Choices and chances

Chapter 1: New doctor

Keith Zetterstrom was an extraordinary boy. In what way you might ask and I would smile and say "In every way".

As a paediatric cardiologist I had come across many children in various states. Many tried to believe their parents and doctors when they were told that everything would be alright and they would be fine in no time. Some were crying constantly from pain and fear and some others were simply giving up, staring ahead of them, not responding to anyone. They all had in common, though, that they depended on me and that I felt deeply for each and every one of them. I tried desperately to help them all. Sometimes I lost the battle for life and a small flame died. People say that a mother should never see her child die because part of her dies. I am no mother but I with every new child I can't help but let it into my heart … this child becomes part of me. And I suffer when I can't heal his or her heart. I die a little bit every time I lose a patient.

So why do this? Simple. Because my losses are few and most of my students survive – thanks to me. If it hadn't been for me standing over them and operating on them or giving them a heart massage right after they were born to start their hearts, they wouldn't exist. I am a mother – a mother of many. My children send me cards to all the holidays, they invite me to their homes, they stay in contact with me their entire lives.

And then there are the cases that are even more special. Every now and then you get a real fighter who won't, under no circumstances, give up and quit fighting. Keith was one of those. He had cancer, like my deceased husband, and at that time the cancer had corrupted his heart. So he was transferred to my ward and put in my care.

I remember so clearly the first time we met.

Keith was not exactly sure what to think. Neither his father nor Al would really talk to him and tell him what was wrong with him now. All Keith knew was that he had trouble doing stuff that hadn't given him trouble a few weeks ago. Everything seemed more strenuous than before and he often had to gasp for breath. With an inward sigh Keith shrugged his shoulders and decided it didn't matter. Life was too short to worry too much, especially in his case.

His first proof that something was more wrong than just a check-up could be, came when he entered the war. The sign on the door read 'Cardiology' and as far as his Latin went that meant 'Heart'. He had thought that his cancer wouldn't affect his heart …

A frown creased his forehead now. He was about to demand a straight answer from his father when he heard a musical voice behind him.

"Mr. Zetterstorm, I presume," the voice said gently, holding something Keith hadn't heard in a long while.

Nevertheless he was just about to whip around and snap at the doctor that he was the main character here when he came face to face with the owner of that gentle voice. He met the bluest set of eyes he had ever seen. Before he could even formulate something – anything – to say to that woman, she reached up and gently stroked away the frown on his forehead.

"You are Mr. Zetterstrom, right?" she asked gently. Her eyes dancing with silent laughter.

Keith was thrown by this woman. The doctors had always treated him like a child, only telling his father the important stuff and patronizing Keith. Their eyes had always been sad as if to say 'Poor boy, you will never truly live'. Keith was sick and tired of that treatment. Now this new doctor addressed him and ignored his father. He nodded curtly, not finding his voice, which was unlike him.

"Well, then, Mr. Zetterstrom, I am Catherine Howard, your cardiologist. I am also the chief doctor of this ward and in this instance I have to tell you …" Her voice took on a distinctly stricter tone and Keith felt it coming, the 'You're as good as dead'-speech, mixed in with a heavy dose of 'You better do as you're told and stay in bed feeling sorry for yourself'. "… there is no frowning on my ward." Keith actually took a step back, but Dr. Howard didn't appear to notice. "Many of the children on this ward live their lives overshadowed by heart-conditions so they really don't need to be reminded about it every step they take and it most certainly doesn't help them to see nothing but sad and depressed faces. We believe in making them feel comfortable and happy here, hopefully succeeding in letting them forget their conditions for a while. There is a clown for the younger children who comes in every afternoon." Here she leaned towards him conspiratorially. "It's really one of the local elementary school teachers, but don't tell them. And there is a room for the older chil… erm, I mean young adults with TVs and game consoles and a kicker and lots of other stuff." She smiled at him and Keith felt instantly that he could trust her, that she would stop at nothing to make him feel better. "So any questions?"

"Huh … oh … yeah, well … when's my first appointment, Dr Howard?" he asked dumbly and hated himself for it. He usually hated doctors and especially their cold instruments and weird machines which seemed to come straight from a medieval torture chamber.

The doctor actually chuckled. He couldn't believe it! "You certainly seem to be eager," she remarked then winked at him. "How about I show you your room first and you can get settled in?"

Keith nodded. Something in his chest lifted. He wasn't quite sure what it was, but it seemed significant for it made his heart beat faster and tears brick at the inside of his eyes. The last time he had cried was when his mother had died. After that he had sworn he wouldn't cry anymore. He would take every day as it came and live it to the fullest.

"Good, let's go then. Oh, and could you do me a favour?" Dr. Howard invaded his personal space and leaned forward so her eyes were directly in front of his. "I'm used to being called Dr. Cat. Dr. Howard makes me feel like some sort of half-god in white and I have been shown my limitation quite often in my line of work. So please could you call me Dr. Cat, too?"

Keith swallowed. For a long moment he couldn't find his voice anymore and the urge to cry became more intense. With some difficulties he swallowed the lump in his throat and rasped out, "Yeah, sure, of course."

She beamed at him then. "Good."

Without another word she started to walk down the corridor, fully expecting him to follow her, and pointed out a room near the end of it. It had a door painted in bright orange and Keith could already read his name on the little blackboard next to it. Someone had drawn little stars and hearts and suns and butterflies around his name and big, bold letters beneath it spelled out 'Welcome'.

"That is your room. Oh, I see Hope has already made good use of the comment space." Dr. Cat smiled warmly and traced the 'Welcome' with her fingers, her eyes holding an odd emotion that Keith couldn't decipher. Then with an obvious effort she pulled herself together again. "Well, usually the nurses will write down your appointments on here or you can write that you don't wish to be bothered right now."

She opened the door and motioned for Keith and Henry to go ahead and enter. However she made no move to enter the room herself.

"This is your domain. Feel free to make yourself right at home." She explained and Keith understood that she wouldn't enter his room until he had invited her in. Wow, that was a first! As she made to leave, Keith could see that she was contemplating something. When she finally made up her mind, she turned back around and smiled a little hesitantly.

"One more thing, could you please look in on Hope occasionally? She has the room right next door and she sometimes has nightmares and she is afraid of the dark."

"Sure thing," Keith said without really thinking about it, feeling sorry for the little kid next door.