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The Healing Touch

The Healing Touch by Elizabeth Neff Walker
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Fielding Medical Center is where Jerry Stoner has practiced psychiatry for many years. ItÂ’s where Rachel WeisÂ’s husband died some time back. And itÂ’s where Rachel has become a medical ethicist, using her law degree to fight for patientsÂ’ rights.

Jerry and Rachel had been friends for a very long time, but things were changing between them. And not in an altogether comfortable way, for either of them.

In her work Rachel relied on Jerry’s professional skills and humane support. But as their relationship became more personal she warned him, “I’m not interested in sex.” What was a psychiatrist to make of that?

Women's Fiction by Elizabeth Neff Walker

2nd of the Fielding Medical Center Quartet

Belgrave House; April 1994
189 pages; ISBN 9780451404732
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: The Healing Touch
Author: Elizabeth Neff Walker

"So, do you think they're going to make it?" Rachel whispered. She was watching the bridal couple sip champagne from each other's glasses. Rachel had a glass of very good champagne of her own which she raised to the couple, but her gaze had shifted to Jerry Stoner, who stood beside her.

"Hey, I'm a psychiatrist, not a fortune teller," he protested, laughing. "But, yes, I think they will, given any luck."

"So luck is a part of it, huh?" Rachel mused. "I hadn't really thought of that. Hard work, persistence, love certainly, but luck, well, who would have thought?"

Jerry lifted his shoulders negligently and took a sip of his champagne. "Hey, I'm just trying to disclaim any inside knowledge here. They're both good people. Like you and Dan. Like me and Barbara. But Dan died and Barbara divorced me. Let's call that bad luck."

"I see." Rachel linked arms with him, giving a little arm-hug in the process. "I like the concept, Jerry. You take blame out of the equation. We lawyers have a hard time with that, though."

"The newest concept is personal responsibility," Jerry said. "Lawyers are going to have an even harder time with that."

"Thank heaven I don't do personal injury," she sighed. "Working for the medical center is tough enough. One of these days everyone's going to go to arbitration."

"And you'll be a great arbitrator."

"Probably. Who's the beauty with Ralph Benninger?"

Jerry shook his head, then cocked it to one side. "Actually, I did hear someone say. A pediatric intern, I think."

"Wow." Rachel considered the statuesque young woman whose blond hair hung down to the middle of her back. From across the room it was evident that she felt a little uncomfortable in the gathering, probably because she didn't know anyone there. "Maybe we should talk with her. Ralph isn't paying much attention, though heaven knows why."

"That's what I like about you, Rachel. Always ready to jump in and rescue someone, even if she's a gorgeous someone who probably doesn't need rescuing."

Rachel grimaced. "Just because she's beautiful doesn't mean she can't feel uncomfortable at a wedding where she doesn't know very many people. She doesn't even know Cliff and Angel, does she?"

"I doubt it. And they're way too preoccupied to worry about one wedding guest at the moment. We'll pick up the slack, shall we?"

"To the rescue." Rachel gave a toss of her head, whose curly brown hair was slightly graying. "We'll have her shaped up in no time. And you might even warn her about Benninger's reputation."

"Me? You must be kidding. Besides, I don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh, right."

They strolled companionably across the living room toward the windows overlooking downtown San Francisco. The views from Twin Peaks were spectacular; Clifford Lenzini's house made a perfect location for a small, intimate wedding. Jerry hadn't been at all surprised to hear they were holding it there. He'd been astonished, however, that Cliff and Angel had managed to invite just enough people not to overwhelm the spacious room. The bride's family, the groom's family, and no more than two dozen other people were reasonably accommodated for the brief ceremony.

Jerry loved watching the videotaper wander through the group catching people in conversation with the backdrop of the Mediterranean-looking city. Cliff and Angel, well, they made you almost believe in love and marriage again. Not that Jerry was totally cynical about marriage. He'd been divorced for five years, was on perfectly reasonable terms with his former wife, and had two terrific sons from the union. It would be unreasonable to ask for more than that, and a rewarding career, at forty-seven, wouldn't it?

Rachel was already introducing herself to the young woman, who informed them that her name was Erika Amundsen. Jerry was surprised that at close range she was even more attractive than she'd appeared from across the room. She wore very little makeup, and her face had the fetching look of openness that one associated somehow with shepherdesses in the Alps. Heidi, he thought irrelevantly. She should have braids and be wearing a dirndl or something. Erika was, in fact, wearing a deep blue dress that shimmered in the light. She looked wholesome and athletic, yet elegant and approachable. Quite a combination, Jerry thought.

"You're training at Fielding?" he asked.

"Yes, in pediatrics. I've seen you there," she admitted with a self-conscious smile. "You're a psychiatrist, aren't you?"

"Right. Have you heard bad things about psychiatrists?"

"Oh, no." She frowned. "Though people don't seem to know quite how to act around them, do they? As if they were going to be able to tell something awful about you just by looking at you."

Very astute, too, Jerry decided. "That's about right, but we're no more mind readers than anyone else."

"Still, if we say certain things, we can give ourselves away," Erika pursued.

"Give yourself away how?"

"Well, for instance, if I were to say, oh, I don't know, to say that I hated hurting little children, you might easily assume that I actually did hurt little children."

"Do you?" Rachel wanted to know.

Erika sighed. "Yes, actually I do. Not out of cruelty, of course, but because medical treatment often hurts the patient. Spinal taps, blood drawings, all sorts of things. They say I'll get used to it."

Rachel looked at Jerry questioningly. When he nodded imperceptibly, she said, "Yes, that must be very difficult," and excused herself to visit the bathroom. Jerry unobtrusively guided Erika away from the others toward a corner of the room. "We have a program of intern and resident support," he said. "Do you know about it?"

She nodded but looked down at the glass of champagne which had hardly been touched. "No one else seems to find it so disturbing. I think I have to learn to steel myself."

"Some of us have fewer defenses than others. There's no shame in asking for help. I'm sure you realize that."

Erika met his eyes, but briefly. "There's very little time."

"There has to be enough time to take care of yourself. Otherwise everything else is ultimately unsuccessful." Jerry had recently had his graying hair cut short enough that he couldn't wear it in a pony tail any longer. His hand went absently to tighten the band which wasn't there. He wondered if he'd done a presentation to Erika's residency group. "Come by my office next week and we'll talk."

"You're always busy."

His brows rose. "Have you come by when the door's been shut?"

She shrugged. "Once or twice I've noticed it. I hadn't decided whether to talk with you."

Jerry bent toward her, earnest in his empathy. "If you've thought about it, then you should come. If you like, we can make an appointment."

"No, no, I'll just drop by some day." She shook off her seriousness with a twist of her head, a warm, open smile appearing to light her face. "This is no time to trouble you with my problems. It's such a lovely place for a wedding, isn't it? Dr. Lenzini's sister showed me around a little."

"It's a great place," he agreed, and added, "I'll count on seeing you next week."

Erika's date for the occasion, Ralph Benninger, a pediatric neurosurgeon, appeared at her side, nodded to Jerry and said, "There's someone I want you to meet, Erika."

Jerry watched them walk away, a thoughtful look in his eyes. Rachel appeared beside him and said, "I trust I was the height of discretion there, Jerry. Surely you can help her adjust to the down side of pediatrics. She looked for a minute like she'd been set on a high wire without a safety net. Poor kid."

"I'm sure we can help. It's just a little disconcerting that her residency adviser hasn't sent her before this. Maybe she's keeping quiet about it."

"And just couldn't resist unburdening herself to you. You have a real touch, Jerry. They're lucky to have you."

"You'd hardly know it," he grumbled. "Associate professor after twenty years.""If you won't play the game, you can't expect to win."

Jerry had known Rachel for most of those twenty years, not because she'd worked at the medical center all that time, but because they were neighbors. The two couples, Rachel and Dan, Barbara and Jerry, had exchanged dinners a few times a year. Not enough to be close friends, but to know each other's children, each other's concerns about work and leisure. Nowadays, when he felt he needed a companion to take to some hospital function, he often asked Rachel, who would know the participants and who knew him well enough to make it unnecessary for him to try to impress her.

Sometimes, though, he was almost sorry she knew as much as she did about him. He couldn't, for instance, get away with bemoaning his fate at Fielding Medical Center as far as promotion went. He'd not bothered to watch out for whose toes he stepped on over the years, so long as he felt certain there was a cause to be championed, a patient to be protected.

His brown eyes crinkled at the corners now. "There are people who believe I should have been recognized for my intrinsic merit, in spite of any chaos I might have caused over the years."

Rachel snorted. "Who are these people? I've never met any of them."

"Such an unbecoming lack of faith." Before he could taunt her further, they were accosted by the newly married couple. Jerry kissed the bride, Angel Crawford, and shook hands vigorously with the groom, Clifford Lenzini. "I knew you could do it if you put your minds to it," he said.

Cliff, a giant of a man, general surgeon and all-around male chauvinist, said, "We couldn't have done it without your help, could we, Angel?"

"Probably not." Angel squeezed Jerry's hand. "Actually," she confided, perfectly loud enough for Cliff to hear, "he hasn't the slightest idea how true that is."

Angel was in the last year of a family practice residency and had had her moments of doubt about her prospective husband's sexist attitudes. Jerry knew that his confidence in the relationship had helped her overcome her concerns. He winked playfully. "He's a lot to take on. Just remember we're here if you need us."

Cliff had turned his charm on Rachel. "I'm glad Jerry had the good sense to bring you, Rachel. He's just moldering around in that condo of his, not going out enough to wear his good shoes down at the heels. When we get back from our honeymoon (which is going to last about two days because of Angel's residency) we'll have you both over to dinner. I cook a wicked Cornish game hen."

"He incinerates them," Angel explained. "I've seen him do it with my own two eyes."

Jerry felt a brief exhilaration in their presence. Their youth, their good looks, their energy, their love -- it all invigorated him. Though he realized forty-seven wasn't all that old these days, knew that he had twenty years minimum left even to his career life, he had begun recently to question just what he'd accomplished in his life. Whether it was enough to be where he was. Had he sat back and let things happen to him? Had he drifted along doing the work he liked and ignoring the things that would have gotten him more power and prestige and money? Hell, he had a lot to show for his age, he reminded himself. The important things.

Cliff put an arm around Jerry's shoulders. "Thanks for offering the cottage during your month, Jer. But Angel deserves to be waited on hand and foot on her break, and I'm just not the type to do that. Some hotel in Hawaii seemed far more appropriate."

"Then they can wait hand and foot on him, too," Angel explained.

"I did think of that," Cliff admitted. "But it was for my one and only bride that I chose this particular place, Angel being far too busy to look into hotels on Maui. It's not like the old days," he sighed, "when no matter how busy a woman was she did it for her husband. Looked into the travel arrangements, I mean."

"Obviously we haven't shaken it out of him yet," Angel said, poking her newly wedded mate in the side with an elbow. "Rachel is not interested in hearing your observations on how women used to behave. She'd probably have a few things to tell you."

"I might at that," Rachel agreed. "But I won't."

Jerry looked curious. "Will you tell me?"

"I don't think so."

"Too bad. We psychiatrists can always learn something new. It might be just the thing I need to help some poor woman who's struggling with the same issues."

Angel lifted her brows. "I suppose all psychiatrists are voyeurs to some extent, don't you, Rachel?"

"Probably. All in a good cause, of course."

"Of course," Jerry said. "We don't call ourselves voyeurs. We call ourselves good listeners."

"Right. Like a surgeon is a magic healer." Cliff grinned down at his wife. "And a family practice doctor is a medicine man . . . um . . . or woman."

"Very good." Angel beamed at him. "He's such a quick learner."

"It's a good thing he's not an older dog like me," Jerry said. "Teaching us new tricks is so time-consuming."

"What's got you down?" Cliff demanded. His shaggy brows descended low over his eyes and he cocked his head with amusement. "Feeling sorry for yourself just because it's a wedding?"

"Not at all. I'm delighted for the two of you and it's a very festive occasion."

"He looks very festive, doesn't he?" Cliff asked, of no one in particular. "You probably need a break, too, Jerry. You've been working too hard."

Jerry shrugged. "Maybe I'll go to the cabin myself for a few days. They can get along without me at Fielding."

"Not until you've seen the pediatric intern," Rachel reminded him.

"There's always someone," Jerry grumbled, but he looked more cheerful. "When are you going to start the dancing?" he asked Cliff.

"Right now."

Cliff gave the trio a prearranged signal and swung Angel into his arms. Their guests backed up along the walls of the room and allowed the newlyweds to claim the floor to themselves for a few minutes before they began joining the dancing. Jerry offered a hand to Rachel who accepted it with a reminiscent smile. It was not a reminiscence of dancing with him, Jerry knew, because he had never danced with her before. There weren't, after all, so many occasions he attended where dancing was offered as part of the entertainment. And he wasn't a particularly good dancer, come to that, though he rather liked the activity. Rachel didn't seem to mind. She followed his lead with ease and merely shrugged when he stepped on her foot.

"It takes a minute to catch on," she said.

Not that he'd danced much with Barbara. There had seemed plenty of other things to do--raising the kids, his work, her work, camping and hiking and swimming and tennis. He couldn't actually remember if Barbara had liked dancing. If she had, she'd certainly never pushed him to do it more often. Or maybe he just didn't remember that, either.

"What are you thinking about?" Rachel asked. "You look puzzled."

"Oh, nothing much," he admitted, looking down at her head of curls only slightly touched with gray. Barbara had been totally gray even before she left him five years ago. "About dancing and Barbara and things totally unrelated to being here."

"It's the wedding, don't you think? I've been thinking about Dan, too, off and on all day. And about the day we were married. God, we were young. I look back at pictures of our wedding and I can hardly remember looking like that." She grinned up at him. "We were married on a beach. Did you know that?"

He shook his head. "I had no idea. Hippies, were you?"

"Something like that." She sighed. "Free spirits, we said. Unencumbered by conventions and societal restrictions. His parents were horrified when they found out, and we had to go through a formal family party with them, with about a hundred people. My folks didn't mind so much. They paid for a honeymoon to Mexico for us."

He and Barbara had had a traditional Jewish wedding, followed by a honeymoon in Europe. There was money on both sides. That had been right out of college for the two of them, before he started medical school. Hardly a ceremony on the beach.

Jerry thought he was dancing better now. Maybe it was just that Rachel had caught on to his oddities. And then the trio switched from slow to fast music and he glanced around apprehensively. What kind of fast dancing did people do now? He'd never kept up with that sort of thing. "Maybe we should wait until they play something slow again," he suggested.

"Coward." Rachel laughed and followed him to the sidelines, where they watched the energetic younger people, and Ralph Benninger, dance every which way, their arms and legs and torsos thrashing about like palsy victims.

"A neurologist would have a field day," Jerry muttered.

"Maybe you're hungry," Rachel suggested sympathetically. "There's a terrific spread in the dining room. I noticed it on my way back from the bathroom."

"What if we're not supposed to eat it yet?" he said, but followed behind with interest.

"Oh, I don't think they'll mind."

There were already a number of guests filling plates with mouthwatering delicacies. Jerry was indeed hungry, only remembering then that he'd skipped lunch to check on a patient before picking Rachel up.

"I love all this little stuff," he said, helping himself to the bite-size treats. "I could live on it. What I should do is make an arrangement with a caterer to drop off a barrel a month and I'd never have to try to cook again."

"I thought you only heated TV dinners," Rachel said.

Jerry wrinkled his nose and sighed. "I did, for the first couple of years. But they're as boring as the cafeteria food. It would be a lot simpler if people didn't have to eat."

"Wouldn't it?" Rachel hesitated before the miniature cheesecakes but eventually put one on her plate. "You could go to the Price Club and stock up."

"Don't think I haven't considered it." Jerry finished heaping his plate and motioned toward the small balcony off the side of the room. "I imagine we can fit out there if you don't mind fuchsias in our faces."

Cliff Lenzini had fuchsias of every variety around his house, in pots, in baskets, climbing up trellises, growing as bushes. The view from most windows included pink and white and purple and red hanging blooms, large and small, making the house feel festive, as though in a confetti snowstorm of its own. Jerry, who wasn't as fond of fuchsias as Cliff, climbed with reasonable care over one pot and pushed another basket out of the way so that Rachel could slip past. There was only a slit of view available to them of the city, but the spot was private and quiet.

Rachel leaned back against the house, balancing her plate on the corner of the railing. "I've been meaning to tell you that my career has taken a twist."

Surprised, Jerry looked up from the pasta salad he was inspecting. "Oh? What kind of twist?"

She seemed to hesitate. "I'm a little tired of the law. Sometimes it seems so irrelevant."

"Maybe you liked it better when you worked for the civil liberties groups."

She shrugged. "Better than helping the medical center save its butt, certainly. But that's not it. That doesn't seem to be where the important things are happening. Hell, I'm at a medical center where every day there are life and death decisions being made, and being made sometimes without considering all the aspects of the case. I don't mean just medical but social and moral and ethical. For some time now I've been taking medical ethics courses. They intrigue me."

Should he have known that? Jerry helped himself to a bite of egg roll before saying anything. "So how does it work? Do you quit your job at Fielding and set up a practice, or what?"

"Fielding doesn't want to pay legal rates for such nebulous services, but I've politicked and educated and they've agreed to hire me, part-time, at a reduced rate. I'll have a private consulting service as well. Fielding isn't the only place in the area that needs medical ethics services. I've never been able to forget some of the decisions that were made when Dan was dying."

"Hmmm. I remember. But, Rachel, it's a big step to make."

"At my age," she added, since he hadn't.

"At any age," he said, realizing that that indeed was what he had meant. Rachel, too, was in her forties. Changing careers, going to part-time, starting up a consulting service, taking reduced fees -- it all sounded pretty shaky to Jerry. He knew Dan hadn't left Rachel a rich woman, what with the medical costs at the end. "So tell me about it."

Her eyes snapped with irritation. "You make me feel like a patient, Jerry. What I want you to say is, That's great, Rachel. Congratulations. I hope you'll really enjoy it."

Obviously he'd blown it. It was not like him to blow it, at least not with patients. He didn't seem to be able to concentrate on anyone else this afternoon. His thoughts kept swirling around himself and his life, instead of outward on the people he was with. "I'm sorry, Rachel. Of course I'm delighted for you. You'll be very good at it. I just didn't know your interest had become so extensive that you'd actually give up your legal position."

She shook her head. "I still hear a lack of enthusiasm, Jerry. But that's all right. I guess I didn't convey my real excitement. This is something special for me. Something that makes me resonate right down to my core. I burn to do it."

"Then I'm really happy for you. Not everyone gets a chance to do what they want to do, and I know the last few years haven't really satisfied your need to be part of the decision-making process in medicine." God, even the language sounded stilted, he thought. She was sharing something really special with him and he was wrapping it up in stupid psychobabble. He leaned over and kissed her cheek, since his hands were occupied and he couldn't hug her. "Really, Rachel, I think this is great!"

"Thanks." She seemed reasonably satisfied with his eventual response, motioning with her fork to make a point. "Everything hinges on the patient's right to know, when you get down to it. Though of course there will always be some patients who don't really want to know, and you have to accommodate for that."

Though she continued to talk, and Jerry, with half a mind, to listen, he wasn't really with her. Here was Rachel, a woman of his own age, with no more security than he, willing to take big risks with her life over something that interested her. She had found something that animated her in a way he hadn't seen before--her eyes sparkling and her face radiating earnest excitement.

Did anything still excite him that way? Well, he loved his work, it was true. He felt challenged and rewarded by it, as well as frustrated and disappointed at times. His modest position at the medical center was something of an embarrassment, and, though it was where he had landed himself through want of tact or kowtowing to the higher ups, he wasn't perfectly sure he didn't want to have a better position. He should have pushed for a full professorship years ago. Maybe even pressed others to the point of giving an ultimatum--give me my just desserts or I'll leave.

But would he have? If you threaten to leave, you have to be prepared to follow through. And he couldn't really think of a place he'd prefer practicing psychiatry to Fielding. The combination of truly devastating mental illness to treat, young physicians to indoctrinate in the science of psychiatry as well as its art, how could he give that up for a practice where he saw the same individuals each week, or examined and evaluated workers' compensation cases?

There was something disturbing about having been passed over, though. He really did believe, despite Rachel's teasing, that he should have been recognized for his efforts, his expertise, even if he had occasionally proved a thorn in someone's side. Where was the fairness in passing him by? Jerry sighed inwardly. Didn't that sound naive? Fairness. As if he thought he should expect fairness from the world. If his boss ever heard him say something like that, he'd think Jerry needed to be locked up with the other crazies on 4 West.

Rachel was regarding him curiously. Blown it again! "I'm sorry," he apologized. "My mind just seems to keep wandering today, Rachel. It's not you, and it's not the wedding. I'm just," he shrugged, "out of it, I guess."

"It's too soon to leave, so maybe we should go back in and dance. That might distract you."

Jerry couldn't tell if she was hurt by his inattention. That was the nice thing about Rachel: she was so practical and easygoing. He followed her back into the living room, where Ralph Benninger was dancing a little too closely with the pediatric intern and Cliff and Angel were surrounded by a small group, including Angel's former roommate Nan LeBaron, who were determined to get them to cut the wedding cake and be off on their honeymoon.

Just another social occasion. Just another wedding. Just another day. There was nothing to get so distressed about, was there? Jerry was grateful it was a slow dance. He pulled Rachel into his arms and maneuvered her around the other couples. He was good enough at slow dancing, probably because of his age.

Truly heart-warming