He was a handsome guy: strong chin, receding salt-and-pepper hair. His dry lips were motionless, though his eyelids fluttered occasionally. Pete checked the IV bag and went to tell the nurse she could now place the Foley catheter. I joined him in the nursing station and we sat looking at the patient’s chart.
“Flint, Myron Flint,” Pete muttered.
“Jewish,” I stated matter-of-factly.
“Flint?” Pete returned.
“Myron?” I shot back.
“With you everyone is of the tribe until proven otherwise. I mean, you assumed the Beatles were Jewish for chrissake.” Another childhood anecdote to regret having shared.
I went back to the call room and lay on the covers, turning the ruined ring over and over in my hands. A silver ring on a penis would certainly not reach the top twenty list of medical ward oddities, but the inscription intrigued me: Algiers, the war. I usually tried not to think too much about the patients’ personal lives or their stories. As an inevitable part of medical training I had developed a wall between me and the endless suffering in which I was daily immersed. It was a simple mechanism of emotional preservation, and it usually worked. It was difficult to predict when the mechanism might fail. It could be the resemblance of a patient to someone else, an ineffable quality of suffering, a flavor of affliction that for some reason resonated, or simply being dead tired with energy to all systems ebbing. The shrill chirping of my pager cut short my reverie. I closed my fist around the ring and hustled off to the ER.
The next morning after attending rounds, I sat down at a computer in the resident’s lounge and googled “Algiers 1944”. There was much written by British veterans about their time there, though since North Africa was solidly under Allied control by then, it was all fairly dry and administrative. I surfed through images of Algiers from that time: colorful garb, bustling casbah, pith helmet and fez.
After a while, overcome by drowsiness, I rested my head in the crook of my arm, and was awash almost instantly in dreamscape: Pete is excitedly leading a group of Arab-looking men through a narrow alley, his blue scrubs washed-out in the film’s black and white. Then they are shuffling down a hallway in the VA, murmuring in some incomprehensible and guttural tongue. They approach me with a large wicker basket. I am terrified, imagining pulsing, swollen genitalia inside. Pete throws back his head, laughing as he lifts the lid to reveal a mountain of silver rings all covered in Arabic, and says, “This is it. This is the answer.” And laughing menacingly, “It’s about the silver, not the goddamn Yiddish Beatles!” He laughed, louder and louder, until his laugh blended with and was then overtaken by the bleeping of my pager. I raised my head, shook away the cobwebs, and headed off.
After a few hours of work, with everything in fairly good order, I headed to the cafeteria for coffee. I ran into Pete, and we sat down together. “How’s your heart failure on seven?” I asked sipping at my weak brew.
“Myron? Unconscious and peeing a river.”
“How’d our colleagues deal with their dropped ball?”
“Surprisingly well. I mean, once the blood returned to their faces.”
“Did it come up on rounds?”
“Come on,” Pete protested. I knew he would never disparage other residents in front of the attending physician, but I liked to get him going on issues of protocol and propriety. “Even if they were a couple of simpering ass-kissers (and I’m not saying they are, mind you) who need to be taken down a notch, that is not the way to do it. There are rules, and one should strive to follow them.”
“It’s what separates us from the… non-rule followers,” I offered.
I fished the ring out of my jacket pocket and placed it on the table between us. Pete stared at it a minute, then looked at me. “You know, I look at you and I think: worry beads, maybe a rabbit’s foot, but not a trinket cut off some old guy’s prick.”
“We don’t choose our talismans. They find us. It speaks to you or it doesn’t,” I said, taking the ring up again from the table.
“Yes, it spoke to me: ‘please get me off this guy’s penis, it said.’ The part I missed was, ‘and then carry me around forever in your jacket.’ ” I laughed and dropped the ring into my pocket. “You know,” Pete said, “he may want that back. I mean, if he wakes up.”
“What about that? Is he comatose?”
“Yes. I mean we are not sure what his deal is. He’s not conscious or responding to pain. Neurology is supposed to come around and take a peek at him later today and sort it out.”
Late in the afternoon, I went up to the seventh floor and grabbed Mr. Flint’s chart. I flipped through and skimmed the notes left by the various teams involved in his care: internal medicine, nutrition, neurology. After replacing it in the rack, I walked over to the patient’s room. Peering in through the door, I noticed the Foley bag filled with clear urine. He lay unmoving surrounded by the tubes and wires of his IV and monitors. I walked in and sat in the chair next to the head of his bed. His eyelids still twitched occasionally. I sat looking at him. Occasionally his face would grimace, but would then settle back into its plaintive stillness. I tried to picture what he must have looked like half a century ago. Why was he all alone? It’s terrible to be all alone. Just terrible, I thought as the irresistible pull of drowsiness dragged me deeper into the comfy chair.
Just then, his eyes fluttered open.