Frank and Stella arrived at the plush offices of Dr. Malcolm Whittier in the City Medical Center, where she’d been treated during her recovery from cancer.
After her initial diagnosis three years ago, Stella’s life was a blur of dizzy spells, surgical procedures, and exhausting sessions under scorching lasers. Everything failed to fight the disease until finally, in the second year, Dr. Whittier put her into a clinical trial for a wondrous new drug called Helixin.
Since she went on the medication, Stella was in complete remission, but she still got visibly nervous every time she entered the oncologist’s office.
“Mom, don’t worry. You’re fine,” her son said. Frank’s voice was full of comfort and compassion; the bickering tone from their conversation on his real estate business was gone. “You beat this thing. The only reason that Whittier insists on these monthly checkups is so he can get the extra fee for the Helixin injections. He makes a few thousand bucks a pop for every shot.”
Frank laughed cynically and pointed to the extravagant furniture and artwork that filled Dr. Whittier’s office. He profited immensely as one of the first doctors to document the breakthrough benefits of Helixin, using Stella’s recovery as a case study for seminars and medical papers. The drug’s manufacturer, LifeGen, paid him speaker fees and provided free bulk samples of Helixin, which he resold to patients.
Stella knew the doctor grew very rich through her experience as a patient, and she didn’t care. The only thing that mattered was that she got into the Helixin trial when there was no other hope. Now, because of the medicine, she was healthy.
Frank and Stella sat side by side, each of them thumbing through their third round of magazines from the coffee table, when a beautiful blonde woman in a Chanel suit entered the office. She handed a bouquet of flowers to the receptionist. Frank and Stella recognized the woman, Julie, who seemed to drop in every time they had an appointment. She glowed with the enthusiasm of a cheerleader at a homecoming game.
Julie was a “detail lady” for LifeGen. Her job was to sell new drugs to doctors, showering them with gifts and perks along the way. Julie explained the proper care for the flowers to the receptionist, and then asked to see the doctor, to tell him about a vaccine coming to market.
“We’ve got an appointment with Dr. Whittier, right now,” Frank interrupted.
Julie’s head spun toward Frank and Stella abruptly, startled by the intrusion. Then she smoothed out her face with an effervescent smile.
From the hallway leading to the examination rooms, Malcolm Whittier strolled into the lobby. He was a dapper man in his early forties and looked like he could be a decade younger. Whittier grinned when he saw Julie, a hint of mischief in his eyes. Then he directed his attention to his patient.
“My nurse, Sarah, is going to give you the checkup and the injection,” the doctor told Stella, setting his hand on her shoulder.
“What do you mean, Doc? How come you’re not going to see me? Don’t you need to check for any new signs? What if—”
The doctor gave Stella a reassuring smile. “Mrs. Valentine, I’ve told you this before. You don’t have to worry. You’re healthy. The Helixin attacks the cells so that cancer can’t grow. It cripples the oncogene. There is no way for the disease to start to spread itself again. You’ll stay in complete remission as long as you continue with your treatment. You don’t need me to administer the medicine. Sarah is quite capable.”
Whittier then exited the office, together with Julie. Stella could hear their voices trailing down the corridor as they discussed the best new restaurant for lunch.
Sarah brought Stella into one of the examination rooms, where she changed into a gown so the nurse could do a routine check for any new signs.
The nurse prepared for the monthly injection, opening a cabinet above the room’s sink. Stacked inside were several boxes marked Helixin in large letters, with the label of Promotional Samples in smaller print underneath.
As the nurse removed a vial from the box and filled a syringe with its clear liquid contents, Stella clutched something she carried during every checkup. It was a Saint Jude prayer card, which Millie had given Stella during her darkest hour, when her condition appeared to be terminal. As the needle pricked her skin, Stella silently recited the words on the card to distract herself from the sting.
Dear Apostle and Martyr for Christ, with good reason many invoke you when illness is at a desperate stage. We now recommend to your kindness for someone in a critical condition. May the cure of this patient increase their faith and love for the Lord of Life, for the glory of our merciful God. Amen.
Stella remembered praying to the patron saint of lost causes when she was very sick, when it seemed so certain that the illness would take her life.
She pleaded to the angels and anyone else who would listen. As a younger woman, she pounded the pavement, making her pitch to various employers for a chance to work, until she finally landed her grocery job at Caruso’s. This time around she was pitching her case to God for the chance to keep on living.
Of course, I have my selfish reasons, she thought to herself, during those silent, bleak hours in the pews. Nobody loves life the way I do. Nobody enjoys the simple pleasures of friends, family, and retirement the way that I do.
But it’s not just about me. It’s about Johnny. Someone needs to be there to give the kid some guidance. His parents are off chasing pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. Without me here, there’s no one to teach him what life is about.
There was another reason stirring within her, something vague, but powerful nonetheless.
There’s something else that I am supposed to do…some contribution I can make…not just for me and Johnny, but for many others.
Later, after setting the prayer card with her name on the altar, Stella’s fortunes suddenly and miraculously changed once Whittier got her into the Helixin trial. The dark and painful moments in the pew, so close to death, faded like the memory of a nightmare.
Stella felt the final jolt of the needle being withdrawn and opened her eyes to the harsh fluorescent light of the examination room. The nurse smiled.
“Everything’s fine. See you next month, Mrs. Valentine.”
As Stella changed back into her street clothes, she couldn’t shake the lingering recollection of her pitch to God to keep on living, the pledge to make some contribution. Was this the fleeting delusion of a sick woman? Or was it real? And if so, what could it be?
Copyright 2013 Dmitri Ragano
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The Fugitive GrandmaMystery / Thriller
Johnny Valentine is a lonely boy who dreams of becoming a hero, just like the masked avengers in his comic books. His feisty grandmother Stella is a retired supermarket clerk and cancer survivor. Running out of time, money and options, the old lady...