I originally wrote the following in 2006. The character of Dr. Vane is based on two physicians at the medical school I attended. One evening, a good friend of mine, now a radiologist, saw one of the physicians walk out of the hospital. Struck by what she saw, she uttered the last line of the story. That line inspired me to write this tale.
Once upon a time, in a hospital far, far, away, there was an aging man. His name was Dr. Vane.
Dr. Vane was a senior attending surgeon and tenured as a professor. His fellow surgical colleagues viewed him with great admiration; the surgery residents deferred to him with great reverence; the medical students shied away from him with quivering fear.
The pate of his balding head, ringed with neatly-trimmed grey hair, gleamed underneath the fluorescent lights of the hospital. Deep-set eyes of liquid jade, an aquiline nose, and a strong jawline created a profile that commanded respect and communicated confidence. Time had left multiple wrinkles in his face and the looser skin gently dangled from the scaffolding of his skull. A sharp dresser, he always wore crisp, long-sleeved dress shirts of muted, solid colors; dark, pleated slacks that fell perfectly along his legs, such that the one-inch cuff stopped only one-half inch from the floor; a brightly patterned (but tasteful) necktie in a Windsor knot; and black leather loafers without any scuffs. Over this ensemble was his long, white coat that lacked any blemishes or loose threads. Christopher Vane, MD was embroidered upon the left chest of his coat with royal blue thread. One single pen, encased in a shell of polished silver, was clipped inside his pocket.
(When he wasn’t in the operating room, of course.)
He shuffled quickly. Although he was only leaning forward from the waist, people often thought that his entire body was tilted forward as he walked through the hallways. It was as if his body was trying to keep up with his head, that cranium that held the brain that knew so, so much.
Everyone—everyone—gave him a wide berth when they saw him approaching. It mattered not if he was in the cafeteria, purchasing a small cup of coffee—”no cream or sugar”—during the morning rush or if he was leading rounds in the intensive care unit (ICU) with the sixteen-member surgical team; the sea of people parted around him upon sensing his presence.
“Good morning, Dr. Vane,” everyone breathed, hushing their voices a bit as they greeted him. Sometimes people would try to hold his piercing gaze, but most failed. They had to look away—down to the floor, specifically.
Sometimes Dr. Vane offered a terse reply with his solid, tenor voice: “Morning.” Other times, he simply continued walking, the slight breeze from his rapid ambulation the only evidence that he was present.
“GET OUT OF MY OPERATING ROOM!” he occasionally roared, hurling the Kelly scissors across the room. They landed with an unsettling clatter on the drab green tiles. The scrub nurses simply turned to the steel table covered with sterile blue cloths and plucked another pair of Kelly scissors from the smorgasbord of surgical instruments before them. The medical students pulled on the retractors a little harder. And the stunned resident paused, still clutching the Mathieu needleholder.
“YOU HEARD ME! LEAVE!” he gruffly shouted. “UNTIL YOU KNOW THE ANATOMY, DON’T COME BACK!”
The resident, shunned, plodded from the operating room. Dr. Vane muttered obscenities under his breath.
“What is a reducible hernia?”
Dr. Vane believed in, practiced, and was well-versed in the art of pimping.
“And an incarcerated hernia?”
Medical students never felt at ease around him.
At least one of them burst into tears in front of the entire team during each rotation.
“How about a pantaloon hernia?”
Everyone said, though, that Dr. Vane was incredibly smart and talented. Everyone could learn something from him and that encyclopedic brain of his.
“What? You don’t know? Have you even opened a book since you’ve started this rotation? You must be one of the laziest medical students on rotation right now. How about Littre’s hernia?”
“No? Then go home. You’re useless. Don’t come back until you know the different hernias.”
Dr. Vane seemed to always be in the hospital. Some of the residents (privately) joked that he never left. “He’s dedicated to his work,” they remarked. “When he’s not operating, he’s writing journal articles and book chapters. Have you seen his CV? It goes on for pages and pages!”
And there was some truth to their words: Residents had witnessed him breezing through the ICU while they were frantically pre-rounding before twilight had melted into dawn. Medical students attempted (and failed) to discreetly walk past his office, the door usually ajar, after their morning lectures. He was invariably the first person present for morning report. The on-call residents noted that he frequently answered their pages from a hospital telephone. Even if it was well past 11:00pm.
Dr. Vane, however, did leave the hospital, although he always longed to return. He did not enjoy shopping for groceries, getting gasoline for his car, standing in line at baseball games, or dining with his family at restaurants.
Other people never gave him any respect. The young lady at the grocer accidentally hit him in the right hip with her cart and she did not even notice (let alone apologize) for her error. The attendant at the gas station didn’t say anything; he just took his money and crassly chewed on gum with his mouth open while Dr. Vane sat in the leather seat of his luxury sedan, waiting for the time to pass. The people sitting in front of him at the baseball game frequently stood up (thus obstructing his view) and the crush of people frequently wobbled into him, jostling him much more often than he liked. Some of the teenagers looked at him and smiled in apology—always with a somewhat pitiful expression on their faces. Waiters and waitresses brought the cheque too early and did little to mask their impatience while he pored over the menu.
Outside of the hospital, he was not the illustrious Dr. Vane.
He was just another old man.