|Might not, technically, have happened
||[Oct. 31st, 2010|06:16 pm]
Mr. Murphy sat on his chair and fidgeted nervously. I sat on mine, hidden in the back corner, doing the same.
I was on rotation with Dr. Tophet, who strenuously objected to having a student. The matter had gone back and forth, with the doctor telling administration that he was a very busy man, and administration telling the doctor that everyone was busy, and that this was a teaching hospital, and that it would take at least fifteen minutes' work for them to find anyone else. For a few days it had seemed like an irresistable force encountering an immovable object. But as always, the reluctance of the administration to do work won out, and Dr. Tophet agreed I could shadow him as long as I promised to sit in a corner and say nothing. So there I sat, quiet and fidgeting.
Mr. Murphy was even less at ease. He had come in last Monday with a history of worsening episodes of depression, rage, and confusion. They'd taken some blood and offered to call him in a few days when the test results were in. Instead, he was told to come to Dr. Tophet's office. That could only mean one thing. Good test results were delivered by phone; bad test results were delivered in person, everyone knew that. Things were not looking good for Mr. Murphy.
"Mr. Murphy," said Dr. Tophet, walking into the room. He shook the man's hand. Dr. Tophet was tall, dark, and vaguely foreign-looking, although I didn't know exactly where he was from. He spoke rarely, and with a slight accent. He did not so much as give me a glance before sitting down and taking out the patient's chart.
"Mr. Murphy, have you ever heard of pneumatoma?"
Mr. Murphy shook his head. The diseases with Greek names, the ones you'd never heard of, they were always the worst.
"In layman's terms, Mr. Murphy, you have soul cancer."
The patient blinked. Opened his mouth a little. Closed it. "Soul cancer? What?"
"Stage two pneumatoma," said Dr. Tophet. "A highly advanced, malignant form of soul cancer."
"What? That's crazy!"
"I'm sorry, but the blood tests confirm it. There's no room for doubt. It's pneumatoma."
"You're making that up."
"It's natural to be angry or in denial when you hear difficult news. If you would prefer to have a few days to reflect before we talk further, I can give you another appointment on Tuesday."
"No," said Mr. Murphy. "I'm not saying I don't believe I have numo...numa...soul cancer. I just never heard of such a thing. How can a soul get cancer?"
"Almost any part of the body or spirit can develop cancer, Mr. Murphy. You've probably heard of breast cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer, but there are hundreds of types only the specialists know about. Angiosarcoma - blood vessel cancer. Osteosarcoma - cancer of bone. Medullablastoma - cancer of embryonic brain remnants. And pneumatoma - cancer of the soul. All very rare. I'm sorry you have to be the one to get it, Mr. Murphy."
"So doctors know about the soul?"
"We would hardly be doing our job if we missed an entire organ. Pneumatology is decades old and on sound scientific footing."
"Soul cancer," he said, testing out the words. "Soul cancer. Bloody hell. Is it dangerous?"
"Very," said Dr. Tophet. "After it reaches a certain size, it will metastasize to other organs and eventually kill you. But don't worry. This is one of the top hospitals for treating soul cancer in the country, and I promise you we won't let you go without a fight."
Mr. Murphy looked utterly miserable.
"What's the treatment?"
"For stage two, I'm afraid I have to recommend a radical pneumatonectomy."
"We take out your soul through your nose."
Mr. Murphy literally jumped out of his chair.
"You can...remove the soul...through the nose?"
"It's not so surprising," said Dr. Tophet. "Do you say 'God bless you!' when someone sneezes? It comes from the old belief that a sufficiently powerful sneeze might blow the soul out through the nose, and that a prayer was necessary to make sure God helped it back into its rightful place. Of course, the custom itself is only superstition: a normal sneeze is hundreds of times too weak to actually dispel the soul. But the principle behind it is sound, and with modern surgical technique there should be minimal trauma and no pain."
"But...what happens to me...without my soul?"
Dr. Tophet stood up and went to his bookshelf. He passed by books with titles like Encyclopedia of Parapsychiatry and British Journal of Radiation Ontology until he came to one entitled Pneumatonectomy - History and Practice.which he took down, opened to a bookmarked page, and handed to his patient. I couldn't see any of the text, just Mr. Murphy's head, occasionally nodding.
"The soul," declared Dr. Tophet, "is what we call a vestigial organ. It's like the appendix. In the past, it was important for appreciating beautiful music and poetry, communing with the grandeur of nature, experiencing true love, and guiding our moral decisions. But in these days of rap music, nature replaced by endless suburbs, and no-fault divorce? And how many people nowadays do you see reading poetry? Most of my patients get through their pneumatonectomy without even noticing the difference. I have one patient who's three years post pneumatonectomy and is now head of a major bank."
"What about my morals? Will I become a, you know, a psychopath?"
"Oh no. Most of what you call 'morality' is just following convention, avoiding punishment, worrying what the neighbors will think. The contribution of your actual soul is so minor as to be unnoticeable. You'll be fine."
"And..." Mr. Murphy looked a bit bewildered, a bit out of his depth. A deer in the headlights sort of expression. "And what about, you know, after I die. If I don't have a soul, do I still go to, you know, the afterlife?"
The doctor narrowed his eyes. "Mr. Murphy, I am a busy man. I don't know if you realize the gravity of your condition, but please, try to stay serious."
With a pleading but-what-did-i-do-wrong look in his eyes, Mr. Murphy went silent, totally defeated.
"Tell you what, Mr. Murphy. I'm going to give you the consent form for the operation. You can look it over at your leisure in the waiting room. My medical student will help you out if there is anything you don't understand. When you've finished, you can sign the form and give it to my secretary. Here's a pen, you can return that to my secretary too. Once you've signed the form, we can schedule a date for your operation. "
Mr. Murphy nodded.
"Uh, sorry," I said. "I really don't know anything about soul cancer. Maybe you should..."
"Then this would be a good time to learn," said Dr. Tophet. "I am going to work on charts for the rest of the day. I'll see you tomorrow morning. Mr. Murphy, thank you for your time."
His tone of voice did not invite question or comment, and without even rising to shake hands he took the book from Mr. Murphy, replacing it on his shelf between The History and Metaphysical Exam and an old, decaying book whose title had faded but which was authored by a "Dr. Alhazred". Then he took a chart from the pile beside his desk and started scrutinizing it."
"Uh, come with me," I told Mr. Murphy. "I'll show you to the waiting room."
Actually, I wasn't sure where the waiting room was. I'd never been in this wing of the hospital before. I assumed I could find it, though, an assumption that was immediately proved embarrassingly wrong. I caught sight of a row of signs with relief. One pointed to the waiting room, another to a cafeteria, and another to...
"It says the office of the hospital chaplain is that direction," said Mr. Murphy. "Do you know him?"
"Never met him," I say.
"If you don't mind...do you think Dr. Tophet would mind if I had a talk with him. Because of souls and all?"
"I'm sure he wouldn't," I said, though in fact I very much doubted my ability to predict the doctor's actions and he seemed like the easily offended sort. Still, Mr. Murphy seemed pretty upset, and to be honest I was upset as well. I'd never heard of soul cancer, I was pretty sure there was no such thing, and I wanted some answers. And if there was one profession adept at giving answers, with certainty, about entities that didn't exist, it was the clergy.
"Please, sit down," said Father Mahony, after Mr. Murphy had told his story. "Can I see the form? The consent form? Thank you." He accepted the several pages of stapled documents, along with Dr. Tophet's rather fancy-looking pen, and scrutinized them carefully. He started underlining and making notes on key phrases on the consent form.
"Uh," I said. "Better not do that. Dr. Tophet tends to be kind of a stickler."
"I see," said Father Mahony. "I am sorry." He looked with dismay at the document, which now had several red lines under certain words. Then he looked up.
"Gentlemen," he said. "I have been through many years of seminary. I have been several times to the Vatican. I have spent thirty years ministering to the souls of people in and around this hospital. And never, in all my life, have I heard of such a thing as soul cancer. I do not believe that the same God who endowed us with an immortal soul, would see fit to make that soul corruptible, and capable of turning against itself."
"Well," I said, "He did it with bodies."
"I would like to speak to this Dr. Tophet," said the priest, as he finished his scan of the consent forms. "I would prefer that you not sign anything until I did so."
"Uh," I said "He's really busy."
"And so am I," said Father Mahony, "but I am sure no doctor, no matter how busy, would begrudge a few minutes to talk about the health of a patient in need."
"Uh," I said "You haven't talked to a lot of doctors, have you?"
"This is important," said the priest, as he grabbed something from his desk. "Please take me to Dr. Tophet."
And so back we wandered through the corridors. Knock. Knock.
"Office hours are over, please talk to my secretary," came the voice of Dr. Tophet from within his office.
"This is Father Mahony, the hospital chaplain. I'm afraid it's a matter of some urgency. May I come in?"
And without awaiting an answer, Father Mahony opened the door and stepped inside. Dr. Tophet looked up from his charts, clearly annoyed. He gazed impassively at Mr. Murphy. At me, he shot the Stare of Death. This was going to be a very long rotation.
"Let's not mince words," said Father Mahony. "I just have one question for you, and then I'll let you be."
"Yes?" asked the doctor.
"Doctor Tophet, are you the Devil?"
The doctor blinked.
"No," he finally answered. "No, I am not."
"Good," said Father Mahony. "Then nothing at all of interest should happen when I do THIS!"
And he took the vial of holy water, opened the stopper, and flung it at Dr. Tophet.
Dr. Tophet caught fire.
The doctor flailed around for a few seconds, dropped to the ground, and rolled. A second later, the flames went out.
He stood up. He was now, very clearly, both more and less than human. His eyes were orange. His hands ended in black claws, his teeth in fangs. His skin glowed with an obvious red lustre. He spoke slowly and with painful clarity, as if the words had formed in far off voids of space and only arrived at his mouth after an epic journey.
"Before, when I said I was not the Devil, I might not have been entirely telling the truth."
Mr. Murphy and I grabbed each other and I think we both shrieked. Father Mahony only nodded.
"If I may ask, what gave it away?"
"The consent form says you retain all rights to tissue removed in the operation. In other words, it said you get to keep his soul. And the pen was blood. I was suspicious when I saw the red ink, and then I smelled it to make sure. If I had to guess, I'd say it was Mr. Murphy's blood, from the samples you took for the blood tests. When I thought to myself - who asks someone to sign a contract in their own blood, giving up their soul - well, it wasn't too hard."
"I see," said the Devil. "And tell me, did Mr. Murphy sign the form?"
"Too bad. Then I will be going, now."
"No," said the priest, brandishing the crucifix on his necklace. "I will not permit you to leave until you release the souls of everyone who you previously gave this operation, and until you promise never to set foot within University Hospital again!"
"I'll release the souls," said the Devil. "As for never setting foot here again...Father, a dozen people die in this hospital every day. Surely even you must understand that not all of them can be headed for Heaven."
Father Mahony turned just a little pale. "Very we-" he said, but before he could even complete the sentence, there was a clap of thunder, a cloud of acrid smoke, and the Devil was gone. Mr. Murphy just fainted then, and Father Mahony and I had to carry him to the A&E a few doors down, where they said he would eventually be all right.
As for me, without a supervisor, and with the administration unwilling to do the paperwork it would take to get a new one, I had the rest of the week off.
As for the souls, I don't know if it's connected, but the newspaper the next day mentioned that the head of a major bank, an extremely important public figure, had suddenly and inexplicably resigned, donated all of his money to the needy, and joined a monastery.
And as for Father Mahony, well, last I saw him he was taking a trolley into Dr. Tophet's office to carry off his collection of extremely interesting books.