nodded. "I did four years of residency here with my last six months on the ER rotation. That's where I met Alex."
Patricia sat back in her chair, regarding the young doctor with interest. "You must be quite special to have survived six months with Alex and managed to become a friend of hers as well. She has quite the reputation among the residents as being a consummate hard-ass."
"Her bark is worse than her bite. She demands a lot from her staff but when you're making life and death decisions you have to expect people to give a hundred percent all the time." Regina smiled as Alex approached and handed her a sandwich in a plastic container along with a bag of potato chips.
"Here." The taller woman slid in beside Regina, opened the can of soda for her and slid it over in front of the blonde. Her eyes met the psychologist's across the table and she gave her a stony look.
"Thanks," Regina said, as she opened the clear plastic container and picked up the ham sandwich.
"You're right Regina, it is an awesome responsibility in the best of situations to make life and death decisions on a daily basis." Patricia looked at Alex as she said this and then stood up. "Well, I must be going. It was nice to meet you, Regina. Make sure the good doctor here takes care of herself."
The two women sat quietly for a moment after Dr. Burke left the table. Regina broke the silence growing between them first, sensing Alex's disquiet. "Is everything ok?"
"Yeah, fine." Alex turned her head and blinked trying to refocus her thoughts as she gazed back at Regina. She could see the wheels turning while the younger woman processed what she had walked into minutes earlier. The last thing she wanted to do right now was to get into any kind of discussion about it and to her dismay she knew that was exactly where Regina was heading.
Regina raised her eyebrows and pressed her lips together, absorbing the stilted reply in silence. Oh boy, something set her off. "So fine that you were practically tripping over yourself to leave the table when I showed up."
"If I wanted her advice I would have asked for it." Alex rested her head in her hands and rubbed her temples, trying to ward off the headache she could feel starting behind her eyes.
The blonde turned and rested her arm over the back of the booth. "Alex, there's nothing wrong with talking to someone about what happened to you."
"I don't need to talk to anyone." The brunette stared off across the cafeteria, her jaw muscles clenching and unclenching in reaction to Regina's words. She waited until an elderly couple walked slowly past their table before she spoke again. "I can take care of my own problems."
"Alex, I'm not saying you can't. Sometimes it just helps to have an objective outsider listen."
She started to speak, then, stopped herself and shook her dark head. "Reg, I really don't want to have this conversation here."
"Fine, let's get out of here then," the blonde offered, unwilling to let the conversation stop at this point.
The taller woman nodded and stood up from the table, waiting as Regina gathered her jacket and soda. "Are you feeling better?" She slid her hand down over the blonde's waist and followed her out of the cafeteria.
"I am. Thanks for the food." Regina looked back over her shoulder and smiled up at Alex.
Damn. Alex grimaced, knowing with that one glance she had just let herself be reeled in. The two of them walked in silence out to Alex's Jeep. The taller woman held the door open for Regina and then walked over to the driver's side, opened her door and slipped into the seat.
She could have let the Jeep drive itself to Regina's home. She knew the route by heart and hardly paid attention as she drove out of the hospital.
Regina shifted uncomfortably in her seat, aware of the tension between them. "Dr. Burke really upset you didn't she?"
Alex rubbed the bridge of her nose. "Yeah, I guess she did. Nothing about this week went like I thought it was going to."
Alex shot her a sharp glance and grasped the steering wheel tighter, causing the skin over her knuckles to blanch.
Regina could feel a gulf opening up between them and the knowledge gnawed at her gut, an unfamiliar trickle of fear running through her.
The doctor shrugged, still lost in thought. She pulled into Regina's driveway, put the vehicle in park and turned the engine off.
When it was obvious she wasn't going to get an answer to her question, Regina opened her door and started to step out. She stopped when she realized Alex was still sitting behind the steering wheel, staring straight ahead.
"Hey, are you ok?" Regina leaned back into the Jeep and brushed her fingers against the soft skin of Alex's cheek.
A slight nod of the head was all the response she got. "Come on, let's go in. It's cold out." Regina let her head fall forward and sighed in exasperation before she stepped out and shut the truck's door.
Alex walked slowly behind the smaller woman to the front entrance, then, waited as Regina unlocked the door and stepped inside. She followed her, shrugged out of her black leather jacket, draped it over the back of a chair and flopped down into the seat with a sigh of frustration.
Her earlier conversation with Patricia left her feeling weary and vulnerable. She was tired of everyone thinking they knew what she was feeling inside. At the moment, she felt a dark emptiness that seemed to be threatening to swallow her whole lately.
Regina walked over to the brunette, laid both hands on her shoulders and started a gentle massage, feeling the tense muscles beneath her fingers. Her hands moved up to Alex's temples and started a slow circular motion that elicited a groan from the dark-haired woman.
"Feel good?" she whispered in Alex's ear.
Alex straightened her shoulders and grasped the hands that were massaging her temples. "Reg, please, stop. I just..." She stopped not knowing how to explain without causing her more pain, that because she was feeling rather lousy about her own self-image at the moment, the thought of any physical intimacy was out of the question.
Dejectedly, Regina stepped back and let her arms drop by her side. "Ok, fine." The hurt was plainly evident in her voice. She pulled out a chair, sat down across from Alex, and rested an elbow on the table. "Would you please tell me what's wrong?"
Alex looked down and spread her hands palm down on the table. "Nothing." She turned her head and let her eyes roam over the room restlessly. "Listen, maybe this wasn't a good idea for me to come over tonight."
Regina arched an eyebrow and gnawed her bottom lip for a moment, the sudden change in Alex's mood making her uneasy. "Alex, ever since you've been back to work, it's like there's this wall that you've put up between you and everybody else. Even Sandy's noticed."
When Alex didn't respond, Regina continued talking. "I...I just feel so disconnected from you and I hate that." She wiped her eyes and stared out the window aware of Alex studying her from across the table.
"I'm not sure what I can do to change that right now."
"H...how can you say that?" Regina stared at her incredulously. "Don't you see what this is doing to us?"
Alex sat stiffly in the chair and clenched her jaw as she forced herself to count to ten, which did little to stem the tide of anger that welled up inside her. "Dammit! I am so tired of everyone trying to tell me they know how I feel and what I should be doing. Hell, half the time I can't make heads or tales of all the crap going on inside my head."
Regina recoiled, feeling the sharp sting of Alex's words. "I...Alex, wait!" She scrambled out of her seat as the brunette scraped the chair back and leapt to her feet.
"You have no idea what it's been like." Alex walked over to the window, staring at her reflection in the dark glass.
"How can I if you won't talk to me about it, Alex?" The younger woman raised her arm and let it fall to her side in a gesture of frustration.
"Talk to you about it?" The brunette whirled around angrily. "Like you've talked to me about your bloody nightmares."
"That's not fair," Regina whispered, trying not to choke on the words.
"Isn't it?" Alex walked back over and stood directly in front of the blonde, her ice, blue eyes flashing angrily as she looked down at her. "You say I've shut you out, well you've been doing the same to me!" She stepped around Regina without looking at her and grabbed her jacket off the chair.
"Alex, don't leave. I know we need to talk, I just, I don't know where to start." Regina pled with her to stay, laying a hand on the taller woman's arm.
Alex stopped at the door, her hand on the doorknob as she stared down at the floor in quiet desperation. She hated arguing and here she was taking her anger and frustration out on the one person who deserved it the least. Her rational mind told her she shouldn't leave like this, that all she was doing was hurting Regina and their relationship, but her stubborn, bull-headed pride won out instead.
The angry and hurtful words tumbled out of her mouth without warning. "Well, maybe you should figure that out first."
Regina felt her heart lurch as Alex slammed the door behind as she walked out. The sound reverberated loudly in her ears. Frozen in place, she covered her face with a hand and leaned heavily against the door. Her lower lip quivered and hot tears rolled down her cheeks. "Don't leave. Please don't leave," she whispered to the empty room
She squeezed here eyes shut, when she heard the rumble of the Jeep's engine and then the sound of it faded as Alex backed it out of the driveway.
Despondent, Regina walked to the window, folded her arms over her chest, and stared bleakly out the window, wishing she could have the last few moments back to do over.