Do No Harm

Is there hypocricy in the hippocratic oath? 

Sometimes the best medicine is justice.

Do No Harm by James Queally

I went to medical school so I could be a healer. By the time I got to Newark, I think they changed the meaning of the word.

The emergency room at Hoskins University Medical Center was more assembly line than hospital. Bullets went into people and I took them out. My hands were cogs, the scalpels and sutures just extensions of the machinery.

Every now and again we’d catch a kid who was playing ball on the wrong corner, or a wife on the losing end of a domestic, do some actual good. But most nights, like this night, I was standing over a guy who’d probably shot the guy whose shoulder I put back together the day before.

Healer. What the fuck was I thinking?

I didn’t know the man on my table that night, but his life story was written in the swooping arc that shot over his navel like a black rainbow, the red outline of the state of New Jersey covering his left bicep. The lower tattoo read M.O.B. Member of Bloods. The other called out his affiliation. Brick City Brims.

Cops said his street name was “No Good,” just to belabor the point.

He’d taken one in the leg, clipped his femoral. I’d gone through three sets of gloves while a nurse went to work with clamps, trying to stop him from spilling his life out all over us. The blood was dark, thick and furious. Hot enough that my hands still felt clammy after two washes and a fourth pair of rubbers.

It was an unusually busy night in the ER, even by the chaotic standards of a Newark summer. At least three others shot, possibly at the same location, definitely for the same reasons. Drugs. Disrespect. Discontent. A car crash and a fire for variety’s sake.

Didn’t change much. We’d save the ones we could. Some of them would even honor us by living until the end of the year.

“Doc Marks?” No Good asked, his eyes fluttering open, then closed again.

I looked around the room, realizing I was alone for the first time all night, getting irrationally angry at the sound of my own name. I tapped my chest, finding a pen but no identification badge.

“Doc Marks?” he asked again. “Is that you?”

This motherfucker recognized me.

Only one reason he would. I’d grown up in Houston. Cut my teeth as a resident in Baltimore. I’d seen hundreds of No Goods in my life. But my only tie to Newark was this job.

I’d stitched this man up before, must have. Yet, here he was again, linking us by blood because he needed to chase the same penny-ante stakes that led to our first meeting.

My hand traveled to my pocket on its own, squeezing down on the tiny scissors hidden there, the ones I’d use to cut the suture when I was done dressing his wound.

“Yo Doc?” he asked again.

I started to wonder if he was just repeating himself, or if we’d already fast-forwarded to the next time he’d wind up on my table. How many people would he send my way between now and then?

The scissors bit my palm, my hand swallowing the little tool, letting the cold metal act as a balm on the tiny cut I’d opened. My part of the triage was empty. With the fire and the car crash, we were spread pretty thin.

I started thinking about odds and inevitability, unintended consequences and repercussions. He was in his late 20s, way past the point of prisoner re-entry and all those other social programs that get people re-elected and accomplish little else. He’d kill someone if he walked out of here, hurt someone at the least. Maybe that person would have a son whose father wouldn’t come home. Or a wife who’d have to trudge on without a husband.

All because I couldn’t be bother to nick his femoral while I was closing the wound, dose him up with morphine, and let him bleed out in his sleep.

I squeezed the scissors again, pricked myself. Just a little cut, easy and clean.

I thought about putting the blade to No Good. No Good who should have wound up in a coffin. No Good, whose family might not be able to afford a funeral.

Family. Family. The word stopped the blade from leaving my pocket.

What if No Good had one of those?

“Doc?” he asked a fourth time.

That was me. Doc. Sworn in via Hippocratic Oath.

The oath that said do no harm.
Two hours and four patients later I found myself back in the triage, watching the rise and fall of No Good’s chest as he slept off his near-death experience.

There was a cop stationed outside. The department has to send one to guard the prisoners we tend too, or the victims that might be considered dangerous.

I wondered whose 911 call the officer wasn’t answering. Already, No Good’s dedication to breathing was impacting someone else’s life.

A nurse walked by with a chart, handed it to me and shook her head. Differentiating between defeat and exhaustion was hard in this place. You could never tell if the somber stares were for the staff or the patient.

I flipped through No Good’s chart, stopping when I reached the X-Ray results. The unmistakable wail of a siren cut through the ER. The patient’s voice, a guttural urban growl, told me everything I needed to know. Another guy who’d play the victim today and wind up a suspect tomorrow.

No Good’s chest continued its rhythm, unaware of the crab claw shadow growing underneath. Of the thing snow-colored blip that would turn into a blizzard across his lungs with the right time and opportunity.

The printout fit nicely in my back pocket. It’d look even better at the bottom of a trash can.

Oath said do no harm.

It didn’t say anything about stopping it.

James Queally covers crime and police news for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, and he’s trying to write fiction again because facts and attribution just aren’t any damn fun some days. His profile of Frank Lucas, the Harlem drug kingpin who inspired the film “American Gangster,” can be found in the August 2013 edition of Inside Jersey magazine, and his short fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey.