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The Best Medicine

The Best Medicine by Elizabeth Neff Walker
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Fielding Medical Center has some of the finest doctors and nurses in San Francisco, and each of them has a personal as well as a professional life. Dr. Roger Janek, a dedicated anesthesiologist, had married a dying patient and now is absorbed by his grief. Oncology nurse Judy Povalski, who had cared for Kerri when she was ill, has a troubled live-in nephew and a failed romance to cope with.

Though a naturally high-spirited man, Dr. Roger Janek believes he will never love again. To find new meaning in his life, he proposes mentoring Judy’s wayward nephew. Their conflicts, and contact, lead to a growing, if surprising, attraction. Time—and love—prove to be the best medicine…

Women's Fiction by Elizabeth Neff Walker

4th of the Fielding Medical Center Quartet

Belgrave House; February 1996
180 pages; ISBN 9780451185136
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Title: The Best Medicine
Author: Elizabeth Neff Walker

Roger Janek had been back in his own house in San Francisco for more than a month when he had the accident. It was not so much that he had been careless as that he had simply misjudged distances on the shadowy street. No one was injured. Roger, his concentration distracted by a cat racing across the street, had simply misjudged the distance between his own car, another car going the other way, and the dark debris box he was passing on his right.

His car, a four year old Audi, incurred a surprising amount of damage for such a minor accident. What was worse, the annoying vehicle would not run. The fender was mashed right up against the right front tire and refused to budge even when he wielded a crowbar against it.

Unlike most of the other doctors he knew, Roger did not have a car phone, which necessitated his hiking two blocks to Geary Boulevard to find a pay phone. He was almost near enough to the hospital to walk there, but the journey seemed pointless since what he needed was the Automobile Association in any case. And he was going to miss the monthly meeting of his grief support group.

Roger tugged carelessly at the lobe of one ear as he dug in his pocket with the other hand for some dimes. He surveyed the handful of coins he withdrew and chose two, before noticing that the phone in front of which he stood was obviously out of order. The receiver rested in its holder, but the cord swung uselessly free from its connection. In frustration Roger swatted the metal frame.

A horn honked behind him, and he wondered briefly if one of the citizenry objected to this mild gesture of annoyance. As he turned to see, a dark-haired woman leaned out of the window of a car and called, "Do you have a problem, Dr. Janek?"

She looked familiar, in a way that made him feel a little sad. Probably from the hospital then. He stepped closer and recognized her as a nurse from the oncology floor, one of the nurses who had taken care of his wife Kerri. "The damn phone's busted," he said. "I've had an accident and I need to call AAA."

"You okay?" she asked, peering up and down at him as though she might notice a broken arm or battered flesh.

"Yeah, I'm fine. My car's not." He was dredging his mind for a name. As an anesthesiologist he didn't have many dealings with the floor nurses, but this one he should know. She'd helped arrange for the wedding in Kerri's hospital room almost a year ago. Maybe was even the one who'd brought Kerri the garland of flowers for her hair.

"It's Judy Povalski," she said, relieving him. "Sixth floor East. Let me drive you to a working phone."

"That would be great." Roger climbed into her car, an older Honda Civic, and closed the door twice before it caught. "There's bound to be one pretty close."

"For sure there's one two blocks down, though I suppose it could be broken, too. We'll check."

Without further comment she drew away from the curb and raced through the next intersection. Roger recognized her driving style as faintly similar to his own and regarded her with curiosity. "Do people complain about your driving?" he asked.

"Frequently." She glanced over at him and laughed. "Not usually within the first block, though."

"I just wondered. They complain about mine all the time. Even Kerri did."

"You can only expect so much tolerance, even from someone who loves you."

The things people said didn't usually bother him so much any more. But she said it almost as though Kerri might be waiting at home for him, and he felt the dreaded ache in his chest. "I suppose not," he murmured.

"She was a very special woman," Judy continued. "Truly remarkable in her acceptance of her illness and in trying to help everyone around her accept it, too."

"Thank you." It was the only thing he could think of to say. Most people hesitated to talk to him about Kerri, and he often wished they would. Certainly no one ignored him. In fact everyone had been amazingly kind. But life continued and even his best friends assumed he was continuing with it, in a way he hadn't really achieved yet.

Angel Crawford, who had helped him all along, was busy finishing the last month of her residency, and was pregnant as could be. He didn't see as much of her and Cliff as he used to. Nan had moved to Belvedere with Steve. Jerry pretty much lived at Rachel's. Everything outside him was constantly changing.

"Check if this one's working," Judy said, breaking into his thoughts. "Then I'll drive you back to your car."

They were stopped in front of a phone booth. "You probably have something better to do."

"Nothing that won't keep."

At first it had embarrassed him to have people do things for him, perfect strangers and bare acquaintances, but Jerry had convinced him that people felt better for helping, and Jerry was a psychiatrist, so he should know. Roger climbed agilely out of the car and checked out the phone, which gave a dial tone when he lifted it. But he had to look up the AAA number in the phone book and before he'd riffled many pages, Judy called a number from the car.

"I know it by heart," she explained. "I have to call them all the time."

When he had explained his dilemma to the person who answered, he was informed that a truck would be there in half an hour to forty-five minutes. Roger sighed and returned to Judy's car. "I'm just a few blocks away. Over on Lake Street near 25th."

"Right." Judy whipped the little car around the block like a race car driver. When she stopped in front of his car, her headlights illuminating the mangled right front, she whistled. "They'll total it," she said with conviction.

"What do you mean, total it? Who will?"

"The insurance company, of course. If it costs more to repair than the Blue Book, they total it."

"Well, I don't want it totaled. It has sentimental value."

"Was it Kerri's car?" she asked, surprised.

"No, but we drove everywhere together in it. It won't be that expensive to repair."

"Ha! You probably haven't had body work done on a car lately," she said knowledgeably. "It costs a fortune."

Roger wasn't going to argue with her. No matter what it cost, he was going to have the car repaired. "Well, thanks for driving me over, Judy. I'll wait in my car."

"No problem." She watched as he climbed out and then rolled down her window as he walked across in front of her car. "When you were a teenager, did you get into trouble?"

"Me?" Surprised, he turned back to her. "Nothing important. Why do you ask?"

She shrugged. "I just wondered if all teenage boys do. Sometimes that's the impression people give you."

"Do you have a teenage boy?" Roger tried to remember whether he knew if she was married. He drew a total blank. In the dark he couldn't see if she wore a ring.

"No, but I live with my sister and hers. Your car reminded me. Larry took her car last week without asking and managed to do that kind of damage to it." She made a gesture indicating her dismissal of the subject. "Sorry. I didn't mean to insinuate that you'd have been some kind of troubled kid when you were younger."

But Roger's attention had been captured by a subject very close to his experience. He walked back to the driver's side window. "I didn't get into trouble like that, but my brother Carl did. Not that I was an angel, mind you. But I was always kind of too interested in science, and pretty much a loner."

"Larry isn't a loner," Judy said tartly. "In fact he seems to be very easily led astray. Or, maybe, he does the leading."

"No father in the household, I gather."

She shook her head. "His father was killed in a car accident over a year ago."

"Well, my brother got into trouble even with my father in the house, and my father's a great guy. Sometimes I think that's what Carl was rebelling against." Roger sighed. "He didn't get over it for a long time, until my uncle stepped in to help."

"I'm hoping Larry will grow out of it one of these days. Well, thanks, Dr. Janek. Good luck with the car."

"It's Roger. And good luck with your nephew."

If he hadn't had to wait half an hour alone in his car after she left, he would probably never have come up with the idea. Say the tow truck had showed up immediately after her taillights had disappeared down the street. He would have been so involved in the details of the car being attached to the towing bar and deciding where to have it towed, that Judy's remarks would have instantly dissolved from his mind.

Later, in the OR dressing room, Angel's husband Cliff had tried to discourage him. "You can't get involved in someone else's life that way," he insisted as they changed clothes after a colon resection. Cliff, a big bear of a man with unruly black hair and a slightly overbearing manner, said, "Face it, Roger. You're vulnerable right now. You're looking for something to distract you and make you feel useful again. You can't just choose to take on someone's troubled teenager. You don't even know him."

"True," Roger agreed. Since the death of his wife his youthful face had aged, but the difference was only noticeable to his friends. He was of medium height, with a curly brown mass of hair, a wiry build and an excess of nervous habits like tugging on the drawstring of his scrub pants, which he was currently doing. "But people become Big Brothers to kids all the time, and they're kids they don't even know. At least this kid belongs to someone's sister. To me that makes more sense than choosing someone anonymous."

"Neither makes any sense to me," Cliff assured him as he tossed his scrub suit in a laundry bin. "What do you know about helping disturbed teenagers? Zilch. You don't even have any kids of your own."

"No, but I was a kid once upon a time. Like you and everybody else. I bet Angel wouldn't think it was such a stupid idea."

"Angel gets misty-eyed at the sound of a baby crying these days," Cliff confessed without rancor. "She can already picture us in the wilds of Wisconsin sitting on a screened porch with the new arrival in a cradle her mother saved from thirty years ago."

"I'm going to miss you two, even though I don't see that much of you these days."

Cliff's bristling eyebrows rose a fraction. "Is this a subtle hint that we should have you over to dinner?"

"Of course not! I know how busy you are." Roger rubbed his temple absently. "Hell, Cliff, this would give me something to do. Something important."

"Are you back on the 'Rescue the Teenager' kick? Roger, anesthesiology is important. You protect people's lives during surgery. You train the next generation of doctors to have iron nerves and impressive skills. Take some kind of advanced training, do some research, travel to a conference, write a paper. There are a dozen things you could do that wouldn't involve getting entangled in someone else's problems."

But Roger wasn't paying much attention. Truth be told, he'd already decided. Of course, Judy and her sister might not be interested in his trying to help out, and if they weren't he'd have to find some other project. But this was, at least temporarily, a project that he felt almost compelled to attempt. There were several reasons. His brother Carl was one, certainly. What if someone hadn't stepped in and turned Carl around?

But another reason was Kerri. She'd been a teacher, and Roger had heard her numerous times discuss how important it was for a child to have someone in their lives who proved the right kind of model. She had said that, as well-intentioned as they were, a child's parents weren't always the right people.

When he'd described his brother Carl to her, Kerri had nodded and said, "Yes, that's what I mean. Your parents are obviously good people, but they lived on a different plane than Carl. They were intellectuals and sophisticated in a way that made him seem to them like a changeling. You have a restless kind of energy, too, Roger, but you channeled it in ways they could understand. Carl obviously didn't."

She had said something then that he grasped at now: "If you'd been grown then, I think you would have understood Carl, even though you were so different. But you were only a kid, too." She had also said how much she regretted that they wouldn't have children of their own. Roger hadn't thought of that much then, but he'd thought a lot about it since her death, that he would never be a father. God, she would have been the perfect mother—patient and loving and generous and understanding.

Kerri would have approved of his trying to help a troubled teenager. Roger was sure of it.

~ ~ ~

Judy Povalski worked on the oncology floor at Fielding Medical Center. She had switched there two years before, after working at SF General and Fielding over the previous ten years as a circulating nurse and a scrub nurse in the operating room. Though people thought it a strange move, from an atmosphere of high tension and excitement to one of frequent desperation and gloom, Judy found the work on the cancer unit more rewarding. Instead of anesthetized patients, here were people in the very throes of the most difficult period of their lives—living with disease, dying of disease. She could be of far more assistance here than handing over instruments in a sterile if companionable environment.

After a year on the floor she'd been offered the assistant head nurse position, but she had refused it. Administrative work was of little interest to her. Again people shook their heads wonderingly. Had she no ambition at all? Didn't she want to get somewhere in her field? No, she told them, she wanted to do precisely what she was doing. Very codependent, her friends said. Judy couldn't be bothered with glib labels. She liked working with people, liked being the one who brought comfort into their shattered lives. That's what nurses, much more than doctors, were able to do.

Judy didn't think much of it when she saw Roger Janek come onto the floor. Some of the patients on 6 East were there for surgery, and Roger would come to talk with them the previous day to get a history. He didn't need to have much interaction with the nurses, however, so when he headed straight for the nurses' station, she raised her brows inquiringly at him.

"What's up, Dr. Janek?" she asked. "Everything okay with your car?"

He shrugged. "The insurance company totaled it, just like you said they would. And it did sound outrageously expensive to have it repaired right, so I just had then fix it enough to make it run for now. Cliff's trying to talk me into a new Saab convertible. He says they're really sharp."

"They are. Halverson has one, bright red. You could ask him how he likes it."

"Oh, God, I could have the same car as Halverson," he muttered. "Lucky me."

Judy knew better than to ask him if he had something against the heart surgeon. Halverson's reputation in the operating room was legend. He was possibly the only surgeon at Fielding who treated the anesthesiologists like water boys. "Well, it might not suit your style right now, anyhow. They're a bit sporty."

"I don't know that my style was ever sporty, and it certainly doesn't feel like that now. I think Cliff was sublimating his own wish. Angel's apparently suggested a station wagon."

"Horrors!" Judy said with a laugh. "That's what having kids will do to you, I guess."

"Speaking of which..." Roger surveyed the congested area and waved toward the conference room down the hall. "Do you have a minute for me to talk with you?"

Mystified, Judy nodded and followed him down the corridor. He was wearing scrubs and a patterned scrub cap. His wiry build was almost indiscernible in the folds of the blue scrubs, but he carried himself with a barely controlled energy that was recognizable even from a distance. No one who knew him was unaware of his nervous habits, which were generally accepted as evidence of his restrained energy. Judy found them touching.

The conference room was empty and he switched on the light and left the door open, taking a seat at the small rectangular table and waving her to another one. "This is going to sound crazy, I guess." He tugged at the lobe of his right ear. "The other night you mentioned that your nephew had been getting in trouble."

"My nephew? Well, yes, but nothing really bad."

"So far," he said bluntly. "Things usually go from bad to worse."

"God, I hope not. But I don't understand what you're getting at."

"I've been thinking about him—your nephew."

Judy frowned. "I didn't mean to bother you about Larry, Dr. Janek. The question just sort of popped out of me."

"Roger," he reminded her. "And I'm glad it did." He knocked his scrub cap off with an impatient hand, revealing hair that was only slightly more curly than her own. His was a rich brown, though, and hers a gleaming black that made people question her about Irish origins.

Judy waited a little impatiently for him to continue, thinking that he was going to offer some advice. Which was thoughtful of him, perhaps, but a bit presumptuous. For some reason, even unmarried men seemed to think they knew a great deal about raising boys.

"Maybe I could help him," Roger finally blurted.

"Help him?" Judy cocked her head inquiringly. "I can't imagine how, Dr. . . Roger. He's a teenager."

"Well, exactly. That's when boys tend to get into trouble and they can keep on going bad if someone doesn't step in and take hold of them."

Confused, Judy protested, "But you've never even seen him. You don't have any relationship to him. I don't understand what you're saying."

Roger took a deep breath and exhaled quickly. "I'm not being very clear. I'm restless, Judy. I need to do something useful, really useful. Not anesthesia. That's my work. I need to do something that will make a difference. Maybe I could step into his life—what did you say his name was, Larry?—and help turn him around."

"But you have no experience with boys," she pointed out. "What could you possibly do that would help? He already has a  tutor for math and belongs to a sports club that Liza can scarcely afford, all so he'll have male authority figures in his life. He's got teachers and coaches and neighbors, and you aren't any of those things. I beg your pardon for being so frank, Dr. Janek, but it seems to me your good intentions probably exceed your experience."

"They do," he agreed with a grimace. "It was stupid of me to think I could help."

"I didn't say that! You're being incredibly generous to make that kind of offer. I understand that you'd like to help." Judy was starting to feel guilty. How could she just shoot down someone with such good intentions, someone whose wife had died within the year? But his offer came completely out of left field, with no tie to any personal relationship. The whole thing made her uncomfortable.

Judy rose briskly and pushed her chair back under the table. "Look, I really ought to get back to my work. They'll wonder where I've gotten to. But I want to thank you for the thought. Really, it was . . . um . . . very thoughtful of you, Dr. Janek." She started backing toward the door. "I'll bet there are lots of things you could do that would be, you know, just the right thing for someone. That would make a difference." With a small wave of her hand, she fled the room.

Well, I really screwed that up, Roger decided as he retrieved his scrub cap from the table. What the hell was I thinking of? I don't know these people and they don't know me. Plus, I'm not some kind of authority on wayward teenagers. I just wanted the boy to know that someone else cared about him. But how do I know if I'd care about him? Probably he's a little jerk who'd drive me crazy if I ever met him and had any responsibility for his actions.

That woman must think I've completely lost it, he thought, and considered tracking Judy down again to prove that he hadn't. Something—probably Cliff's voice in his head—warned him that that wouldn't be a smart idea, and he abandoned it. After checking his watch and finding that he wasn't due down in surgery for half an hour, he wandered through the medical center until he came upon Jerry's office, thinking to have a little chat with his psychiatrist friend. But there was no one in the office and the first nurse he ran into explained that Dr. Stoner was away at a conference for a few days. Roger sighed and headed for surgery.