When Dr. Chase met a patient living the troubled life he had known, he was determined to help…Until he became a patient himself.
"This is just unacceptable! An old woman like me shouldn't have to sit around in a drafty hallway for hours and listen to all that hammering and banging! What's going on around here? The last time I was here I wasn't in this room."
Dr. Robert Chase sat quietly, staring blankly at his elderly patient as she complained and waved her arms about dramatically. "Ma'am," he said tiredly, forcing himself to remain polite, "I'm sorry you're upset, but things around here are a little crazy today. There was an accident in the clinic a few days ago and there's a crew here now trying to get things back in order."
"What kind of an accident?" the woman asked nosily.
"I'm not sure," Chase answered honestly, refraining from telling his patient that an old lounge that had been used as storage space had been cleaned out to act as a makeshift clinic when the original area had unexpectedly suffered smoke and water damage after Dr. Gregory House had ended his shift last week. And although the Dean of Medicine was certain that the brilliant diagnostician had caused the accident to find a way to get out of clinic duty, she had yet to find any evidence to prove it.
"Well, maybe the next time my arthritis acts up I'll just go to a different clinic so I don't go home with an earache!" the woman grumbled as she walked out the door.
Chase slumped down in his chair as the patient left, silently wishing the grouchy woman had gone to another clinic. He grimaced as he glanced down at the name tag on his lab coat and read his boss' name 'Dr. House', bitter that he had drawn the short straw that morning and ended up covering House's clinic hours for the day.
Within the last five hours, he had examined crying babies, STD victims, a bipolar man that had accused him of being the devil, a hyper little boy with a talent for biting and a group of teenagers feigning illness to get out of an exam from the teacher from hell. After dealing with all of the chaos, he was longing to return to his work as an intensivist in the ICU, surrounded by patients that were too sick to waste his time or make foolish complaints.
"Excuse me?" a soft voice called into the room, barely heard over the noise echoing through the hall.
Chase sat up wearily and glanced at the teenage girl standing idly in the doorway. "Yes?"
"Sorry if I'm bothering you, but the nurse out there told me to come in. Actually, she kind of ordered me to come in."
"Yeah, Nurse Pervin can be a little aggressive. Go ahead and take a seat," he offered, hopeful that his newest patient would at least be quieter than the last. "Did the nurse take your temperature or anything before sending you in?"
The teenager nodded and handed him a piece of paper as she sat on the edge of the gurney. "Yeah, she told me to give you this, so I'm guessing it's on there. Do I have a fever?"
Chase shook his head as he read over the paper. "No, you're normal, Miss Meadows," he answered as he glanced at her name.
"Please call me, Audrey, I'm only eighteen, formal names make me feel old."
"I understand," Chase replied, loathing being called 'Dr. House' throughout the morning. "So, it says here you're really tired and achy?"
"Uh, yeah, and my throat hurts," she added hastily.
"Well, let's have a look," Chase said as he grabbed a few supplies. "Say 'ah' for me." He squinted as the patient complied. "I'm not seeing any signs of infection or irritation," he commented as he tossed out the tongue depressor and gently moved his hands over her neck. "Your glands aren't swollen."
"Sometimes a change in weather can cause a scratchy throat with little proof," Chase explained as he pushed Audrey's long auburn hair aside and examined her ears. "Your ears are clear."
"Yeah, they feel fine," she mumbled.
"Take a deep breath for me," Chase requested as he placed his stethoscope to her back. He listened carefully as she took several deep breaths, growing frustrated when another test came back completely normal. At first, he had been hopeful that Audrey would be a normal patient who wasn't going to rant and complain, try to bite him or fake him out, but now it seemed the trend had continued.
"Audrey, do you have a teacher named Mrs.Gordon?"
"Yes, why?" she asked nervously.
"Just curious because I've seen about three or four teens pop in here, because coming in and playing hooky is apparently easier than taking a math test."
"I didn't have a test today. Only algebra students had a test. I'm taking pre-cal."
"Pre-cal, huh? You must be a good student."
Audrey shrugged. "Yeah, so?"
"So I can't figure why someone as smart as you would come in here and pretend to be sick instead of just going to school," he said angrily.
Truthfully, most of the time, Chase didn't really care if a student tried to fake him out, sometimes he had even falsely diagnosed them with a cold to protect them from their parents. But after dealing with crazy people, ungrateful, complaining patients and noisy construction ringing in the halls, his patience had been spread too thin.
"I don't get you kids. I know school sucks and it's boring, but it's a hell of a lot easier than being in the real world."
"Damn straight," Audrey snapped. "I would never skip school because of a stupid test. Most of the time school is practically a vacation in paradise for me compared to the rest of my day."
"Then why would you skip?" Chase asked, anxious to find out what had caused his timid patient's sudden personality change.
"It doesn't matter," Audrey said as she stood and headed for the door.
"Yes, it does," Chase insisted as he blocked the doorway.
"No, it doesn't! Look, call my school and report me, do whatever you have to do."
"I'm not going to do that. And if you talk to me, I'll get out of your way. Are you in trouble?"
Audrey rolled her eyes and gave a weak sarcastic chuckle. "I'm not a walking, talking after-school special. I'm not getting molested at home. I don't have an abusive boyfriend. And I'm not pregnant."
"That's good. And now that you've told me what isn't wrong, why don't you tell me what is."
"I did," Audrey whispered. "I'm tired, okay? Really, really tired, too tired to deal today."
Chase stood silently as he observed her, feeling a little guilty as he noticed the extreme paleness of her skin and the dark circles lying under her gray eyes. If it hadn't been for the faking teenagers before her, he never would have accused her of playing hooky, regardless of the exam results.
"What are you too tired to deal with?"
"Everything. I just-," Audrey suddenly paused and faced him. "Wait, are you doing this because you think I'm suicidal? If that's the case, you can stop now, I'm not."
"I don't think you're suicidal, I'd just like to know what's making you so tired."
"Being the parent, that's what is making me tired."
"You have a kid?"
"No, I'm the kid of a woman that can't take care of herself."
"Your mother has special needs?"
"Yeah, a special need for alcohol."
Chase shivered slightly and felt his stomach churn as Audrey spoke and his own memories of his intoxicated mother and his dysfunctional adolescence washed over him.
"There are programs that can help-"
"It's too late," Audrey interjected. "She has liver cancer, brought on by the cirrhosis from all of the drinking. She still hasn't stopped. I can't even say I blame her at this point, it's the only thing in what's left of her life that she enjoys. I've kept her alive for years, sometimes I wonder why."
That was a question Chase had asked himself many times when he sat at his mother's bedside as a teenager. And even as an adult, questions still haunted him as he always wondered if there was anything more he could have done to save her life.
"How does your dad feel about all this?"
"It's hard for him to feel anything. He was suicidal. He killed himself three months ago, he couldn't take it anymore."
"I-I'm sorry," Chase stuttered.
"Don't be, it's not your fault. And it doesn't really matter anyway. I'm handling things on my own. I'm a straight A student, I have a part-time job and I'm making sure all of our bills are paid on time. But sometimes…I just need a break, so I come here."
Audrey smiled weakly. "I know it must sound crazy that I would choose to spend a day in a crowded, loud clinic. But if I'm here, I can block it all out and I can actually not think about anything. I don't have to think about my mom, school or even taking inventory at work. I can just relax and feel safe. You were the first doctor to catch on to me. I'm naturally really pale and I always have dark circles from barely sleeping, so the doctor just assumes I need a little rest. The last time I came some skinny brunette actually hugged me just because I looked exhausted. I can't remember her name, though."
"Cameron," Chase answered easily. "Listen, Audrey, I think it's amazing that you've been able to keep going so strong, but you can't keep it up. You need help."
"There isn't any," Audrey said sadly. "I'm eighteen, I can't go into foster care. And I can't support myself with a job that only pays minimum wage. My mom's disability money and my SSI are keeping me from being homeless."
"But what will you do when-" Chase paused, hating to say the words.
"My mom dies?" Audrey filled in. "I'm not sure. I kind of have to go day-by-day right now."
Chase was speechless as he desperately tried to think of something he could do to help Audrey. All through his teen years, he had hated his father for using his money to solve his problems and simply sending him a check to cover his mother's needs. Now he longed to give Audrey the money to walk away from her mother and start a life of her own. But when he looked into her eyes, he knew that even if Audrey had the chance to abandon her mother, she never would, just as he never had.
A harsh knock sounded on the door suddenly and Nurse Pervin stuck her head into the room. "Doctor," she said irritably, "is something wrong? We're backing up out here."
"No," Chase answered. "No, we'll only be a few more minutes. Do me a favor and write out a school excuse for Audrey, she can return on the 18th."
"The 18th?" Audrey repeated in surprise. "That's not until Monday."
"I know. I can honestly say you're suffering from exhaustion, take Friday and try to enjoy it. There are much better places than this clinic to clear your head, try a park or library," he suggested, recommending the hide-outs he had used at her age.
"Wow. Thank you," Audrey told him gratefully. "That's really nice of you."
"I just wish I could do more. Take care of yourself, Audrey, and if something happens you can come here and ask for me if you like. I'm Dr. Chase."
"I thought you were Dr. House?" Audrey replied as she pointed to his name tag.
"I just grabbed the wrong lab coat," Chase fibbed as he walked Audrey to the door.
"Well, thanks again, Dr. Chase."
Chase gave her a humble grin as he opened the door. "You're welcome."
"You've been there, haven't you?" Audrey whispered, tilting her head to face him as she paused in the doorway.
"Why would you think that?"
She shrugged limply. "For months my school shrink has been trying to get me to open up and people have been suspicious in the past, but I never could talk to them. But after knowing you a few minutes, I basically told you everything. You're different, I can tell."
"Yeah, I've been there," he said softly. "And-" Chase was cut off suddenly as a homeless man ran through the waiting area and pushed through the door, knocking him and Audrey to the ground.
"My turn! My turn!" he shouted crazily. "Enough gabbin'!"
Chase coughed roughly as dust and dirt from the man's filthy clothing and backpack hung in the air. "All right, all right," he gasped as he stood up. "Just hold on! Audrey, are you okay?" he asked as he offered her his hand.
"Yes," Audrey panted as Chase pulled her to her feet. "You were right. There are definitely better places to clear my head than here."