The Oath

An unfolding drama causes a doctor to revisit the Hippocratic Oath he took at the start of his medical career.

Drama, Fiction, Short Story, Adults, Short Read
Fiona Sussman | The commuting Book
Fiona Sussman

Nov 20   ●  14 min read

‘I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses, making them witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant . . . ’ (1)
I can still hear the forsaken plums drop to the earth with a flesh-splitting thud as Bev’s screams tore through my languid afternoon in the orchard and curled around my name to leave it foreign and unrecognisable, even to me.
‘D-a-v-i-d! David!’
Her anguished summons reached me some seconds before she did, so that by the time her wretched expression arrived, it was irrelevant.
‘Thank God I found you. You must come quickly. Get your bag. Hurry. It’s Ada.’
Awful to think how I found room for relief cushioned between those few frantic words. But you see, if it was Ada, then it wasn’t Laura or Sam.
‘Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice … ’
We took a shortcut through the paddocks that abutted on Jill and Mike’s backyard. It was a handy route when you couldn’t be bothered with formality. Mike and I had, over many a beer, talked of erecting a stile between the adjacent properties; though somehow, the idea, fuelled by amber expansiveness, had never got off the things-to-do list in the sobering light of day.
Bev started to fall behind, the blackberries and cutty grass uniting against her.
‘Don’t wait for me. Go! Go! She’s at the pool.’
My first clue.
I always appreciated a clue – something to take the edge off the uncertainty that hovered over my profession. All about live performances, no room for rehearsals. Not since medical school. I hated uncertainty; it left me exposed and unprepared in the face of expectation. Yet my days were filled with the unknown, my waiting room jam-packed with it. You’d think after twelve years in practice I’d have grown accustomed to it. I never did, my pulse inevitably quickening through the pause that followed that well-worn line, ‘And what brings you here today?’ So I was ever grateful for the bloodied bandage, the limp, the streaming nose – suffice to give me some lead time before a patient sank back into the consultation.
I had resisted relentless family pressure to put in a swimming pool. ‘They’re a nightmare to keep clean, they chew through chemicals, and there are umpteen better ways to spend the bank’s money.’
Needless to say Laura and Sam, and even Bev, were ecstatic when the diggers arrived next door to begin clawing at the status quo, and lazy swimming-pool days stretched in promise across the forthcoming summer. Eventually I had to concede that the Cunningham’s new addition was a good idea, complementing their gorgeous Mediterranean villa and luring our children away from their X-boxes and cell-phones. Wholesome outdoor childhoods akin to my own were once more a reality, and any reservations I’d had all but evaporated in the December heat.
Of course, Mike confirmed his status as Number One Dad by filling the pool in time for Christmas, despite the fencing contractors having already closed for the holidays. As a temporary measure he strung up a ribbon of fluorescent orange plastic, which slouched half-heartedly around the oasis, almost satisfying the code of compliance.
‘I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgement; I will keep them from harm and injustice.’
She was lying face down across the vast sandstone pavers. Little Ada
Bev and I had thought it rather an old-fashioned name for the wee girl, but in retrospect it suited her. It was as if she’d been born credited with decades of experience and frustratingly placed in a child’s body. To think how inconsolable Jill had been when she’d first discovered she was pregnant again, shedding copious tears in my consulting rooms as the blue cross on the test paper rose up unequivocally to greet her. With no one in either household under double digits, and Jill hurtling towards menopause with cyclical haste, Ada had a bit of convincing to do. And how well she did it. In two-and-a-half years she’d never been without a willing minder. She coloured tired lives with her effervescent giggles, auburn curls and pinched-pink cheeks, and she calmed with her complacent spirit. Perhaps Jill knew something before everyone else when she named her last-born, Ada. It means ‘rich gift’.
‘Laura, take the other kids inside. Jill, how long was she under?’ The other me was kicking in.
‘I . . . I don’t know, David. I just went inside to get the phone. It wasn’t gone for more than a few minutes. It happened so quickly. I don’t know. Please David, Mike . . . Oh A-d-a!’
Jill’s tearful and at times incoherent mumblings were a hindrance to my progress, so I left her wild eyes unacknowledged to avoid them cluttering my professional appraisal. Funny that, how successfully I could ignore them. Over the years I’d become well versed at filtering out interference.
ABC – airways, breathing, circulation.
One and two and three and . . .
A real body which has been lying at the bottom of a pool of water for some time looks quite different from the cheery pink mannequins provided at resuscitation updates. Ada’s had acquired a sallow, pasty hue, its uniformity untidily interrupted by motley grey patches, and her frame was less responsive to my exertions than any dummy I’d ever practiced on.
One and two and three and . . .
‘Where’s the bloody ambulance?’
Apparently somewhere negotiating the rural landscape and new unmarked subdivisions yet to make Google Maps. But you can’t tell people about the events that conspired against you. There are no mitigating factors when judgement is passed. People simply want to know, ‘Did you save her, David?’
The two families were like siblings really, conjoined by a bond that attested to seven shared years, despite no stile. The day of the move Jill leant on our door buzzer, as only Jill could do, announcing a plate of freshly baked raspberry-and-coconut muffins and the promise of friendship.
‘Hiya. I’m Jill Cunningham. We live next door. The only humans around for miles, so we’d better stick together.’ Her laughter was infectious. Bev took to her instantly.
Mike and I hit it off too, sharing a good deal in common despite our disparate professions. </span
‘You know, David,’ Mike would say in his gravely voice, ‘our work is not that dissimilar. You’re a plumber of sorts too, tinkering with valves and joints and waterworks of a different nature.’
Needless to say I attended to the health of the seven-strong Cunningham clan, and Mike saw to it that the pipes in our tired farmhouse never caused a problem.
Thirty minutes is a long time to push on a child’s chest and force air into her lungs while her mother and father and brothers and sisters wait in the wings. But you cannot be distracted by the layman. Research clearly states that you must continue cardio-pulmonary resuscitation in a drowned child for much longer than you would in a collapsed adult, or a child under different circumstances. The chilled body slows the metabolism. The chance of success is weighted in your favour.
‘I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make suggestion to this effect.’
Bev leant over me, resting a hand lightly on my shoulder. ‘Dave, the ambulance has got lost. Another has been despatched.’
Jill’s moans rose into the afternoon and spread like dry ice across a stage, shrouding the moment in horror. A defibrillator wasn’t anywhere close. Little Ada was going to die, or to be technically correct, was dead and I probably wasn’t going to be able to bring her back to life.
I felt Bev’s hand brush over my shoulders and wanted to relinquish to its feminine comfort, curl up in her arms and escape – escape the obligations to which I’d been sentenced twenty-two years prior, when I had solemnly and so naively recited those words.
‘Mike. There is only one more thing I can try.’
He was kneeling behind me, caressing Ada’s purple feet with his large plumber’s hands.
‘A last resort, Mike. Sometimes a dose of adrenalin injected directly into the heart muscle can start it again. I’ve not done it before, only read about it.’
Mike’s hand covered his mouth, guarding his despair. He closed his eyes as a signal of his consent. But what did he know?
And so I opened my black bag and drew up some adrenaline. I have no recollection of plunging the needle into little Ada’s chest. They tell me I did. What I can recall is the first flicker of a pulse in her chubby neck and I can still see the way her blue lips pinked like watercolour spreading across a wet page. Just as a baby takes its first breath after a difficult delivery, little Ada was born . . . again.
As the ambulance siren receded down the driveway. Bev and I led all the kids back through the paddocks. There was no place for words, no room. They belonged on the surface of the day.
‘If I fulfil this oath and do not violate it, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and art, being honoured with fame among all men for all time to come; if I transgress it and swear falsely, may the opposite of all this be my lot.’
I haven’t been back to the orchard. The plums will have rotted and the peaches will have fallen and decayed too.
There are the questions, the relentless questions. They hover over my every day and linger long into my nights. Sometimes it takes half a bottle of whisky before they skulk away and leave me alone for a few smudged hours.
From our upstairs bedroom window I can see her parked in the sunshine of their lounge. The straps on the small wheelchair hold her upright, tricking the eye and lending her floppy frame a normal posture. With the months, her auburn curls have fallen to her shoulders and lost their spring. Her mouth leaks a steady stream of saliva and her right eye tears relentlessly.


(1) Hippocratic Oath – Classical Version