September 4, 2000
Disclaimers: They belong to Mark VII Limited and Universal Television.
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Thanks: To Peggy, Keryn, and Laurel for allowing me to bounce ideas off them and for saying things like: “Poor Johnny! I love it!” And to Linda for a jolt of encouragement when I needed it.
Summary: Johnny rescues a sheriff’s deputy during a shootout. Then things really get tense.
Too Close For Comfort
“Squad 51, gunshot victim, corner of Hanson and State. Corner of Hanson and State. Police department requests you approach non-code-R. Time out, 14:38.”
+ + + + +
“Wonder why we gotta come in quiet,” Johnny mused aloud as they drove. “Whatever went down must still be going down.”
“Yeah,” Roy agreed quietly, never taking his eyes off the road.
They turned the corner and saw it about four blocks ahead. A sea of police vehicles blocked the road, all with their lights flashing. Roy flipped off the siren, and eased the squad up to the curb behind the cars. Before either of them could get out a cop came up to Johnny’s window.
“What’s going on?” the young paramedic asked.
“We’ve got a gunman who’s barricaded himself inside that store there. Conflicting reports about whether or not he has a hostage, but we can’t take any chances.”
“We were called out for a gunshot victim,” Roy stressed, annoyed that they were being kept from their victim.
“Yeah,” the cop acknowledged. “Over there—across the street.” He pointed at a small café directly across from the store. “A sheriff’s deputy. He’s managed to barricade himself behind some overturned tables, but no one can get to him. Whenever someone tries the guy starts shooting.”
Johnny started to open the door, pushing the police officer away in the process. He got out and asked “Can we see him from here?” Roy followed suit and also exited the vehicle.
“Yeah, come here,” the officer said, and led them to the sidewalk. They were about 200 yards away, but had a good view. The man was leaning on one of the several tables he’d turned on their sides, creating a low wall between him and the shooter. He was tightly clutching his left shoulder area.
“Does he have a handy talkie?” Roy asked. “Can we talk to him?”
“Yeah,” the cop said. “Come on,” he led the two men over to the officer in charge, who handed Roy the walkie talkie and told him that the injured man’s name was Ben Stevenson.
“Officer Stevenson? Ben? This is Roy DeSoto. I’m a paramedic with the LA County Fire Department. How’re ya feeling?” Johnny watched the injured man take his hand off his shoulder and slowly pick up his handy talkie.
“Not so hot,” came the voice through the small speaker.
“How so, Ben?” Roy asked. “Are you having trouble breathing?”
“No, no, not really.” The man’s voice was laced with the pain he no doubt was in. “Feelin’ kinda dizzy. Lightheaded like.”
Roy and Johnny looked at each other, knowing what that meant. “Are you cold, Ben?” Roy asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” the voice breathed back. “Real cold.”
“Are you hurt anywhere besides in the shoulder?”
“No, that’s it.”
“Okay, look, Ben, if you can, I want you to scoot down. Lie down flat, okay? We’ll be there to help you as quickly as we can, okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” The two paramedics watched as the man slid down until he was lying flat.
Johnny turned to the man in charge. “He’s going into shock. We need to get to him immediately.”
“Look, we’ve tried three times. That guy’s watching,” he motioned toward the door of the store. “One move and he shoots.”
“Isn’t anyone talking to him? Trying to reason with him?” Roy asked.
“He won’t answer. We have no idea why he’s in there, what he wants, if he’s alone. We don’t know shit.”
“Well, maybe if you tell him the guy’s hurt,” the ever-optimistic Roy started; but he was stopped when his partner hit him on the arm to get his attention.
“There’s gotta be a back door to this place, doesn’t there?” he mused aloud. “We could go through the building and crawl in there.”
“We tried that,” the police lieutenant said. “See how the door has no glass? That’s what happened. I can’t let you do it.”
“Look,” Johnny said urgently. “Your man over there could be bleeding to death while we stand here talking. If I stay low, and go through the broken window on the door rather than open it, he probably won’t even notice.”
The cop thought for a minute. “Yeah, I suppose that might work. And we’ll be ready to cover you if need be.”
“Good deal,” Johnny enthused as he ran to the squad to start getting their equipment.
+ + + + +
Within minutes the two paramedics were crouched low inside the café, looking through the shot-out front door at their victim. “Look, Roy,” Johnny said. “I’ll go out there, and you stay in here and contact Rampart and act as relay.”
“No, Johnny, we’ll both go.”
“You heard them. He’s shooting whenever he sees movement. He’ll be less likely to notice if there’s only one of us. And if you’re inside with the biophone, he won’t hear us, either. Besides,” he added with a grin. “I can stay lower to the ground than you.”
Roy didn’t like the plan, but he couldn’t argue with any of his partner’s logic. “Be careful,” he said.
Gage nodded and started to crawl forward, pushing the drug box ahead of him. He made it to the victim quickly, and looked around to assess how much he could move without attracting attention. He’d have to stay on all fours, or close to it, he decided.
“Hey man, how ya doin’?” he asked the fallen deputy as he quickly unbuttoned the man’s shirt to inspect the wound.
“Hurts like hell,” the man said.
Johnny grinned sympathetically. “Yeah, gunshot wounds tend to do that, they tell me,” he agreed. “We’ll get you out of here as fast as we can. Just hope your colleagues out there settle this guy down sooner rather than later!”
He relayed the man’s condition and vitals to Roy, who relayed them to the hospital. “IV with Ringer’s, Johnny,” the older paramedic whispered from inside the café.
“10-4, Roy,” Johnny whispered back, and started the prescribed treatment. “When can we get out of here?” he asked his partner.
Johnny rested back on his heels and wiped the sweat from his brow. “Cops and Robbers ain’t my thing,” he told his patient. He watched the man shiver once. “You still cold?”
“Yeah,” the man admitted. Johnny contemplated using tablecloths from the toppled furniture, but decided they were too thin, and took off his turnout coat instead, laying it over the deputy.
“That oughta help a little,” he said.
“Johnny?” came his partner’s voice from inside the building.
“They’ve got him talking on the phone. They seem to think he’s distracted, so right now might be a good time to move him out. We’re gonna send a gurney through to you.”
“No, Roy, it’s too big, too high. I won’t be able to get him on it without standing up above the level of these tables.” The paramedic thought for a minute. “Just get me a backboard. I can roll him onto that and we can pull him in without having to stand up.”
“Okay, Johnny, hang on,” and Roy left to get the board.
“Movin’s gonna hurt like hell,” he told the man. “But there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“S’alright, just get me out of here already.”
“That’s the plan,” Gage said. He looked up at the sound of the board being pushed through the doorway.
Johnny got the man rolled onto the backboard and secured with relatively no problem. He was about to motion to Roy to sneak out and pull on the foot while he pushed on the head when all hell broke loose.
First it was a man screaming; what he was saying was unintelligible. And soon the screams were joined by gunshots. Johnny instinctively arched his body over the top half of his patient’s body. He cringed when a shot shattered the large plate glass window they were in front of, and both men were showered with splintered glass. The noise and shots got closer, as if the gunman was approaching them, but then just as suddenly the man’s cries were drowned out by the shouts of countless police officers telling him to freeze and drop his weapon.
Johnny had been in situations like this before, so he knew enough not to move until he heard someone declare the all-clear. After a moment he heard it, and before he sat up he asked his victim, “you all right?”
“Yeah,” the man said.
“Well, don’t move anything. We’re covered in broken glass here.” Very carefully Gage backed up so he was no longer bent over the deputy, and then he stood up on his knees, feeling the glass fall off his back as he did. He looked over the tables and saw the gunman being restrained on the ground. He was glad the guy wasn’t injured—he wouldn’t have wanted to have to treat the guy after what he’d just put them through.
“You all right, Johnny?” Roy asked. He’d come out to join them on the sidewalk.
“Yeah,” he said, shaking his dark hair in case there was any glass in it. “Man, though, that was a little too close for comfort!” He finally stood to his full height, and shook the kinks out of his legs. “Let’s get out of here!”
+ + + + +
It was the ambulance attendant who first noticed something, when Johnny leaned over their patient to adjust the flow of the IV.
“Hey Johnny,” Malcolm said. “Looks like your back’s bleeding.”
“What?” Gage sat up and felt behind himself, quickly finding the small spot of wetness just above his belt. He pulled his hand back and sure enough, it was blood. He twisted his body trying to get a look, but it was impossible.
“I musta gotten cut by some of that glass.” He untucked his uniform shirt, and immediately felt that his tee shirt was much wetter than the outer shirt had been. But he couldn’t tell if it was blood or just sweat. “Can you see anything, Malcolm?” He turned his back on the man so he could look.
Malcolm lifted the uniform shirt up. “Shit, Gage, your back’s covered in blood.” He lifted the tee shirt as well, and let out a slight gasp.
“Johnny,” he said cautiously. “Don’t move. It looks like a bullet hole.”
“WHAT? You’re kidding!” the paramedic exclaimed. He started to twist around again, but Malcolm grabbed his chest under his armpits and stopped him.
“No kidding. Right in the middle of the lower part of your back. It’s not a cut. It’s a hole. And it’s bleeding.”
Johnny could feel the fear rising in his chest. This couldn’t be happening. He felt absolutely fine. It didn’t even hurt.
“What do you want me to do?” the attendant asked, bringing Gage back to attention.
“Um, what’s our ETA?” the paramedic asked.
“I’m just pulling into Rampart now,” the driver said.
“Okay, okay, good.” Johnny could feel himself starting to panic, and had to fight it down. “I’ll slide back against the wall, and just sit here till we get to the hospital.” Malcolm helped the paramedic move all the way back on the jump seat until he was sitting perfectly straight and using the wall to keep himself so.
Johnny had to brace himself hard with his hands as the ambulance pulled in, turned around and backed into its space by the ER doors. The attendant had to twice put his hands on the paramedic’s chest, keeping his back flush against the wall.
When the ambulance doors were thrown open Gage saw Drs. Brackett and Morton waiting for the patient to be unloaded. “You go ahead, get him out of here. I’ll be all right,” he told Malcolm.
“Yeah, yeah, just go.” Malcolm looked back one more time before he helped his partner remove the gurney from the ambulance. Kelly Brackett started to help push it away, expecting to hear Johnny’s customary update on the patient’s condition.
When it didn’t come the doctor stopped, looked back into the ambulance, and was surprised to see his paramedic still sitting there, poker straight. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Uhhh, no doc, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Johnny tried to keep his voice calm. “Seems I’ve been shot. In the back.”
“WHAT?” Kel stared incredulously at the man in the ambulance.
“You heard me. In the back.”
“Don’t move Johnny,” the doctor admonished. Then he turned toward the retreating patient. “Mike, you take care of him,” motioning toward the cop. Then, “I NEED A GURNEY OUT HERE! STAT! AND SOME MORE HANDS!” He climbed into the truck with his paramedic. “Don’t move, Johnny. Let us get you.”
“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere.” The doctor pulled a cervical collar out of the drug box and fitted it around his neck. “It’s down pretty low. I don’t think I need the collar.”
“Just leave it alone,” Kel said.
Dr. Brackett felt around Johnny’s back and up his shirt. He couldn’t look because the paramedic was sitting too close to the wall of the ambulance. He let his hand follow the trail of blood until he reached the small hole. He touched it, and the paramedic didn’t even flinch. “I didn’t feel anything. I still don’t. Why can’t I feel it, doc?” Johnny whispered.
“Don’t worry about that right now.” The doctor leaned over to the drug box, grabbed a 4x4 pad and placed it carefully over the wound, applying light pressure.
They both could hear the squad backing into position next to them. Within a moment Roy was heading into the building, but he must have sensed something was amiss. Before either Gage or Brackett could say anything, he turned and looked into the ambulance.
“What’s the matter, doc?” he started. Then he saw his partner with the cervical collar around his neck. “Johnny!?? What happened?”
Gage tried to downplay the gravity of the situation. “Remember when I said those shots were a little too close for comfort? Guess they were closer than we thought. I got hit.”
Before Roy could react, Kel started barking orders. “He’s got a bullet wound in the back, Roy. We’re gonna need the backboard off your squad.” He looked around, sizing up the ambulance and the available space. “Better get the half board.” DeSoto looked at the two for a second, stunned, before he went to the back of the squad to get the board.
“You have full mobility, John?” The paramedic nodded slightly. “No weakness or tingling or loss of sensation?” the doctor asked.
“Well, no, nothing,” Johnny started. “I’d spent 30 minutes on my knees right before, so when I stood up they felt like they were asleep, but it went away.” He sighed loudly before urgently adding, “I’m telling you, Doc, I don’t feel it. At all.”
“That’s all right, Johnny. It’s all right.” He could see the fear in the paramedic’s eyes.
Roy returned with the board, and hopped in the back of the vehicle. His eyes took notice of the small crowd gathering at its back, but he didn’t have time for that.
“Why didn’t you say something, Johnny?” he asked as he arrived by his partner’s side.
“I didn’t even know, Roy,” the paramedic answered. “Malcolm noticed blood on my back as we were pulling in.”
Dr. Brackett clearly wanted to get on with things. “Okay, John, we’re gonna slip the board behind you and secure you to it. Then,” he looked out the door and saw Malcolm standing there with his collapsable gurney. “You, we’re gonna need your gurney in here.” He turned his attention back to Gage. “Then we’ll slide you onto the gurney, okay? You don’t do anything, understand?”
Johnny let out a nervous laugh. “I know the routine, doc,” he reminded him.
Kel just nodded, and he and Roy set about securing John to the board. They lifted his legs up to put them on the gurney, and with the attendant’s help, slid him onto it. When the bed hit the pavement Johnny saw Dixie come into his line of sight with a comforting smile on her face.
“Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, what are we going to do with you?” she gently chided.
“I dunno, Dix,” he admitted, and he couldn’t help feeling grateful when the nurse stepped forward from the head of the bed and grasped his hand in her own, giving it a reassuring squeeze.
+ + + + +
“Roy,” Dr. Brackett summoned. He stepped away from the injured paramedic and lowered his voice. “See if you can get him to calm down.” Roy just nodded and approached the treatment table his partner had been transferred to.
“Johnny, come on now,” the blond man said. “You have to calm down.”
“Easy for you to say,” came the reply from the bed. “You’re not lying here with a bullet in your back.”
Roy dared to rest his hand on his partner’s chest. “I know. But your heart rate and BP are through the roof. Just take some deep breaths and settle down, okay?”
“Yeah, okay,” Gage said. But he didn’t do it.
Roy put the slightest bit of pressure on Johnny’s chest to prompt him into action. “Come on, Johnny.”
John closed his eyes and concentrated on his breathing. He filled his lungs through his nose and slowly blew the breath out through his mouth, and then repeated the process several times. He felt the hand leave his chest, and realized that he did, in fact, feel a little calmer. But it was only temporary.
“All right, that’s more like it. We can give you something for pain if you’d like.” The voice was Brackett’s.
“No, doc, I’m not in any pain.”
“Are you sure Johnny?
“Yeah, I’m sure. I don’t want anything.” He didn’t want anything that would dull his senses. He needed to know everything that was going on. He needed to feel everything he could.
“Okay,” Brackett acquiesced. “We’re gonna roll you over onto your side so we can get a quick look at the wound, okay? Let us do all the work.”
Johnny could instantly feel his heart rate quicken again. Breathe, he reminded himself. Breathe. He heard Brackett say “on three,” and before he knew it—certainly before “three”—he felt his body tilt onto his right side. It should hurt. He knew it should hurt. But it didn’t, and that scared him most of all.
Johnny was aware that Doctor Brackett was talking while he was on his side, but he was unable to discern the words. All he heard was the loud rushing noise, like waves crashing to shore during a storm, in his ears. Calm down, he commanded himself. He felt his body roll back to flat.
“So?” he asked somewhat breathlessly as someone prepared to draw blood from one arm, and someone else started an IV in the other. That must have been what the doctor was saying. “How’s it look?”
“Not too bad,” Brackett said noncommittally.
“Doc,” Gage warned. “Tell me.”
If he tried really hard and looked down the length of his body, John could see Brackett come into view at the foot of his bed. “Looks like it’s around T-12 or L-1, Johnny. Just left of center.”
“Okay,” Johnny said. He thought knowing the specifics would ease his mind. He was wrong. Instead, his mind raced to remember what he'd learned about spinal cord injuries. He knew that an injury at that area would not affect his breathing, which was good. But he also knew it could leave him paralyzed from the waist down.
His pants had long-ago been cut away, and he felt the sheet get lifted away from his lower extremities. He knew what was coming, and he was afraid of what the doctor might find out. Breathe, he kept reminding himself like a mantra. Deep breaths.
“Okay, Johnny, just hang tight. I’m going to check your reflexes and do a quick neuro check, okay?”
It was a great relief to Johnny that he felt the reflex hammer on his knees, and felt it when Brackett ran a pen along the soles of his feet. He didn’t know if his responses were normal, but he felt it, and that’s all he cared about.
“Okay, good,” the doctor said. “Now I’m going to touch your legs with a pin. I want you to tell me if it’s the sharp or dull end.”
Kel did both legs, and the fact that Johnny could tell each and every time was a relief to him as well. “But I still don’t feel the wound, the injury,” Johnny insisted, his concern evident in his voice.
“I wouldn’t worry about that, Johnny. You were in the middle of a shootout when it happened, and now this. Both very stressful incidents. I would imagine there’s a great deal of adrenaline coursing through your body at the moment.” Johnny nodded as much as the collar around his neck would allow. He hadn’t thought of that.
“So far your neurological responses are normal.” The doctor rested his hands against his patient’s feet. “I want you to press down against my hands, John. Hard as you can.” Johnny did. “That’s good,” the doctor offered. “Now move your legs for me. One at a time, and slowly.”
Gage bent his right knee, lifting it up until his foot was flat on the bed. He lowered it down and repeated the motion with the left. It was no sweat, and he heaved a huge sigh of relief. He could still move.
“Great,” Bracket allowed. “Now pick up your leg and hold it aloft for a moment, then the other.” Gage was able to do that with no problem, too. “Okay, we’re done,” the doctor said finally. “Let’s get some x-rays and find out exactly where this bullet is.”
+ + + + +
Johnny just lay there, staring at the ceiling. It was the only thing he could do, once again strapped to the backboard and wearing the collar like he was. All he could do was wait, and fret. Sure, the knowledge that he still had sensation and mobility in his legs was comforting. But he’d seen too many weird things in his many years as a paramedic. He knew that the bullet could be lodged in such a place that if it moved even a fraction of an inch, it would be all over.
And though he did feel like he was standing on a land mine, unable to move an inch for fear it would go off, at the same time he needed to know, needed to reassure himself that his legs still worked. So he was flexing his ankles and wiggling his toes almost constantly. The nurse who had remained in the room with him since the x-ray machine had been taken away kept cautioning him to stop it. But she didn’t understand. How could she?
He heard the door open, and silently prayed it was Brackett with the x-rays. But he couldn’t turn his head because he still had the damn unnecessary collar on.
“How’re you doing, Johnny?” It was Roy, and he tentatively stepped into his field of view.
“I’m okay,” he told his partner.
“In a lot of pain?”
Johnny snorted with laughter. “Would you believe no, Roy? Can’t feel it at all. Still. It’s the damndest thing.”
“Well,” his partner said tentatively, “that’s probably a good thing, don’tcha think?”
Johnny didn’t think so, he didn’t think so at all. But he didn’t know how to explain that the pain would be welcome, would tell him his back was still in one piece, and was screaming in protest over what had happened to it. So instead he just said, “yeah, probably.”
An awkward silence fell between them for a moment, until they both started to speak at once, and chuckled. “You first,” Johnny allowed.
“I was just gonna say that I called Cap. He said to hang in there.”
“Yeah? Bet he was surprised.”
“Yeah. He was.”
“Not more surprised than me,” Johnny challenged. “Man, I can’t believe this is happening,” he said dispiritedly.
Roy could sense his partner’s darkening mood. “Johnny, don’t go getting all worked up again. You know as well as I do that things are looking really good right now.”
“Yeah, okay,” Gage agreed. “But you know as well as I do that they could go sour in a second, too. That thing in my back moves just a little, and I could wash right out of the department and be looking at life from a wheelchair. Me! In a wheelchair! Can you picture that?”
John felt his partner’s hand go to his shoulder and give it a squeeze, but the man said nothing. No, he couldn’t picture it any more than Johnny could. Roy was a good friend.
“Where the hell is Brackett with those x-rays?”
“He’ll be back the second he has them, Johnny. You know that.”
“I know. Can’t stand the waiting, though. You know?”
Roy smiled kindly. “I know.” He looked at his partner’s feet and saw their almost constant motion. “Nervous energy?” he asked.
“Just making sure, Roy, just making sure they’re still workin’.”
+ + + + +
“John Gage, you are one lucky man!”
“How do you figure that, Dr. Brackett?” But it was the best kind of greeting Johnny could have hoped for.
“We figure the bullet must have ricocheted, or gone through something first, slowing it down. It’s lodged in the muscle running along your spine, just left of the transverse process of the L-1 vertebra.”
The injured man heaved a huge sigh of relief. “But it’s not in my spine?”
“No, Johnny, it isn’t. It’s right next to it, but your spinal column is uninjured.”
Johnny picked up a hand and ran it through his hair. “Man,” he admitted, “I was really worried.”
“I know you were,” the doctor said kindly as he finally removed the cervical collar. “But we still have to get it out, you know.”
Johnny flexed his neck gratefully. “How’re you gonna do that?”
“Well, I want to roll you on your side again and see if I can actually feel it. If I can, we’ll try to pull it out right here. Give you a muscle relaxant, a local, see if we can’t get it. If I can’t, I think it would probably be best to run you up to the OR to have it removed.”
Johnny didn’t much care. Now that he knew he wasn’t going to be crippled, he just wanted it out and for this whole thing to be over with. “Go to it,” he ordered the doctor.
Brackett let out a laugh. “Okay, Johnny. The news may be good, but until that bullet is out, I still want you keeping your spine perfectly straight, understand? Let us roll you, let us do all the work, okay?”
“Okay, doc,” the paramedic promised.
The pain arrived while he was being rolled onto his side. A sharp pain raced up his back, causing Johnny to gasp.
“It hurt?” the doctor asked.
“Guess that adrenaline’s worn off. It’ll only take a minute.”
Each time the doctor pressed on his back around where he knew the wound was, Johnny had to clench his teeth to keep from crying out. But Brackett could tell what was going on, and made quick work of it, and John was soon lying flat on his back again.
“Okay, Johnny, I think I could feel it. I think we’ll give it a try down here and see if we can’t spare you a trip to the OR.”
“Okay, doc,” Johnny panted. The pain in his back, nonexistent a few minutes ago, was suddenly constant and excruciating.
“But first we’ll give you some Valium to relax your muscles, so there will be as little resistance as possible.” The doctor paused and looked at his patient for a moment. “And would you like something for pain now, John?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
Dr. Brackett smiled. “I thought so.”
+ + + + +
Roy opened the treatment room door and saw his partner lying with his eyes closed. “Johnny?” he asked tentatively, afraid he’d be waking him.
Johnny did start a little at the sound, and when he opened his eyes they were a bit slow to focus. He turned toward the voice and saw his partner. “Hey, Roy,” he said, slurring slightly.
“How you doing?”
Johnny smiled drunkenly. “Feeling no pain.”
Roy returned the smile. “I bet. The drugs are taking effect, then.”
“That’s good. Look, John, uhhhh,” he didn’t want to, but he had no choice. “I have to get back to the station. Now that we know you’re gonna be okay and all.”
“S’okay, Roy. I know. Who’s replacing me?”
“Bellingham’s coming in.”
“Ohh. He’s okay.”
Roy reached out and rested his hand on his partner’s left shoulder. “You take care now, okay?” And he gave the shoulder a squeeze.
John bent his left arm up so he could grasp his partner’s arm. “I will. And thanks, Roy.”
Johnny just grinned stupidly. “Dunno. For everything. For bein’ you.”
DeSoto couldn’t help but chuckle, fully aware of how lucky Gage was that Roy wasn’t the type to rib a guy for things he’d said under the influence of narcotics. “Okay, Johnny, whatever you say. I’ll check in on you a little later today, okay?”
The injured man dropped his arm back to his side and allowed his eyes to slide closed. “Kay,” he mumbled.
When he got to the door Roy turned back for one more look, shaking his head in wonder at the predicaments his partner always managed to find himself in.
+ + + + +
“Hmmmm, yeah, what?” The paramedic had been asleep.
“Sorry to wake you, Johnny,” Dr. Brackett said kindly, “but it’s time to get that bullet out of your back. You ready?”
“We need to move you onto a different gurney, so we can use the fluoroscope to see our way around. You know what that is, don’t you?” Kel knew that Johnny did, but he wasn’t sure he’d remember in his current state.
“Mmm hmmm. Live x-rays,” Johnny answered.
“Yeah, that’s just about it. We also want to turn you onto your stomach, of course. And then you can go back to sleep as far as I’m concerned, okay?”
“Nope. Can never sleep on my stomach.”
“Okay, John, here we go.” Brackett supervised as his patient was lifted and turned onto a gurney that would allow the fluoroscope’s x-rays to penetrate from the bottom. Johnny groaned at the motion.
“Sorry. That’s it, though.”
A nurse arranged Johnny’s arms above his head, and the man on the gurney turned his head to look at his doctor. “Remember a little while ago, when I wanted it to hurt?” Brackett gave him a nod. “Changed my mind.”
“Well, we’re all set to give you that local, so it won’t hurt for much longer.” Brackett took the proffered syringe of Lidocaine. “This might sting a bit.”
“Ahhhhh!” Johnny hissed as he felt the anesthetic enter his back. “Shiiiiiit,” he moaned. Then he realized what he’d just said. “Sorry,” he added.
“It’s all right, John. I know it hurts. Almost done.” Brackett injected Lidocaine in several more places, not speaking again until he was done. “Okay, that should do it. We’ll let that take effect while they set up the fluoroscope machine.”
+ + + + +
“Johnny, do you want to see?”
“Hm? See what?” The paramedic momentarily had no idea what Brackett was talking about.
“Turn your head. You can see the fluoroscope’s screen. We’ve got a nice picture of the bullet up there.”
Johnny thought for a moment. He didn’t really want to look. But at the same time, he got the impression that the doctor expected him to. So he did turn his head, and took a brief glance. The first thing his eye found, of course, was the bright spot that was the metal bullet. Then he dared to notice how close it was to his spine. To him it looked like it was practically touching it. He’d seen enough, and he turned away.
“Thought you wanted me to stay calm, doc.”
Kel let out a brief laugh. “Fair enough. You just relax.”
“Just give me a bullet to bite on,” the paramedic suggested with a tired grin.
“Hopefully I’ll have one for you in a minute,” the doctor replied with a smile.
But it didn’t take a minute. Not even five or ten. The doctor tried to reach it as best he could, tried larger forceps, tried everything he could. Only once did he manage to get a hold of the bullet, but it wouldn’t budge.
“It’s really stuck, Johnny,” he explained.
For his part Gage had been trying his best to keep his promise to remain calm. Up to that point he hadn’t felt any pain, just the incredibly odd sensation of his back being poked and prodded, and the pressure of the doctor’s attempts to remove the bullet. But he didn’t need the doctor to tell him that it wasn’t working.
“I’ll give it another go, but there is a point where our attempts to get at it might be causing more harm than the bullet did.”
“Keep trying,” John encouraged again.
The doctor did make one more attempt, with the same instrument with which he’d gotten close. He watched the fluoroscope machine intently, watching the forcep’s approach on the bullet. As he got close, he turned the instrument, hoping that if he grasped the bullet from a different angle, he’d be successful. He wasn’t expecting John to scream in pain.
He pulled the forceps out immediately. “Okay, that’s enough. Where’s it hurt, Johnny?”
“Down,” the paramedic panted, “down my left leg. A shooting pain.”
“Probably aggravated the spinal nerve. Can you feel this?” Kel ran his hand along the skin at the top of his patient’s left hip.
Johnny concentrated through the pain that was still radiating down his leg. “Yeah,” he finally decided. “Touching my hip?”
“That’s right. If the nerve was damaged you probably wouldn’t feel that. How about this?” And he touched the inside of Johnny’s left thigh, near his groin.
“Yeah, I feel it,” John said. “Still hurts, though.”
“Sorry about that,” Brackett said. “It’ll calm down in a minute, probably. But I just can’t reach the bullet from here, John, I’m sorry.”
“Okay,” the injured paramedic said. But he wasn’t paying all that much attention, He just wanted the pain in his leg to go away.
“We’ll use a spinal block like we discussed, but first we’ll give you something more to really relax you. You’ll probably sleep through the whole thing. Okay?”
Johnny didn’t answer, he was still panting, completely focused on the pain.
“Okay, John?” Brackett’s insistent voice forced the paramedic back to attention.
“Yeah, yeah, okay,” he said. He really didn’t know what he was agreeing to. But he didn’t care; he trusted Dr. Brackett.
+ + + + +
“Do you feel this, Mr. Gage?” Johnny could feel something on his back, but only vaguely, and only if he focused really hard, which was too much bother. Pressure, maybe. He pried his eyes open, trying to see who was speaking to him, but from his position on his stomach, he couldn’t see anything but the beeping heart monitor by his head, and the ugly yellow wall of the operating room.
“Mr. Gage?” the man asked again. Had to be the anesthesiologist, he decided.
“Feel what?” he finally mumbled.
“Just the answer I was looking for,” the voice said.
Satisfied that he had satisfied whoever this guy was, Johnny allowed himself to drift off again.
+ + + + +
“We’re ready to start Johnny, are you?” Kel asked his friend.
A mumbled “mmmmmm” was the only response he got.
“I’m thinking a 3 or 4 inch incision will be necessary, John, but this shouldn’t take very long at,” he was suddenly cut off by the OR nurse.
“I think he’s asleep, Dr. Brackett.”
The doctor smiled behind his surgical mask. “Good,” he said. “Scalpel.”
+ + + + +
Awareness came slowly. His mouth was dry, and his head was pounding. His first coherent thought was that it must have been one one helluva bender to cause a hangover this bad.
But then the sounds entered his ears, the telltale sounds of a hospital; sounds he knew as well as any other after all his years working in and around them. And he could feel something under his nose—a nasal cannula for oxygen. This was no hangover, he realized.
But he was having trouble coming up with what had landed him flat on his back in a hospital bed.
His back—and with that the memory itself flooded back; he’d been shot there. Johnny opened his eyes to try and rush his return to full consciousness. He stared up at the ceiling, blinking furiously.
As his head cleared, it became apparent to John that he really was feeling what he thought he was feeling. Or, more accurately, what he wasn’t.
He couldn’t feel a thing from the middle of his back down.
Don’t panic, he futilely told himself. He tried to reconstruct what had happened in his mind. He remembered the ambulance, he remembered Doc Brackett doing the neuro check—and he remembered it having been good. He’d been able to move. He was sure of it.
After that, it was pretty much a blur, with only tiny fractions of memories. He’d talked to Roy, he remembered. He vaguely remembered seeing the bullet on an x-ray screen. Something must have gone horribly wrong, he decided.
And with that decision the panic overtook him. The paramedic in him noted that he could actually hear his heart rate increasing with the monitor’s beeping.
Concentrate on your legs, he told himself, and he focused all his attention there, desperate to feel something, to feel anything.
He thought he might feel the weight of the blanket on his legs, but he couldn’t be sure. But other than that, there was nothing. He grappled for the call button that should be attached to one of the bed rails, but found nothing. It was only then that he took his eyes off the ceiling and looked around.
He was in the recovery room, he realized. He’d thought he was in a regular room.
“Hey! Hello?” He didn’t know quite how else to get someone’s attention.
He heard footsteps approach, and turned toward them. An attractive nurse was by his side in a second. “Hey yourself, Johnny. It’s about time you woke up,” she said with a smile.
She was familiar; under normal circumstances he probably could have come up with her name in seconds. But it was lost to him now. “Dr. Brackett. I need to talk to Dr. Brackett,” he whispered urgently.
“Are you thirsty?” she asked as if he hadn’t said anything at all.
He was, but he didn’t have time for that. Johnny shook his head furiously. “No. Just get Dr. Brackett. Please.”
“He should be up to check on you very soon,” she said.
“Now. Please. Call him.” He didn’t know how to impress the urgency of this request on the woman.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” she asked with an indulgent smile.
“Yes!” he stressed. “Call Dr. Brackett. Now.”
The nurse looked at the heart monitor, seemingly noticing for the first time how fast the patient’s heart was beating. “Okay, Johnny, I’ll call him right now. You just relax,” she said.
+ + + + +
“John, you okay?” the paramedic opened his eyes at the sound of his doctor’s voice and found him leaning over his bed.
“No, doc,” he said with urgency. “What happened?”
Brackett stood up straight and crossed his arms. “What happened? We removed the bullet, that’s what happened. What’s the matter?”
Gage took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. “But,” he started, gulping before continuing, “I can’t move, doc.”
He opened his eyes again when he heard his doctor start to laugh. Laugh?
“Johnny,” Kel said, still chuckling. “Everything went just fine. We gave you a spinal block rather than use a general. Don’t you remember?”
A spinal? No, he didn’t remember that part at all, and he shook his head.
“Well, it’s been a long and stressful day for you, John. It’s no surprise you’ve lost some of the details,” Brackett said kindly. “The block just hasn’t worn off, that’s all.”
“So,” Johnny started. “So you got it and everything’s all right?” He was even too worked up to be embarrassed.
“Well, we had to make a pretty sizable incision—about 4 inches—and we had to cut the muscle as well. There’s quite a bit of swelling, and we were working fairly near the L-1 spinal nerve. So you should expect a fair amount of pain and maybe a little numbness in your left hip and leg for a bit. But it won’t be permanent. You’ll make a full recovery.”
Gage let out a relieved sigh. “Seriously?” he asked.
Brackett smiled. “Seriously. How are you feeling? Any headache or nausea?”
“Head’s thumping. But otherwise I’m okay. Now.”
“That’s from the spinal, no doubt; it should go away. Get some rest and I’ll check on you again once you’re in a room.”
There weren’t words enough to express how relieved the paramedic was. He slipped his right arm, the one unencumbered by an IV, under his head. “Okay, I will. Thanks doc.”
“You’re welcome, Johnny.”
+ + + + +
The nurse looked up when she heard the door open. Rather than a doctor or nurse, it was a paramedic. It was John Gage’s partner, she recognized, but she approached him in a businesslike manner anyway.
“Can I help you?” She asked curtly. “You shouldn’t be in here.”
The man looked startled. “Oh, um, sorry. I know, but. . .” his eyes were searching the room as he sputtered for words, and he visibly relaxed when he found what he was looking for. “I’m here to see my partner, John Gage.” He gestured toward the sleeping man as he spoke. “Dr. Brackett said it would be okay if I only stayed for a minute.”
The nurse smiled, unable to keep up the ruse of being annoyed, and lead him toward Gage’s bed. “No, that’s fine, really. Johnny’s asleep at the moment, but we can wake him.”
Roy seemed to startle at the suggestion; or maybe at the nurse calling her patient by his nickname. “No, no, that’s okay. I don’t want to wake him up. Let him sleep.” His voice lowered as they approached the bedside.
“I’ll need to be waking him soon to check his dressing anyway,” the woman whispered.
By now Roy was standing by the bed, holding onto the rail and looking down at his friend. “No, leave him alone.”
The nurse nodded, and took Johnny’s blood pressure.
“How is it?” the man asked.
“Better,” she said. “Normal.”
The paramedic just nodded, and continued to look down on his sleeping partner. “Too close for comfort,” he mumbled under his breath.
“Excuse me?” the nurse asked.
“Oh, something Johnny said before he even knew he was hurt. Said the shots were too close for comfort.” Roy let out an exasperated sigh. “He didn’t even know how close,” he concluded.
The woman smiled at him. “He’s gonna be just fine,” she assured him.
“Oh, I know, I know,” the man said. “It’s just. . . .” His voice trailed off, the thought unfinished. After a moment he shook off his momentary reverie. “I have to get back to work,” he finally said. “Will you tell him I’ll see him later?”
“I will.” She watched as the uniformed man hurried from the room.
+ + + + +
“Sorry to wake you, but I need to check your incision, and then we’ll move you to a room. Can you help me roll you over onto your right side a little bit?”
Nancy. That was the nurse’s name, Nancy. “Sure, Nancy,” he said as he finally opened his eyes. He immediately noticed that his legs felt tingly, like they were asleep. “Hey, it’s wearing off,” he mused.
“What is?” the young woman asked.
“The spinal. I can feel my legs again.” He tested them, and grinned happily to see his toes wiggle under the blanket.
“That’s good. You don’t have to roll too far, I just want to make sure the dressing doesn’t need changing, okay? I’ll do most of the work, you just grab the railing with your left hand and steady yourself, okay? But be careful of the IV.”
“Yeah, okay.” Johnny noticed that the oxygen was gone; they must have taken it off while he was asleep. “How long have I been asleep?” he asked as the nurse pushed him over onto his side. The movement caused the tingling sensation in his lower extremities to increase, and he grabbed the railing as instructed.
“Oh, it’s only been about ninety minutes since Dr. Brackett left,” Nancy said as she dislodged the bandage from his back. “May as well change this,” she decided aloud, and she pulled it off. “Your partner was in here about half an hour ago,” she told the paramedic. “Dr. Brackett said it was okay.”
“Roy? Why didn’t you wake me up?” John felt a new bandage go into place on his back. It ached, but it wasn’t too bad.
“I told him he could, but he said no; said he didn’t want to disturb you. He only stayed a minute. Wanted me to tell you he’d be by later.” She finished what she was doing. “Okay, you can roll back now.”
John let go of the rail, and felt the nurse’s hands on his back as she helped him to roll. But the minute he was flat again, an intense pain gripped his back, causing him to cry out. He tried to grab his back with his left hand, but Nancy stopped him.
“Your IV,” she reminded him. “What’s the matter? Where does it hurt?”
“Cramp,” Johnny gasped, “in my back!” He grabbed the right bed rail with his left hand, and pulled himself over. As soon as he’d lifted his left side off the bed the pain started to ease. “Uhhhh,” he sighed. “That’s better.”
“Probably just a muscle spasm, John. I’ll alert Dr. Brackett, but in the mean time if you’re comfortable that way, let me prop you up with some pillows, okay?”
“Okay,” the man said. He felt the nurse shove pillows all along his torso, from shoulders to hips, skipping the spot where he knew the incision was.
“Ease yourself back, Johnny, see if that doesn’t help.”
Gage did lean back into the pillows carefully. Soon they were supporting all of his weight, and as long as he didn’t move, the spasm stayed in check. It still hurt, just not as much. “Yeah, it’s a little better, Nancy, thanks.”
He heard the nurse walk around the bed until she was facing him. “I’ll call Dr. Brackett and see if he’ll authorize something before we move you again, okay?” She was smiling kindly at him.
“I’d appreciate that,” he told her. He was even afraid to breathe deeply, concerned that one wrong move, one wrong breath, might put his back into another sudden, excruciating, spasm.
“Hey?” he asked suddenly. “What time is it anyway?”
“It’s almost 7:30,” Nancy told him.
+ + + + +
Johnny wasn’t asleep, but he wasn’t awake, either. He was in a sort of drug-induced haze caused by the muscle relaxants and painkillers that Brackett had authorized before he’d been moved into his regular room. It wasn’t pleasant, it wasn’t unpleasant. It just sort of was.
He heard the door open, and the footsteps approach him. He was still on his side, facing the door, so he knew that all he had to do was open his eyes. But even that seemed like a lot of work at the moment.
But curiosity got the best of him--the footsteps had been female--so he decided to peek.
Dixie shifted her weight from one foot to the other and smiled when she caught him looking.
“Hey Dix,” Johnny said as he allowed his eyes to close again. He felt her take his hand in hers, and smiled at the gesture without bothering to look at her.
“How are you feeling, Johnny?”
“Hmmmm,” he mused quietly. “Tired.”
“Kel said you’re having back spasms?”
“Uh huh. Not right now. It’s okay. What time is it?”
“It’s almost 8:30. Why?”
“Just wondering. Lost all track of time today.”
Dixie chuckled. “It’s no wonder, Johnny. You’ve been through a lot.”
“Hm, Guess so.” He heard the door open and someone else enter. Johnny fully intended to keep his eyes closed and let both Dixie and the new person leave until he heard Dixie speak.
That’s all John needed to hear to encourage himself to wake up. Before his eyelids could cooperate, he heard his partner ask “How’s he doing?”
“I’m good,” he answered before Dixie could, opening his eyes with a grin.
“Yeah?” Roy asked hopefully.
“Yeah. As long as I don’t move. At all.” Johnny grinned harder, trying to lessen the truth of his words.
“Muscle spasms in his back,” Dix supplied by way of explanation.
“Oh,” Roy said quietly. “It bad?”
Johnny let out a little laugh. “On the stuff they gave me? Not any more, Roy. I’m high as a kite.” He felt Dixie squeeze his hand.
“Kel said it’s to be expected, and that they should end soon. It’s because they had to cut into the muscle.”
Johnny groaned audibly when the door opened for a third time. “Ohhh, man!” he mumbled when he saw who it was; by now he wanted them all to go away.
“Johnny,” Dr. Brackett said, “how’s your back?”
Johnny forced himself to full attention. “It’s okay now, doc. I’m okay as long as I stay on my side.”
“Well, it’s not a bad position for you to be in, actually. Lessens pressure on the incision, promotes dissipation of any swelling. Let me take a look.”
The doctor walked around the bed to Johnny’s back, pulled down the blanket, moved the gown aside, and removed the bandage. He inspected the incision closely, and palpated around its edges. He hit one spot that caused his patient to gasp slightly. “Sorry, John. But it looks good. Not much swelling at all. How are your legs feeling?”
Remembering the fool he’d made of himself earlier, Johnny blushed slightly. “It’s worn off. They’re okay.”
“Any pain, weakness, numbness in your left leg?”
“Not that I’ve noticed. But I haven’t been moving around much, you know.”
Gage could hear the smile in the doctor’s voice. “I know. I hate to ask, but do you think you can lie on your back for a moment? I really do need to do a neuro check and I can’t with you on your side.”
John really wanted to cringe and say no. But he looked and saw Roy and Dixie watching him; he couldn’t be a wimp. And he had been given muscle relaxants. Which gave him a thought; something that might buy him some time. “Will you be able tell anything after the stuff you gave me?”
“Sure,” the doctor answered. “I’m not concerned about muscle strength itself. I’m more interested in your sensation, and in making sure the left and right sides are equal.”
“Oh,” Johnny said. He was stuck. Nothing to do but suck it up and do it. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. “Okay, then. But you gotta move these pillows for me.”
Brackett didn’t respond, but John felt the pillows disappear one by one until there was nothing propping him on his side. He took a deep breath, and slowly rolled over. The muscle tightened and the pain gripped him almost immediately. But because of the drugs he’d been given, it wasn’t as excruciating as it had been before. But it still hurt like hell and it caused him to gasp and clench his eyes shut.
“Is it tightening up?” he heard Kel ask, and he nodded furiously in response. He felt the doctor stick his hand under his back, and adjusted himself slightly to accommodate him. Brackett slowly ran his hand down John’s spine, feeling the muscles as he went. When he hit the muscle in spasm, John yelped.
“Here, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah, there,” John agreed breathlessly.
“I can feel it, but unfortunately there’s not a lot we can do for you, John. It’s the injured muscle; we just have to let it resolve itself.” John nodded, his eyes still closed, and wished the doctor would shut up and do what he had to do so he could get back on his side. “We’ll try sitting you up tomorrow. That might be more comfortable.”
“Yeah, okay, fine. Just get on with it, please?” Johnny begged through clenched teeth.
“Doc?” Roy asked tentatively.
“Maybe it’s the give of the bed. Maybe if you put something hard, a board, under his back it wouldn’t be so bad. Just while you have to have him flat, I mean.”
Brackett looked at the paramedic for a moment. “You’re probably right, Roy. Of course.”
“I’ll get something,” Dixie offered, and left the room.
“Can you just get on with it, doc?” Johnny begged again.
“Sure, John, sorry.”
Dr. Brackett uncovered his patient’s feet, and first ran his pen along their soles, checking the reflexes. “Press against my hands, both at the same time.”
As John did, Dixie returned with the backboard from a crash cart; the board they slipped under someone when they needed to do CPR. “Let’s try this,” she said. Within a minute she had it under his back and Johnny was settling onto it. “Any better?”
The paramedic thought about it for a second. The change wasn’t dramatic, but the pain was a little less intense. “A little,” he finally said.
Brackett had just begun to test Gage’s sensation in his legs when the HT in Roy’s hand went off. “Squad 51, What’s your status?”
“Squad 51 available.”
“10-4 Squad 51. Standby for response.”
Roy shrugged. “Better go find Bob. I’ll drop in after shift tomorrow, okay? You take it easy.”
“Yeah, okay. See you tomorrow, Roy,” John said rather wistfully as he watched his partner take off out the door.
“Hey now, don’t you worry. You’ll be chasing after him again in no time, Johnny.”
Gage turned his attention away from the door and toward Dixie’s voice. “Yeah, I know,” he said finally. “Are we done yet, doc? I’m kinda tired.”
“Almost, Johnny. Almost.”
The doctor continued to prick John’s skin with a needle. When he got to his left hip he hit an area where Johnny did not respond to the touch. “Tell me when you feel something,” he told the paramedic, and he ran a finger from that spot along his hip.
“Now. I feel that,” Johnny said, his voice unable to hide his alarm. “What’s up?”
“Nothing, nothing at all. Remember I said you might have some numbness? There’s a small spot on your hip with no sensation right now, probably from us aggravating the spinal nerve. It will most likely return as you heal, but even if it never does, it’s not something that will hamper you in any way. You probably have ‘dead’ spots along your abdomen from cutting nerves during your splenectomy a couple years ago, don’t you?” Johnny nodded. “Same exact thing. You won’t even notice. It’s small. Now let’s get you more comfortable.” He and Dixie removed the board and propped him up on his right side with pillows once more.
Brackett came around the bed and looked at his patient. “How’s the pain now, John? I want you to get a good night’s sleep, so if you’re uncomfortable I’ll order something a little stronger.”
Johnny was just plain exhausted. “I think I’m okay, doc. I mean, I can feel it, but to tell you the truth I’m so beat I think I’ll fall asleep anyway.”
“Hmmm,” he heard the doctor say cryptically. “Okay. You get some sleep and we’ll see you in the morning, okay?
“Okay, doc,” Johnny said as he settled in and closed his eyes. He grinned when he felt Dixie tousle his hair slightly. She always acted like his mom, and he wondered if she was even aware of it.
+ + + + +
It felt like something had his back in a vice grip, and it woke Johnny with a gasp. Another muscle spasm, he knew immediately, but worse than all the others, and he was still on his side--in what was supposed to be his ‘comfortable’ position. He leaned forward more, until he was almost on his stomach, and all that did was add the discomfort of pulling on his stitches to the already excruciating pain. So he moved back, and reached behind him, desperate to remove the pillows and allow him to change his position. He yanked at them, tossing the ones he could reach onto the floor. But he couldn’t reach the one behind his shoulder blades, and as a result he couldn’t turn back all the way, and ended up awkwardly twisted and still in unbearable agony.
Breathless and sweating from the effort and pain, he finally found the call button and pushed it.
It seemed like an eternity before anyone came, but John knew it had only been a few minutes. Nevertheless, he couldn’t ever remember being happier to see anyone more than the matronly nurse who came in. “Mr. Gage? It’s late. What can I do for you?”
“My back,” he gasped, “is killing me.” The nurse turned on the light and rushed to his side as soon as she saw him. “Another spasm,” he told her.
The nurse took note of the pillows littering the floor. “Okay, what do you want me to do? What position would be most comfortable? Do you need to get back on your side?”
“No, this one’s worse there. Get the pillow out from under me.” The nurse pulled it out, and Johnny was laying flat on his back. It only made it worse.
“You hang tight, Mr. Gage, I’ll be right back. Dr. Brackett left orders in case this happened. I’ll get you some Valium and you’ll be feeling better in a little while, okay?”
Johnny watched the woman leave, and reached out to grasp the bed rails to help him ride out the discomfort until she returned. His hand hit something, and he realized that it was the handheld remote to control the bed. What had Brackett said about sitting up? That maybe it would be more comfortable? He held the device up in front of his face so he could find the control for the head of the bed, took a deep breath, and pushed the button.
The upward movement tugged on his stitches, but a slight movement onto his right hip took care of that. Otherwise, it seemed to be working. Just like before, it only made the pain bearable rather than eradicate it. But it was definitely better, and John heaved a sigh of relief.
“Is that more comfortable?” He hadn’t even heard the nurse come back in.
“Yeah, a little.”
“Well, this will help a lot more, I think.” He watched the woman put two injections into his IV. “Valium and Demerol. You should be feeling the effects in a few minutes. Is there anything else I can do to make you more comfortable?”
“Thanks,” Gage told her. “Can you stick a pillow under the small of my back? I think that might help.” The woman bunched up a pillow and fitted it in place, and it did help. “Yeah, that’s it,” he told her. “Thanks again.”
“Not a problem, Mr. Gage. I’m glad you’re up, though. It’s well past midnight, and Dr. Brackett left another order. I see you haven’t made use of the urinal?”
Johnny shook his head, suddenly suspicious. He’d been down this road after he was hit by that car. “Uhhh, I haven’t had to,” he told her.
“You’ve been in this hospital for what? Ten hours? Eleven? And you haven’t produced any urine?”
“I have! I did!” John sputtered. “They needed a sample down in emergency!”
The nurse cocked her head, a motion Gage always knew was bad news. “So that was maybe nine hours ago? You have to empty your bladder, Mr. Gage. Or you could get a nasty infection.”
Johnny knew that. He knew she was right. Didn’t mean he wanted to go through what she was about to suggest. “Gimme a minute,” he pleaded. “Let me try, okay? I haven’t even tried to go.”
The nurse looked at her watch. “Okay, I’ll be back in 20 minutes. That will give the medication time to work, and give you a chance to relax a little, okay?”
“Okay,” the paramedic agreed.
But try as he might, he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. He knew it was a common side effect of anesthesia. He knew that tomorrow he’d be fine. He knew it. But that didn’t make the prospect of getting catheterized any easier to take. When the nurse returned he was staring at the ceiling in defeat.
“Does your back feel any better?” she asked first.
“Yeah. A lot. Thanks.”
He heard the sound of plastic on metal as the nurse picked up the urinal hanging on the bed rail. “No luck, huh?” Now, rather than stern, she sounded sympathetic. He wasn’t sure which was worse.
“No,” he sighed loudly. “No go.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, I can do this with my eyes closed.”
“Uhh, I bet you can,” Johnny said. “But all the same, I hope you don’t.” He heard the nurse chuckle—he still hadn’t taken his eyes off the ceiling. Just because he wanted her to watch what she was doing, it didn’t mean he wanted to.
“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Mr. Gage. This is a common problem after anesthesia.”
“I know, I know,” Johnny said, allowing his resignation to seep into his voice.
“This’ll only take a few minutes.”
Johnny threw his left arm over his eyes as he felt her start. He cringed as he felt the catheter go in. He held his breath while it was in. And just as she had promised, it was over in a couple of minutes.
“There,” the nurse said, snapping her gloves off with a flourish, “Nothing to it.”
“Uh huh,” Johnny said, finally allowing himself to look at her, and suddenly exhausted.
“I’m sure you’ll be able to take care of things on your own in the morning. But in the mean time, you go back to sleep, okay?”
“Yeah, okay. G’night.”
“Good night, Mr. Gage.”
+ + + + +
The arrival of his breakfast tray woke Johnny up, and that surprised him. The constant noise of a hospital coupled with his light sleeping after years in the fire service all but guaranteed that he never slept well when he was laid up. He stretched, momentarily forgetting why he was laid up. But his back’s painful protest of his movement stopped him immediately.
It wasn’t a muscle spasm, John realized gratefully. It was just normal muscle pain, the way it hurts when you stretch an already injured muscle, and it settled down as soon as he stopped stretching. Buoyed by this improvement, he set to work on his meal.
He hadn’t gotten far when the door opened and Dr. Brackett came in. “Mornin’ doc,” the patient greeted him.
“Good Morning Johnny. How are you feeling?”
“A lot better. Slept like a baby.”
“Oh? That’s not what I heard,” the physician admonished.
“Yeah, well, I slept like a baby eventually.”
Brackett grinned slightly. “No more spasms after the ones in the middle of the night?”
“Nope,” Gage told him, munching on a piece of soggy toast.
“Well,” Kel started, “that may well be because I ordered a palliative dose of IV Valium every four hours after the hospital called me last night. Your back can’t heal if it’s constantly in spasm.”
“Oh, man, they called you in the middle of the night?”
“Don’t worry about it, John, it’s my job. I’m glad it seems to be working.”
“Yeah. Probably explains why I slept so well, too,” the paramedic admitted with a grin.
“That’s an added benefit. Mind if I take a look?”
John pushed his tray table away and turned on his right side in answer. The doctor rounded the bed and inspected the incision. “It looks really good, John. How does it feel? Any pain?”
“Well yeah,” Gage admitted. “It’s sore. But it’s okay.”
“No other pain? Anything radiating down your leg or up your back?”
“It’s good that we managed to avoid nerve pain. You’re lucky.” The doctor felt the numb spot on the paramedic’s hip. “Still nothing here?”
“Didn’t expect any change,” Brackett admitted. “How has sitting up been? Okay?”
“Yeah, it’s fine.”
“After breakfast I’ll have someone from physical therapy up here and we’ll get you on your feet. How does that sound?”
“Sounds great, doc. When can I go home, though?”
Brackett chuckled; it had taken Gage longer than normal to ask the question. “Probably tomorrow, Johnny.”
“Good deal, doc,” John said happily.
+ + + + +
The rest of Johnny’s morning was spent entertaining visitor after visitor. Dr. Early came by, Dr. Morton, the guys from Squad 36. John was amazed at the attention, and he couldn’t quite understand it, either. When Captain Stanley dropped in before any of the rest of Johnny’s shift, he was downright dumbstruck.
“Cap, what are you doing here?”
“I came to see how you’re doing, pal. Why else would I be here?”
“Well, thanks, but I’m fine. Roy musta told you I’m okay.”
“He did, he did. But it’s not every day someone under my command takes a bullet, John.”
Gage tried to dismiss the whole thing. “It barely broke the skin, Cap. Nothing to it.”
“That’s not how I heard it. You gave us all a scare,” Hank admitted. “Again,” he added with a smile. “How long you gonna be laid up, anyway?”
“Doc Brackett said I could probably go home tomorrow. After that, I dunno. I don’t know when I’ll be able to come back to work, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. You take it easy until you’re good and ready to come back.”
Johnny chuckled. “I bet I’ll be ready to come back before the doc lets me come back.”
“Probably, probably,” the captain agreed. “Well, I’d better get home to the missus. Roy wanted me to tell you he'd be by later. Said he had to wait for some sort of delivery.”
“Oh, right. They’re getting a new fridge.”
+ + + + +
“How’s it feel, Mr. Gage?”
Johnny tried not to gasp at the young physical therapist sent to assess his ability to get around. He took another step, and felt the guy’s hand steadying the small of his back, right under the incision.
“Geezus, that hurts!” he finally said. No need to keep a stiff upper lip with a guy.
“I bet, I bet. But are you having any difficulty moving? Any stiffness or weakness?”
“No, nuthin’ like that. Just plain hurts.”
“Well, it doesn’t look like you have any mobility problems to speak of. Once the wound heals, we’ll get you in for some PT to stretch and strengthen that muscle back into shape, but in the mean time looks like you’ll be able to function fine. Just take it easy and don’t push yourself. Be sensible.”
Johnny turned toward the voice in the door, and grimaced with the pain it caused. He decided twisting his torso was not a good idea right now. “Hey, Roy,” he said humorlessly. “Very funny.”
Roy just smiled. “How you feeling?”
Johnny placed his left hand on his back, careful to avoid the bandage. “I’m okay, I’m okay. Just remind me never to get a bad back for real, okay?”
The therapist, who up to this point had just watched the banter, decided to speak up. “I think that’s enough for now, Mr. Gage. I’ll come back up later this afternoon and we’ll do a little more work. And I think I’ll bring you a light brace to wear while it heals—it’ll discourage you from twisting like you just did. Let me help you get back into bed.”
“No, that’s okay. I got it.”
“Mr. Gage. . . .” the young man said reproachfully. Without another word he helped John sit on the side of the bed, then slide back and lift his feet up. Johnny was out of breath by the time they were done.
“Hurts bad, huh?” Roy asked as soon as the man was out of the room.
“It’s better’n yesterday.”
DeSoto just nodded. “So I saw Doc Brackett. He said you’ll be able to go home tomorrow probably.”
“Yeah, he told me this morning. Guess I passed all their tests,” Johnny said with a shrug.
“You gonna be all right? At home I mean?”
Johnny smiled a genuinely glad smile. He knew what Roy was offering, and he appreciated it. He always did. “Yeah, Roy, I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah. But thanks for the offer. But you can do one thing for me.”
“Well, Chet and Marco were here earlier, and they’re driving my Rover home from the station for me. So I could use a ride home tomorrow.”
Roy smiled. “Sure, I can do that. You need me to bring you some clothes?”
“Naw. Chet’s gonna do that. He has to bring my keys back anyway.”
“You better watch it, Johnny. You’re gonna owe him big time!”
“Don’t think so. He never makes me pay up when I’m hurt. It’s the best time to take advantage of him,” Johnny said with a mischievous grin.
“You’re bad, Johnny. But I’m glad you’re feeling better. You weren’t quite yourself yesterday.”
“Roy, I had a bullet in my back yesterday!”
Suddenly the severity of what he’d said hit Gage, and he allowed his head to fall back on the pillows and ran his hand through his hair. “Geez,” he muttered under his breath.
“What” Roy asked.
“I had a bullet in my back yesterday!”
“Yeah,” Roy said, a little too seriously. “I remember.”
+ + + + +
“But Dr. Brackett, that stuff completely zones me out. All I’ll do is sleep if I keep taking it!”
Brackett crossed his arms on his chest and smiled smugly. “I’ll stop you when you make an argument that I see as a problem, John. Sleep all day. It’s the best thing you can do, actually. It’s a very low dose of Valium; a prophylactic dose. I want to keep a level of the muscle relaxant in your blood so you won’t have any more spasms. I’ll see you next week, and I’ll most likely stop it then, based on how things look.”
Resigned, Johnny took the proffered bottle of pills.
“And these are antibiotics.” John took the second bottle.
“And this is Demerol. Only take them if the pain is bad and you need them.”
Gage snatched the third bottle, then stiffly reached for his bag at the foot of the bed. “More pills than a pharmacy,” he groused. Then he felt the edge of the thing circling his waist under his shirt. “And a damn corset.”
Brackett chuckled. “It’s not a corset, John, it’s a soft brace. And it will make sure you don’t do any damage to my handy work back there. You only need to wear it when you’re moving around a lot. You don’t have to sleep in it or anything.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
“We’ll reassess next week. You might not need it any more. This is all precautionary.”
“You’re too cautious.”
Brackett smiled indulgently. “Maybe so. Your ride should be here soon, so I’ll take off. I’ll see you next week, but don’t hesitate to call if you have any problems.”
“Okay doc. And thanks.”
“You’re welcome, John.” The doctor turned back when he reached the door. “You know,” he said somewhat pensively, “you were awfully lucky. That bullet was very close. Almost too close . . .”
“I know,” the paramedic agreed, suddenly matching his somber mood.
+ + + + +
As Brackett left he passed an orderly pushing a wheelchair. He idly watched it go by, not noticing that it stopped at the door to John’s room.
“Yeah, what’d you forget, doc?” John said when he heard the knock. He was sitting in the chair by the window, trying to tie his shoes without bending at the waist. Easier said than done.
The door pushed open, and the wheelchair came through. “Sorry, it’s not the doctor,” the fellow patient said.
Johnny stood up too quickly when he heard the voice, and ended up gasping and grabbing at his back. Once he regained his breath he smiled. “Hey. . . . Ben, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, Ben Stevenson. How you doing?”
“Me? I’m all right. Going home in a minute. How about you?”
Stevenson looked at his bandaged shoulder, and the arm in a sling. “Getting there. Couple more days, they tell me. I lost a lot of blood.”
“I know. I kinda abandoned you there in the back of that ambulance,” John admitted. “Sorry about that.”
The young Sheriff’s deputy snorted. “Are you kidding me? The way I see it, you saved my life.”
“Nahh, just doing my job.”
“I don’t think throwing yourself over a cop’s body and taking a bullet for him is in the hose jockeys’ job description, Gage,” the man said humorously.
The paramedic just smiled in response, so the cop kept going. “I mean, we’re used to covering your asses, not the other way around. This was above and beyond, and I appreciate it. I really do.”
Johnny blushed furiously. “It was no big deal.”
“Sure it was,” the young deputy persisted. Johnny wished he’d drop it; it was getting embarrassing. But the young man continued. “You were right.”
“What you said at the scene. You said it was too close for comfort. Too close for me, and way too close for you. Sorry you got stuck in the middle on account of me.”
Johnny stiffly walked around his bed to the man in the wheelchair. “I’m just glad you’re okay,” he said, offering his right hand, which the deputy shook.
“I’m just glad we both are,” the paramedic added as an afterthought.
+ + + + +
Johnny took one last look around the room, making sure nothing was left behind. “Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s go.”
Roy swung the wheelchair around toward his friend, and waited for him to sit down. He was surprised when John shook his head.
“It’s hospital policy, Johnny,” he reminded him.
“I know,” Gage conceded. “But I’m walking.”
“But,” Roy started to protest, and stopped when his partner passed him on his way out the door.
When he reached the doorway John looked back at
his friend. “I’m walking, Roy. Because I can.”
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