Monday, June 15, 2020

A Higher Court by Patrick Ritter

To what lengths will the director of a Rochester hospital go to protect his staff? By Patrick Ritter.

Doctor Andrew Hanlon jogged down the middle of an empty street. Without people or cars, it was eerily quiet for a Rochester suburb. Even the dogs were sheltering in place. Despite the deserted streets, Hanlon's morning runs were about the only normal thing in his life. As director of the Rochester Memorial Hospital ICU, it was a welcome break from the pandemic.

Getting close to his home, he turned onto Park Street. The sun spilled over the roof of a large colonial house onto a wide lawn. Doctor Hanlon breathed deeply and for a moment forgot about all of it. But only for a moment. Then the troubling thoughts flooded back, uninvited and unwanted, like his merciless enemy, the coronavirus. As director of the ICU, Hanlon faced a snowballing set of challenges: insufficient beds and equipment, exhausted doctors and nurses, and lack of masks and personal protective equipment.

A deluge of patients was fighting for their lives in a chaotic new normal. And without proper gear, the hospital staff were putting their own lives on the line every day as well. Hanlon felt his neck muscles tightening. The Federal government wasn't stepping up to produce enough protective equipment. He was righteously angry he wasn't getting enough support, but felt ultimately responsible for hospital safety. It was a double shot of stress that lessened for only a brief moment in the sun during his run.

After a quick shower and breakfast, he would head back to the front lines. In military terminology, a front line is the part of an army closest to the enemy, and it certainly was that. His team, up close to the virus all day, was at especially high risk without enough N95 masks. Today, like yesterday, he would have to ask his medical army to go into battle without enough armor. That bothered him more than anything. Except for the death. That was beyond overwhelming. Beyond what he thought he was prepared for. Dozens were dying every week, quarantined and alone. Hanlon saw death reflected in the eyes of nurses, and in the faces of the families when he had to give them the awful news. Andrew Hanlon was not the only doctor who had to occasionally escape to the hospital roof, to grieve, and clear his mind. Then it was back to combat.

Down the block a garage door opened and a dark green SUV pulled out and stopped. A man, sixtyish, stooped, with disheveled silver hair, got out and walked back into the garage. Hanlon recognized him as Harold Crumb, who had recently moved into the neighborhood. Hanlon had only a couple previous contacts with Crumb, both somewhat strained. Crumb talked incessantly about himself, interrupting every time Hanlon spoke. As he liked to tell everyone, he had inherited a large sum of money and bragged how he outbid other buyers and paid all cash for the five-bedroom house. Why he needed such a spread was odd as he was divorced without children and he seemed to be a loner. Crumb also pestered him for free medical advice. Hanlon was glad he had gone back into the garage and he sped up to pass, hoping to avoid him. But he was too late. Crumb came back out, carrying what looked like two fishing rods and a cooler.

"Hey, it's Doctor Hayland!" Crumb yelled, laughing at his play of words. "What the heck are you doing out so early? Shouldn't you be at work?"

"It's Hanlon, Andy Hanlon. Just getting some exercise."

"Shouldn't you be in quarantine or something? You work with all those infected patients, don't you?"

Hanlon thought, Just move on. No need to defend myself to this guy. But instead he said, "Well I'm keeping a big distance out here, and we take a lot of precautions at the hospital, so we're in good shape, except for the -" He stopped. Didn't want to get into hospital politics with this guy.

"Except for what?"

"We have a severe shortage of proper masks. That's a huge challenge."

"Can't you just buy 'em?"

"The Feds aren't getting them made, so we're bidding against other hospitals, states, and even countries. I had a big shipment coming last week from China that was reallocated to France the day we were to get it. This week the prices have been bid up way beyond what we can afford."

Crumb came around the SUV toward the street, nodding excitedly. "Yeah, I hear there is quite a demand for those masks, isn't that right?"

"Yeah, it's insane really. Shouldn't have to be."

"Hey, it's a free market ain't it Doctor Hayland? I got no problem with that."

Now Hanlon really wanted to get out of there. He started stretching. "Well I better be going."

"Wait a minute. I may have something for you." Crumb went into the garage and quickly came back out carrying a box. "Here you go doc," he said, pulling out a new mask, still in its package. "I'll put it on the back of my rig and you can come get it. It's the least I can do," he said proudly.

Hanlon said, "That's an N95 isn't it? How many of those do you have? I mean, could you possibly spare any more? Our nurses are desperate for them, really desperate. Anything you could spare would be a life saver. I could send someone over from the hospital this morning if you -"

"No, no, sorry. I can't spare any more. No way. I thought you would be grateful to get this one. You know I don't have to give you any, man. I was just doing my part. How 'bout a little appreciation? Anyways, I'm heading out to my country place this morning to do some fishing for a couple of days, so, you know, I really don't have the time."

"Ok, I get it." Hanlon said. "Thank you." Yeah, I get it, skinflint. Hanlon picked up the mask and watched Crumb go back into the garage with the box of masks. Must be fifty in that box. He can't spare a few more?

From inside the garage, Crumb yelled, "Oh, doc. I want to talk to you about this wrist pain of mine."

But Doctor Hanlon was gone, sprinting down Park Street, pissed off, a single mask clutched in one hand.

"I just can't believe that jerk!" Doctor Hanlon said to his wife as he spread poached eggs over burnt toast. "I mean, how many masks does one guy need? I'm someone who really needs them. And my staff, with one mask a day, at best. You know, they're bringing in homemade masks now, if you can believe it. And this guy acts like he is doing such a big favor giving me one mask."

"I know, I know," his wife said. "It's not right." She laid her hands on Andrew's shoulders. "But maybe you can find some masks on eBay today. Didn't you say one of the other clinics got some there?"

"Yeah, maybe. But at what cost? The hospital doesn't have the funds to compete now. With all non-elective surgeries canceled, we're hemorrhaging money. Might even go under from all this."

She wanted to say something to help, something to acknowledge the thirty years Andrew had put in to build the ICU, the unbelievable strain he was now under, the sixteen-hour shifts, and the uncertainty as to when it would end. And the heavy responsibility to provide his staff with basic personal protection, which wasn't happening. But she didn't know what to say. So she just massaged his shoulders as her eyes misted up.

Five miles away, Officer Anya Mateo was finishing her night shift, another quiet night cruising empty streets. She had been on the police force for only a year, and most of that was spent training, and now patrolling a quiet suburb during the pandemic. No wonder she was bored. A dark green SUV passing her from the opposite direction. She glanced at her radar screen. Over the speed limit but just barely. As it passed, she noticed that a taillight was out. Minor, but it was something. She hit the brakes, u-turned quickly, and followed.

The SUV pulled over and Mateo approached. At just under 6 feet, she was above average height for a Trinidadian woman. Not surprising as her father, a retired surgeon, and her mother, a nurse, were also tall. She spoke with a slight Trini accent.

"Good morning, suh."

"Yeah, well, it was a good morning," said Harold Crumb.

"Do yuh know why I pulled you over?"

"What? No, I wasn't speeding."

"Your left taillight ha gone out. Were you aware of that?"

"Ha gone out? What kind of English is that? And how in hell am I 'posed to know that? I don't see no warning light here." Crumb jutted his chin toward the dash.

Officer Mateo stood unmoving, hands on belt, while her eyes scanned the front seat for possible weapons. "License and registration please, suh."

"Well, now since you said please, I guess I can get them for you. Where you from anyway. Not from around here are you?"

This guy could be trouble, Mateo thought, carefully watching Crumb pull out his documents.

She took his documents back to her patrol car and ran the checks. Crumb, Harold had no priors or outstanding tickets.

"Mr. Crumb, I am goin' to issue this repair ticket. Yuh have thirty days to correct the taillight. She handed him the ticket and he swiped it from her hand.

"Yeah, yeah, ok."

Officer Mateo drove off shaking her head. In Trinidad they would say, He have no brought upsy. He has no manners.

"Oh well," Hanlon said to his wife, reaching for his laptop. "I guess it can't hurt to look on eBay. Maybe there's a reasonable offer today. Don't know what else to do. I have to get more masks."

Hanlon searched for N95 masks on eBay and up popped an offer: 300 Brand New N95 Masks, $25 each, or $7,000 for the lot.

"Are you kidding me?" Hanlon said. "Come on, you don't need to make that much profit." Hanlon drilled down further and found the originating location: Park Street, Rochester, NY. "Geez, that's near us. It's..."

"What?"

"This is unbelievable." Hanlon stared at the offeror's email name: HaroldCrumb1. It's him, our jerk neighbor, Crumb, the guy who said he could only spare a single mask. I can't believe it, but he's selling them. At a huge markup!"

"This is the same guy who inherited all that money?"

"Yep. Un-frickin believable."

"You think you could persuade him to sell at a lower price?"

"No, not Crumb." Just hard to believe someone could do that. But, right now, I have to get to the hospital."

Doctor Hanlon would later tell his wife it was the lack of sleep that made him do it. Or the stress. Or the enormous responsibility he bore. Those certainly contributed. But it was death that pushed him over, this time way too close. And too unfair. One of his best nurses had contracted the coronavirus the week before, very likely because of inadequate personal protective equipment. Only forty-five, she supported three kids, and was one of the hardest working, and kindest, nurses Hanlon had the privilege of working with. That afternoon, she passed away.

Word spread fast. When they wheeled her out, the entire ICU staff, to a person, lined the hallways. A few started to applaud, but there wasn't the energy to sustain it. Instead, quiet shock filled the ICU, broken only by the sounds of ventilators humming. And muffled sobbing.

Andrew Hanlon walked three flights of stairs to the roof, sat in a far corner, and wept. When he had recovered, he took the elevator back down to the battle lines. That was when he decided to do it.

Late that night, Hanlon slipped out of the house, silently, not wanting to wake his wife who would likely try to talk him out of it. His electric car made little noise, which was good as the neighborhood was even quieter now. He drove slowly to Park Street and circled the block. A narrow alley ran behind the block. Hanlon parked nearby, grabbed a flashlight, and walked down the alley, reaching the back of Crumb's garage. All quiet so far. There was a small door with a dusty window next to it. Hanlon peered into the garage. The big green SUV wasn't there. So Crumb was still gone fishing. Perfect.

The glass broke easily, and Hanlon reached in and unlocked the door with no trouble. Seemed too easy. He paused and listened for an alarm, or a worried neighbor. Nothing. So, he went in and looked around. There, in the back of the garage where Crumb had stored them were boxes containing the 300 brand new N95 masks. "Jackpot," Hanlon whispered to himself. He retraced his steps, retrieved his car and drove back down the alley slowly, lights off.

In fact, it was too easy. Should have been a red flag. But Andrew Hanlon was adept at treating respiratory failure, not breaking and entering. He didn't expect that some home alarm systems do not announce themselves with bold warning sounds. Rather, they are stealth systems, hard wired to nearby police stations, who can get a patrol car there in ten to twelve minutes. With no traffic, Officer Anya Mateo made it in nine.

Hanlon almost dropped the box when he heard the sharp voice, "Stop right there! Hands in the air!"

Then Hanlon did drop the box, raising both hands. He stared at the policewoman, pistol drawn, legs spread in military pose. She was tall and wore a determined expression.

"Don't do anything stupid," she said, moving in. "Turn around, hands behind your back." From out of nowhere handcuffs appeared and she cuffed him. "Now just what are yuh doin' here?"

Hanlon knew it was over for him. Over in a lot of ways. No court would cut him a break, even under pandemic conditions. And the court of public opinion would be even harsher on his career. No use in making up something. So, he told Officer Mateo everything, calmly, as if he was describing a medical condition.

"You say you are a doctor?" Mateo said incredulously. "Why can't your hospital get their own masks?"

"I wish to god we could, but it's not that simple, Officer." We just can't get any. We have to bid against all the other facilities. I know it's no excuse. But the guy who lives here has a lot of money, doesn't need all these masks, yet he is selling them anyway for an exorbitant profit on eBay. Not because he needs the money. Just because he's, he's..."

"He's what?"

"He doesn't see what I see every day. Death every day. Now my nurses are getting sick and dying for lack of protection. I would gladly buy them if we had the money, believe me."

"I know about it," Officer Mateo said. "My mother is a nurse. It is horrible, I know. She's told me about the shortages, but -" She paused. "This is still breaking and entering."

"Yes, I realize that." Hanlon hoped for some type of leniency. "Even if it is for life-saving reasons?"

Mateo slowly withdrew a pad and started to write up the arrest record. She glanced at her mobile phone and a puzzled look crossed her face. "This address is 44 Park Street?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Dr. Hanlon, is this the residence of a," she squinted at her phone, "a Harold Crumb?"

"Yes, that's the owner. And a real son of a bitch too."

Mateo lowered the arrest record pad. "I know this guy," she said, "and you are right. He's a real piece of work. I actually pulled him over last night, early this morning actually, over a taillight infraction. This Harold Crumb is the guy hoarding these masks?"

Hanlon said, "The same. I tried to get him to part with a few masks and he would only give me one. Said he couldn't spare any more. But he's selling them for a huge profit while my hospital suffers. I know I've made a huge mistake here Officer, and I will accept responsibility for it. But this just isn't right."

Officer Anya Mateo stared at Dr. Hanlon. She could see the exhaustion on his face, and the injustice echoed in his eyes. And she also saw a bit of her late father reflected there. A highly principled man, her father would notice an injustice and tell her, "Just no right Anya, just no right." It was one of his expressions she never forgot. She put the arrest record pad back into her jacket, glanced around, and said, "Are there any more boxes of masks in there?"

"Yes, quite a few."

Officer Mateo unlocked and removed the handcuffs and said, "These masks are all evidence now, so we need to load them up."

"We? thought Hanlon, but he didn't say anything, following the officer into the garage. Mateo picked up a couple of boxes. "Your trunk open?"

"Ah, yeah, let me get it," Hanlon said. Maybe there was a chance. "You're not going to press charges?"

"For what? Did you see anything here Doctor? I didn't."

"No, Officer Mateo, I didn't see a thing either." A slight smile crossed the doctor's lips.

When all the boxes were loaded into his trunk, Hanlon took out a handful of masks and handed them to Mateo. "You and your department may need them. If anyone asks, they came from me. I'll take the heat."

"No worries, Doctor, there won't be any heat, not for this. I'm the patrol officer for this area. My report will document a minor garage break-in but the perpetrator had fled. Happens a lot. And I will deal with this Crumb, no worries. But let me ask you, Doctor, yuh took a huge risk by breaking in here. It could have been your career. Why did you do it?"

"A risk? Yeah, that's true. But come down to the ICU and you'll see some real risks, the risks the staff are taking, up against this deadly virus. Those are the huge risks, Officer."

Hanlon got into his car and rolled down the window. "And what about you, Officer Mateo? You're taking a big career risk as well by letting me go. I imagine the courts wouldn't look kindly upon you either."

"No, probably not. But there are courts and then there are courts."

"How's that?"

Anya Mateo looked up at the night sky, remembering. "It was Mahatma Gandhi who said, there is a higher court than the courts of justice. One that supersedes all others."

"And what is that?"

"Gandhi called it the Court of Conscience."

"Well, I can live with that, Officer Mateo."

"Me too, Dr. Hanlon, me too," she said. "Thank you for everything you're doing and I wish your team the best."

Dr. Andrew Hanlon drove away, revived and restored. And armed for battle.

5 comments:

  1. Not that I personally condone breaking and entering... of course!

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  2. Great story, especially for this time. There are some true heroes out there right now and this story pays homage to them quite well. If only everyone lived with an awareness of the court of conscious. Thank you so much for sharing.

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  3. Synchronicity serves justice. A fitting story for these polarized times.

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  4. I would've raided Crumb's TP stash while I was at it. ;) This is a nice tribute to the hard-working front-liners and a snapshot of a moment in time that will hopefully soon be a distant memory.

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