Thursday, March 02, 2006

Dr Elks Medicine Show

Dr Elk’s Medicine Show

Blasting west along I-10, Fiona was in the last stretch of a thousand mile hell-ride she had begun long before dawn this morning. Stopping only for gas, food and exhaustion, the Dakar had remained a faithful servant, as bike and rider… woman and machine coming together on this mad dash to the Gulf. As the mendacity and mediocrity of her institutional and governmental leaders expanded to record (if not outright criminal) incompetence, her anger and frustration with the response to such a public health catastrophe grew with each passing day. How could a person look at what was happening along the Gulf Coast and not feel an obligation to help?
Fiona was now in the last few miles of  her high speed, cross country run, and she was very tired, buffeted by wind and rain squalls, slowing but never stopping her. She had ridden cross country before on a bike, years ago as a wild teen dropout, bought a motorcycle and took to the road. But that was a long time ago, and her body was not as quick to forgive episodes like this nowadays. This was the first time she had tried such a long run in such short time. Given the urgency, even at 2 weeks post impact, things were as bad, if not worse in some places, one of which she was headed to know. As Fiona was contemplating this thought and others, suddenly the 650 cc GS motorcycle (with attached sidecar, packed to the gunwhales with MRE’s, bottled water, assorted tools and survival gear) had a near-miss with the debris of a metal billboard. A gust of wind had picked up the piece of sheet metal from the side of the road, hurling it like a missile, missing the front tire and slamming with a ‘thud’ off Fiona’s crash armor. She barely had enough time to realize what had happened, much less react, and it was all she could do after the fact to pull the bike over to the side of the highway, dismount, undo her full face helmet, and puke.
   “Damn that little prick! Damn him all to hell!” she screamed, cursing the small, stupid man in the Executive Mansion for the 1728th time in the past 24 hours, reverting to Charleton Heston Mode for emphasis. She made a very weird site out there along the side of the highway, a BMW Motoraad ridden by a small woman with short red hair and lots of freckles dressed as a fugitive from some kind of ‘Mad Max’ alternate universe, hurling her lunch and cursing a blue streak. Fiona had been on the road since before dawn, and though she was very close to her destination, it had been the most stressful and dangerous motorcycle ride of her life.
Fiona stood after a few moments, and steadying herself, walked back over to the bike, fished around in the bowels of the tank bag and took out a thermos of stale, cold coffee. She took are large swig, swished it around, spat on the pavement, repeated, and took a large gulp. It tasted awful, but she needed the caffeine.
  “So, this is Mississippi.” she said to herself, looking off into the evening gloom. But instead of the usual fry shacks and used car dealerships, it was utter destruction. Suburban McMansions ripped apart like Lincoln logs. SUV’s by the dozens floating in the bayou. A 150 foot, 300 ton shrimper, the Spartina Marie, lay on its side, 2 miles from the coast. This close to ground zero, no structures of any significance remained undamaged, and a great many completely destroyed. The ugly blight of giant metal highway billboards had been turned into an abstract artist’s version of a post-industrial-apocalyptic mutant forest of scrap metal.
     Fiona took another good, long swig of bitter coldness. She could see more debris and dead animals along the side of the road. Due to the danger of flying debris and worsening weather from Rita, Katrina’s evil sister lurking off in the Gulf, Fiona had cut her speed way down, making a long journey more so. Even though she was tired and in need of food and sleep, she was determined to get to New Hancock by curfew. The last thing she wanted was to crack up herself or her bike in the last few miles of his journey.
Further west on I-10, she followed the interstate, then turned for the exit that would take her into New Hancock. As she descended the highway off ramp and turned left at the bottom, Fiona noted a couple of flashing blue lights and a large industrial grade work light about a ¼ mile ahead on the right.
Slowing and pulling over to the side of the road, Fiona came upon a unit of soldiers from the Florida National Guard. As she rolled out of the darkness, Fiona must have looked a very peculiar sight indeed, helmet and leather duster covered almost black with the remains of dead lovebugs, large swarms of which she had to ride through earlier in the day. Killing the Dakar’s engine and doffing her helmet, she proceeded to explain to a fresh faced sergeant from Dade County (a claims adjuster when not confronting insane biker chicks in the middle of disaster areas) what her business was.
  “Uh, Ma’am, can I help you?” stuttered the nice young man carrying a machine gun.
“It’s more like, can I help you?” replied Fiona, undoing the chin strap on her helmet.
   “Uh…I don’t think I know what you’re getting at, Ma’am?”
  “The reason why I’m here. Why else to you think I came all this way, packed all this equipment and suffering a butt rash the size of Arkansas ever since I hit Hattiesburg? I’m here as a physician to help however I can. I’m pissed off about this continual circle jerk of politicians posing for pictures while my fellow citizens get screwed, and I decided to come down here and do something about it. These are my bona fides, and I would greatly appreciate it if you could let me by so I can get to the relief station set up in town. I’m down here at the request of a colleague to help provide medical care at a first aid station.”
Fiona was off the bike now, stiff, sore and beat but very glad to get off the machine. She had taken off her helmet, revealing what was not a conventionally pretty face. Indeed, at first glance, she could have been mistaken as ‘plain’ or ‘average.’ Nothing could have been further from the truth. Fiona Elk was about as far from ‘plain’ or ‘average’ as a woman could get. In fact, many folk, after the briefest of interactions, come away with the impression of her as a cross between Janis Joplin, Lt. Ellen Ripley (the Sigourney Weaver character in “Aliens”) and a matronly sort of Cub Scout Den Mother, tough as nails but loving and gentle, teaching the kids how to start a garage band, skin a rattlesnake for their survival merit badge, or how to bake cupcakes for the bake sale.
       Sergeant Mandrake (as denoted from the patch on his battle tunic) looked at Fiona quizzically for a moment, then took the proffered documents (Fiona’s hospital ID, physicians license and business card) and held a brief conversation with his assembled comrades, all of whom were now staring intensely at the small woman with the motorcycle and of town plates.
Dr Fiona Elk, MD, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine, Jesuit University Medical Center, Washington, D.C. had come a far distance. Unfortunately, she had failed to make curfew by about 30 minutes. And though the nice young men with machine guns were pleasant and polite, they were firm in that she was NOT going to be allowed in without an escort.
“I’m sorry, doc. Orders.”
“Yeah, I know all about orders. All right, sarge. Is the cell service around here working?”
“It’s been intermittent at best, Ma’am. I was able to call my wife about an hour ago, but otherwise it’s pretty haphazard.”
Fiona took out her phone, and seeing that the antenna signal was good, punched in the numbers and waited. Lloyd picked up on the 3rd ring.
“Lloyd, this is Fiona. From D.C. I talked to you yesterday. Did you get my email? I’m here now, just outside the checkpoint. I just missed curfew. Can you get me in?”
  “Wow, you made it. Cool! You mean, you really came all that way on a motorcycle?”
said the wide awake and enthusiastic voice at the other end.
“Yes, I really did. And I am really, really tired, and I would like to just put up my hammock and sleep for a little while. So, you think you can get me into your camp?”
  “Yeah, sure, Fiona! Anything you need! I got a nice cop from Florida here at my side and he is right now, as we speak, getting into his patrol car and coming to fetch you, so he should be there in about 5 minutes.”
Fiona rung off and thought about the long, strange journey she had undertaken. Her anger at the ‘official’ response to the gulf disaster had grown with each passing day, and it was made all the worse by keen avoidance for blame or accountability, or even outright fraud in the midst of such an awful and completely predictable disaster. The final straw came 2 days ago, when, hard at work in her vocation as an ER doc in the nation’s capital, the intoxicated congressman she was taking care of (who was so drunk he had fallen down some stairs and cut open his head) began to rant mercilessly about all those “Useless niggers and white trash down in Crackerville, drowning in their own filth.” Perhaps it was that, or the fact that while Fiona was sitting there, stitching up this pig’s head, he suddenly made a grab for her tit. Or maybe she was just fed up with all of it, her life in the big city, her big deal and highly prestigious but (increasingly) frustrating position as clinical faculty at a prestigious medical center…whatever it was, by the time she had been pulled away from the distinguished gentlemen from Virginia’s throat (which she had grabbed with both hands and attempted to strangle with all her strength in response to the Family Research Council’s  “Family Man of the Year” groping of her) by several of the congressmen’s aides and hospital security staff, she had decided that the only thing left to do was to go down south and see what she could do to help.  Hospital administration eagerly assisted her on this course, as they suspended her pending their “investigation” of the events surrounding here care and subsequent attack on the Democratic-turned-Republican congressional representative from Stony Mount. Getting out of town for a while had suddenly become an option not previously available to her, given the hectic and busy schedule of a woman in her position. That led to a series of phone calls, which led to email contacts, which is how she found out about this particular spot on the coast of Mississippi that had sustained the greatest damage yet was still in desperate need of help. Which led to her being escorted by a Florida Highway Patrol officer, blue lights flashing, past the checkpoint into town, and finally to the end of her journey, the New Hancock Café.

    Fiona was guided into the parking lot of the remains of a strip mall along Route 90, pulling into a maze of old school buses, retrofitted for long term living while mobile and painted all manner of colors, along with a number of tent’s and even a few Tipi’s set up further back. With the fury of Rita threatening not far off shore and local bayous already beginning to flood again, a large number of the volunteers had already left, leaving the entire parking lot feeling like an abandoned logistics depot, with all manner of canned goods, bottled water, food and MRE’s stacked head high. However, a hardy and dedicated band of volunteers had chosen to stay, and it was with the Rainbow family that Fiona hooked up with. Think of a mix of earthy, crunchy hippies, salty road dogs, new-agers, geeks, freaks, rednecks, bikers and angry young punks who spontaneously showed up in the middle of a disaster zone to help out their fellow citizens. A week before Katrina a wandering caravan such as this would have been run out of town. Now, they were not only welcomed with open arms for the aid and sustenance they were providing, gratis, to the good citizens of the gulf, but were camped directly in front of the police station and given around the clock protection from looters and other bad folk. Fiona knew she had come into a completely different world than the one she had left in D.C., and all through the next week, her time and experience here would do more to effect her life than anything before.
   Lloyd and Fiona made an unlikely team over the week to come. Lloyd, the nice Jewish boy skipping his 4th year at Harvard Med to be here (“a form of independent study” he called it) and Fiona, the cool biker chick/ ER doc, running a MASH like aid station, seeing all manner of ailments, from cuts to vaccinations to the more serious cardiac and emergent medical stuff. Despite the chronic lack of sleep, the sweltering heat and humidity, the smell, the trash and hardship, they couldn’t work hard enough. When they weren’t seeing patients, she was hauling ice or putting up tents while he ran a forklift, or they would both hang out with Weasel, an older biker brother with a long white beard, down from North Carolina on his KLR 650, helping out the elderly folks clean up their homes, volunteering their time. As the threat from Rita declared itself elsewhere and the relief operations resumed in full gear, in the following days it was to become a great and grand mix of America; hippies, punks, Baptists from Texas, 7th Day Adventists from Florida, Shriners from Jersey and Rotarians from Michigan, straight, gay, black, white, brown, from all over the country…from all over the globe…they all came together, as common citizens, to help their neighbor and fellow members of the human family. The support from FEMA or the Red Cross, despite the help of a few dedicated individuals on the ground, was almost non-existent. Despite that (or maybe because of it) this newly formed community became a place of life and love and even laughter once again.
    Fiona was cynical enough to know that it would not last, this new utopian vision in the midst of such apocalyptic destruction, but she was also enough of an idealist to still hope for something better. And to be honest, this feeling of community and partnership was something very potent and unique, much stronger than any drug she had ever taken. It left her wanting more. “It allowed me to live in a society that is better than the one I live in now” she later wrote in an email to a friend, “and allowed me to be the person I knew I could be.” Alas, like all good things…

  …it came to an end with a phone call from one J. Mitchell Hopkins, MD, chief of staff, Jesuit University Medical Center.
“Fiona, I need you to come back here. The hospital lawyers have some questions for you about your assault on the congressman.”
  “Look, I’m a little busy here. And that son of a bitch groped me. He’s lucky I didn’t have a scalpel in my hand or I might have slit his throat.”
“Now, Fiona, you shouldn’t say such things…”
“Can’t this wait until I get back. And besides, why haven’t you responded to my request to bring down a medical team?
   “Dr. Elk, the disposition of hospital personnel must be coordinated at the Federal level, and that is not your area of responsibility…”
“Listen to me as hard as you can and try to concentrate on the sounds coming out of my mouth. I am willing to put together a volunteer team of EMT’s, RN’s and doctors, all on my own time. All I need from you is that huge Tonka toy you conned half a million dollars out of the Department of Homeland Security for.”
“Doctor, as I have explained to you time and again, I am afraid the deployment of the Disaster Response Unit is also out of your area of responsibility. Now, if you don’t mind, I would greatly appreciate it if you caught the next flight back here and made this meeting with hospital counsel. There are very serious ramifications…”
                 She hung up on him in mid sentence, turning off her cell phone so he couldn’t call back. “OK Jackoff,” she said quietly. “You want a meeting. You got it.”
    The flight from Gulfport to Washington National was crowded but uneventful. Among the passengers, Fiona noted a few of the more prominent political apparatchiks from inside the beltway up in first class, living it up on the public dollar after a short run down to the distressed Gulf states for photo ops with the rubes, before jetting back home in time for afternoon cocktails at the Cosmos Club. She managed to keep herself under control until the plane landed, when after she had deplaned, she spotted one of the more officious executive branch geeks, the hapless and most recently infamous Assistant Secretary of Disaster Response, give an incoherent and completely self serving interview while dodging questions regarding his last posting as legal counsel for the Daughters of the American Revolution, his only professional qualifications.
   “You’re doing a great job there, Brownie. Keep up the good work...Wanker!” she yelled out as she casually walked by, making direct eye contact with the fool before she moved on.
    “Now, Dr. Elk, what you really have to understand” started J. Mitchell Hopkins, MD, FACS, distinguished chief of staff at Jesuit Medical Center, “is that we take the safety and security of our patients here very seriously…”
They were sitting in Hopkins’s penthouse office, with a commanding view of the DC skyline beyond and the university quad below. In attendance were several hospital lawyers, but the only ones engaged in conversation were the two physicians in the room. The discussion was far from collegial.
“Stop. Stop right there. Now you listen to me, and you listen to me good. I just came out of a place where the closest working hospital is over an hour away. The stink and the heat and humidity cling to your body 24 hours a day. I met families that lost everything they own, including loved ones. I took care of one woman, she had fallen and broken some teeth, and while I was treating her in the stifling heat of that place, she just started crying and sobbing. I told her it was OK and she would be fine, then she told me that no, it wasn’t going to be fine, it was never going to be fine, ever again. And then she told me her son and his family had been missing since the storm, and his house was completely destroyed by the high water…”
There was a silence in the room for a moment.
“Fiona, that’s very heartwrenching but I don’t think you understand just how much influence Congressman Dooge has on the appropriations committee for N.I.H. which is directly responsible for a lot of our funding. Now, I am certain he regrets his behavior, but really, Doctor, your own conduct in this matter has been less than professional…” started Dr. Hopkins.
“You know, I will never really understand your kind. With people like you, it’s all just so much smoke and mirrors. You want a grand P
  “For reasons I can’t understand, whether it’s incompetence, or laziness, or both, this august facility, with it’s rich history of service to the nation, with all of the resources at it’s disposal can’t spare sending not much more than the functional equivalent a few band aids and Tylenol. You are a joke, our conversation is over, and this meeting has been a waste of my time. You’ll get my resignation when I’ll have a chance to type it up. I quit.”
About 20 minutes later, after she walked out of Hopkins’s office and leaving the assembled suits with expressions of disbelief, Fiona was in the hospital garage, after first carefully lifting the keys to her new ride. The EMS office, as usual, was unlocked and unoccupied. Looking back on it, it’s really amazing the medical center didn’t lose more vehicles that way. After all, you would think something like a $500,000 specially equipped disaster vehicle would be a little more carefully guarded from damage or theft. Indeed, Fiona was planning on writing an email to that effect to her former colleague, Dr. Hopkins, along with her letter of resignation, whenever she got around to doing so.
The DRU was a substantial machine, not unlike the heavy rescue squad she used to drive as a volunteer EMT all those years ago. She settled into the driver’s seat, switched on the batteries, turned over the diesel engine, and as it roared to life, she took a moment to look around and familiarize herself with the interior.
Shifting into drive and pulling into late the afternoon traffic, Fiona eased onto Foxhall Road and out of the city. Seat belt on, window rolled down and air blowing freely into her face at 70 mph, Fiona tuned into a local radio station. She was last seen heading south, listening to Cream’s “I Feel Free.”


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