The shift had been long and busy with more hospital admissions than the doctor could remember in some time. All of the patients who had been avoiding the hospital at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic were returning in droves sicker than ever because of that delay. He was glad to leave the chaos and noise of the emergency room behind and gladly greeted the silence of the dark parking lot as he pushed open the side doors of the hospital. Although he was glad to leave the chaos behind, he enjoyed a love/hate relationship with it as the noise served as a distraction from the loneliness that often plagued him. He was never in a particular hurry to go home, as only more silence awaited him there. There were too many memories, and the death of his wife only a little over a year previously was still as fresh as ever.
The night air was cool as the evening breeze blew through his hair. His truck was parked on the far side of the lot and the overhead lights reflected off of the dark paint. Reaching the vehicle, he opened the door, sat in the driver's seat and placed his stethoscope and name badge in the compartment between the front seats before shutting the lid. Pressing the ignition button, the engine roared to life and the headlights beamed across the mostly empty parking lot. He sat motionless for a moment, his hands gripping the steering wheel, before inhaling deeply and putting the truck in gear. The gate opened automatically as he approached it and he passed swiftly underneath, his brake lights soon disappearing into the darkness.
The drive home was familiar and generally took him about twenty-five minutes to cover the distance. Many of his partners lived much closer to the hospital, but he had never disliked the drive as it had always given him the few minutes that he needed to clear his thoughts. The initial part of the drive was in the city and was well lit and only when he got into the more rural areas of the county did the artificial lights begin to fade and his headlights would stretch out to their maximum limits to illuminate the road ahead. Deer were plentiful and unpredictable at those hours and his greatest fear had always involved the sudden unexpected appearance of a large buck that desired to make itself a permanent fixture as a hood ornament. For that reason, he was never in a hurry on those isolated two-lane roads.
Traffic on those roads at that time, however, was more unusual and so the single headlight beaming in his direction as he rounded a particularly sharp curve immediately caught his attention. The headlight was still at least a quarter of a mile down the road, but the fact that it was beaming at him from his side of the road struck him as unusual. Knowing the potential devastation of an intoxicated driver all too well, he slowed his truck even further. However, he was surprised to see that even as his truck crawled forward, the single headlight seem to remain stationary. His foot pressed gently on the gas pedal and the engine hummed as he closed the distance for a closer look. As his headlights illuminated the scene ahead, he could make out the instinct outline of a single vehicle which had veered off of the road after leaving a long trail of rubber tire marks on the asphalt. The car had swerved across his lane and had impacted the trunk of an enormous northern Catawba tree whose white blooms had rained down on top of the immobilized vehicle. The front end was completely crushed, the windshield was shattered, and thin wisps of steam rose from beneath the hood.
Finally realizing what had likely happened, the doctor pressed firmly on the gas pedal until he had fully closed the distance and then brought the truck to a screeching halt in front of the immobilized vehicle. Leaving his lights on for better visibility and grabbing his first aid kit, he flung his door open and approached the wrecked vehicle. He could smell the smoke from the wrecked engine but there was no evidence of an open flame. Turning on his phone flashlight, he quickly moved over to the driver's side of the car while calling out to see if anyone would answer. At first, all was silent except for the hissing of steam until his ears finally detected the faintest of voices. Shining his light through the driver’s side window, he could see a young woman pinned against the steering wheel. The car was an older model and was not equipped with airbags. The young woman had been wearing her seatbelt,t but the force of the impact had smashed the entire front of the car and crushed her against the steering wheel. The driver's side window had been shattered and he immediately put his hand through the open window and placed it on her shoulder.
“It’s ok,” as he tried to comfort her. “I’m here. I am one of the doctors from the hospital. I'll get some help and then we'll get you out of here.”
The young woman seemed less concerned with herself but instead was motioning toward the back seat.
“My baby,” she gasped between labored breaths. “My baby is back there.”
He immediately focused his attention on the backseat where, amazingly, a young child remained safely secured in its car seat. In spite of all the chaos around it, the child was not crying but looked at the stranger gazing in through its window with curious, glassy eyes. There was absolutely no evidence of any trauma.
“Is she ok?” came the labored question.
“She’s fine, perfectly fine,” he responded as he returned to the front window. “You stay still. I’m calling for help but I’m not going anywhere.”
He quickly placed the call, giving all the pertinent information and their location in the most efficient way possible.
“ Hang in there. Help is on the way,“ he reassured her as he finished the call.
“It was the deer,” she began to explain. “It was on top of us before I knew it...I swerved to avoid it, but...”
“It’s alright,” he reassured her. “It wasn’t your fault.”
He then focused his attention once again on her door. He tried to open it, not necessarily to move her but to be able to better assess the extent of her possible injuries, but the door was hopelessly jammed. As he continued to inspect the door, he kept conversing with her, telling her about every mundane detail of his recent life in an attempt to keep her attention focused on something else besides her current condition.
“If it’s ok with you,” he continued as he realized that getting her door open was hopeless. “I’m going to get your baby out, if I can, so you can see her. I’m just amazed at how quiet she has been through all of this.”
“She’s...she’s a good baby.”
He then momentarily left the mother’s side to move to the rear window where the child still sat completely content, inspecting the chaos all about her. He examined her more closely this time and realized that she had remained completely restrained in the car seat and that there was absolutely no evidence of injury. He looked at her little head, followed by her arms and legs and saw nothing out of the ordinary. He was able to reach in and unbuckle her car seat straps without any difficulty, and, after having done so, he lifted her out with ease.
“Oh my goodness, “ he said with his best baby voice. “Look at you. What a brave girl you are!”
He then brought her up to the front window and knelt down so that her mother could see her. Immediately, the terror and uncertainty of the last several minutes washed over the young mother’s face as the tears welled and began to rain down her cheeks. Her breath was already short and her rising emotions only worsened that.
“What’s her name?”
“Just like the seller of purple in the Bible?”
The mother nodded with a weak smile.
As he spoke with her, the doctor noted that the mother's color begin to take on a more ashy hue as her breathing became more short, and labored. Trying to avoid drawing too much attention, he slid his hand down to her wrist and noted that her pulse was very rapid. He inspected the area around the driver again, but there was no evidence of any external bleeding.
Blunt trauma. He was no trauma surgeon, but he had seen the scenario enough to recognize it. Blunt trauma from something like a steering wheel could be far more devastating than a penetrating injury as many times the blunt force would tear one of the large internal blood vessels. Often there was nothing that could be done and the young physician begin to recognize a growing sense of his own helplessness. The mother, without ever directly expressing her own concerns, seemed to be aware of her dire situation, nonetheless.
“Listen,” she instructed as she struggled to express herself. “I don’t have anybody... nobody.”
She gathered her strength before continuing.
"I've got nobody to look out for Lydia...you can't let her just get thrown to the system. I've tried so hard..."
The doctor listened in silence.
"Promise me...promise me you won't let that happen."
A thousand responses flooded his mind. Why would she ask this of him, a man that she didn't know at all? He was in no way prepared or qualified to accept the responsibility; a widower himself with no children.
"I promise," he responded quietly to her insistent request, if for no other reason than to bring what little comfort his promise could afford. She smiled and nodded in response. She raised a weak arm and stroked Lydia's cheek.
"Hey there, sweet pea... you're going to be ok...you won't be alone...I just know it... "
The mother's arm dropped as she no longer had the strength to lift it. Her gaze, shifted from her daughter to the man kneeling just outside her door. She was staring directly at him, but seemed to be focusing on something in the distance.
"I...I think I'm going to be ok...it doesn't hurt anymore."
The doctor held the mother's hand, the iciness expanding by the second.
"Tell her...tell Lydia...tomorrow we'll go to the playground..."
With utmost reverence, and still stunned by the whole experience, he slowly released her hand and sat back on the ground next to her car door, Lydia still in his arms. He remained there, even as the sounds of the approaching sirens began to reach his ears.
He was only vaguely aware of the rest of the evening as the previous events seem to cloud his vision. As a physician, he was no stranger to death but this was different. This was personal, and he had been helpless. It was a realization that made him admire his fellow soldiers and first responders who dealt with that situation on an almost daily basis. As he held Lydia, he observed, almost as from a great distance, the paramedics pry open the driver’s side door and reverently remove the young woman. Per protocol, resuscitation efforts were started, but he knew instinctively that their efforts would be in vain. He was suddenly overcome with a sense of grief. He didn’t even know her name.
“Was the baby hers?” a sudden deep voice suddenly shocked him back to reality. Standing I front of him was a local policeman, taller than him with a spotless deep blue uniform.
“Yes,” he responded.
“We’re trying to contact family now.”
“She told me she didn’t have any. She was pretty adamant about it.”
“Well, there’s always someone. Did you happen to see what happened?”
“No. Everything had already happened by the time I got here. She was able to tell me that she swerved trying to avoid a deer when she lost control of the car. She was pinned inside and there wasn’t anything I could do. The baby, thankfully, was fine.”
“So what do you plan to do now, Doc?“
He took a moment to look at the small child in his arms.
“I’m not sure. She asked me to take care of Lydia. I owe her at least that.”
“Well, that’s a very nice sentiment but we're still going to have to do this by the book. We can’t just go handing babies out to everyone.”
“No problem there. My wife and I were approved for the foster program before she died. We didn’t have children of our own.”
The office looked up form his notebook.
“I’m sorry to hear that; about your wife.”
“Thank you. It was a little over a year ago.”
“Was it an accident, if you don’t mind me asking?”
The doctor shook his head.
“No. It was cancer.”
The officer nodded his head compassionately.
“Well, all I know is that she’s quiet right now, but that’s not going to last. It’s late and she’ll soon need a change, a bottle and some sleep before it’s all over.”
“I don’t have any of those things at my house,” the doctor responded. “But I’ve got plenty of folks back at the hospital that could help me out, at least for tonight. Just clear it with the judge so it’s all official. Here’s my license. I’m sure he’s going to love you waking him up.“
The officer smiled in agreement as he reached for his phone. While he gave the appropriate information to the judge, the doctor took Lydia back over to the smashed remains of the car and lifted her car seat through the back window. Opening the rear door of his truck, he reinstalled the car seat using his free hand. Soon, Lydia was safely strapped back in. She begin to whimper and rub her eyes as the lateness of the night and the trauma she had sustained begin to settle in.
“Here’s you a blanket,“ the officer handed him the blanket and his license as the doctor snapped the last strap in place. “ Looks like you check out. We haven’t been able to locate any relatives as of yet so it looks like you’ll have her at least for tonight. You’ll be hearing more from the powers that be tomorrow, I’m sure.“
Turning back to his truck, he draped the blanket over Lydia’s legs and noticed that she had begun to whimper even more as large tears begin to well up in her soft eyes.
“I know, “ he responded compassionately. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that your mommy can’t be here for you now. I’m sorry that you don’t know me and all of this is very strange to you. I’m sure nothing feels right. Maybe it’s for the best that you’re too young to remember. Someday, when you’re older, maybe we can explain this to you where it will make some sense, but I can’t make you any promises about that. There’s still so much I don’t understand myself. What I can promise you is that I won’t leave you. I gave your mommy my word. I’m with you for as long as God lets me stay.”
Tucking in the blanket securely, he gently closed the back door and then climbed into the driver’s seat. He then looked back to check the security of the seat one last time.
"And tomorrow, I'll take you to the playground."
The engine roared to life once again and, humming the tune to “This Little Light of Mine,” he turned his truck back in the direction of the hospital.