Two men in dark suits sit on the porch, in rattan chairs, playing cards. The shorter one has a small mustache and smokes a cigar. The other has big chompers with a gap in front and they both rise as we approach. Mr. Rioli parks in the back, and I notice there’s only one other vehicle, another smaller late-model Packard.
Despite his urgency to get me to the sick child, Joseph stops for a minute and turns around in his seat. “Nurse Myers,” he says in that deep rattling voice. “You seem like a smart lady. I don’t know about the doc . . .”
“He’s disabled now.” I defend my old colleague. “A few years ago, you couldn’t have wanted a better physician. He’s a surgeon too . . . or was.”
“No doubt,” the chauffeur allows, but I can tell he doesn’t buy it. “What I want to say is . . . For everyone’s sake, don’t ask too many questions about what you see and hear inside this house.”
I frown. “As a nurse, I never talk about my patients, except to other medical professionals.”
“Well, I’m warning you, keep that to a minimum too. I mean it.”
The men from the porch are approaching the Packard and Nick gets out and opens the door for me.
“Any trouble?” the taller of the two asks, and I see now he has one blue eye and one brown. Still, he’s a handsome fellow, well groomed with a recent haircut. Both men tip their hats.
“Nah, smooth sailing,” says Nick. “Don’t be alarmed by the gentleman in the back. I’ll take the lady inside. Can you guys keep an eye on him; he’s the nurse’s charge, harmless she says, but a mute.”
“Just don’t let him wander,” I interject. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing and might scare someone or get hurt.” I pull the black medical bag out of the car, just as a woman cries out.
“Oh, not again! Not again! Joey. Joey. Stay with me, Joey,” a woman screams. Mr. Rioli grabs my arm as we race up the stairs to find in the front bedroom, the fancy lady I’d seen in town kneeling next to a bed. To the side, on the floor, I can see a child’s pale feet and I can hear his labored breathing. The room is filled with exotic-smelling smoke so thick I almost choke.
“Ma’am,” I introduce myself. “I’m Rebecca Myers, registered nurse. Can I help you?” When she turns I see that her face is red from crying.
“Oh, thank the Lord!”
“Mommy?” a voice from behind us interrupts.
“Hush, Allegra. Go back to the other bedroom and keep your sisters quiet. The nurse is here.”
“But we’re hungry.”
“It doesn’t matter! Go ask Mrs. Barnett. Go!”
The older child leaves and I don’t get a look at her because I’m now on my hands and knees with the mother, helping the boy to sit up. He’s a handsome kid, but his sandy-blond hair is sweaty and matted and his lips are blue. He breathes out with a high-pitched whine, and then coughs. Over and over he coughs and tries to push his air out.
“Nick,” I order. “Open the windows. We have to get some of this smoke out.”
“But Mrs. Barnett said it would make him better.”
“I know people say breathing incense helps, but I’m a nurse, if you want me to help, you have to do what I say. Open the windows.”
I pull out my stethoscope and listen to the child’s lungs and heart. His respirations are rapid, forty a minute, and there’s a marked expiratory wheeze.
“It’s okay, Joey. Breathe with me. In . . . Out . . . In . . . Out.” The child’s eyes, in his blue-white face, focus on mine and he makes a low moan, like wind being forced through a narrow pipe.
“Oh, Joey,” the mother sobs. “My little Joey. I’m so sorry. If only your father were here. I’m so sorry.” Her tears fall on the boy’s head as she caresses it and I see that her emotions are louder than the boy’s breathing.
“How long has Joey been having these spells?” I try to settle her down.
“It’s his sixth fit today—before that he would have one or two a month, but he fell ill from the night air, or maybe it’s a reaction to the greenery—we had an inhaler but he’s used it up and I wrote down the medication we need and had Anthony take it to the pharmacy, but the pharmacist said he didn’t have it—he told Anthony we might be able to get some in Torrington, but we don’t want to go back there . . .” Her sentences run on like the Hope River flooding with chunks of ice in March.
I take my glass thermometer out of its metal case and put it under the boy’s arm. The mother looks surprised.
“I can’t put it in his mouth. When he breathes like that it won’t be accurate.” Then I wait the two long minutes during which the boy and the mother begin to calm down.
“It’s ninety-nine degrees. Close to normal. What else have you tried?”
“Anthony got him some Schiffmann’s Asthmador Cigarettes at the pharmacy, the last pack they had, and blew smoke in his face, but it didn’t help.”
“Okay, I’m going to run to the pharmacy myself to see if Mr. Stenger has some epinephrine somewhere in back. I’ll get your driver to take me. Maybe, since the pharmacist knows me, I can persuade him to help. Epinephrine is what’s in the inhaler, right? It’s the medication the doctor from Pittsburgh gave you?”
“I think so.”
“Yes, that’s what they use. . . . Mr. Rioli!” The driver is listening to everything, just outside in the hall.
Getting away from the house gives me some time to think. If the boy keeps going on like this, he could go into cardiac arrest and the next asthma attack could be his last . . . or the one after that. I’m just praying that Mr. Stenger will be able to find some epi stashed away in the back. Even a few drops could be used in the child’s nose.
“Step on it, Nick,” I order as we peel out of the drive. It isn’t until we get to Main that I remember Dr. Blum. Hopefully, he’s still on the porch with his babysitters.
“Little Joey going to be okay?” the chauffeur asks me.
“I don’t know. I’ll do what I can. It depends on if we can get some kind of medication with a bronchodilator in it. Status asthmaticus can be fatal.”
“Status asthmaticus . . . asthma attacks that go on and on without a break.”
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