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A Fly in the Ointment
By Michael C. Keith
They are other than the loud and troublesome insects of the hour.
–– Edmund Burke
As cardiac surgeon Niles Bellamy was about to make an incision into his patient’s left ventricle, a fly buzzed by his face and landed on the anesthetized man’s mitral valve. Dr. Bellamy’s knee-jerk reaction was to shoo away the insect. As he did, the scalpel in his right hand inadvertently severed his patient’s atrium and pulmonary veins. Attempts were made to save the patient, but he had quickly succumbed to the doctor’s terrible mistake. But as no one in the operating room had apparently seen Bellamy slice into the patient’s heart, the surgeon acted as if the death was an unfortunate but natural turn of events. It was not uncommon for people undergoing such delicate surgery to die during the process.
“Let’s close him up. Ring the morgue. Sorry people, Mr. Jennings was beyond our powers, I’m afraid,” said the surgeon, quickly exiting the operating room. Fucking fly! How the hell did it get in here? wondered Bellamy, as he removed his blood-covered latex gloves and blockade gown.
For the balance of the day as well as the week that followed, the doctor was full of self-recrimination. He was glad he had the next few days off but unhappy that his wife was out of town on business. He desperately needed her presence to help him get through the upheaval he was in. Jesus, I killed the guy. He probably would have been fine. Do no harm, right? Well, you sure as hell did harm, Dr. Bellamy.
When Madeline Bellamy returned from her trip to the West Coast at the end of the week, her husband was feeling a little better. Shit happens in the operating room, he kept telling himself in an attempt to mitigate his sense of culpability. Every day patients die under the knife for all sorts of reasons. Yet, he had to fight hard to keep from lapsing back into his sense of guilt. Why was that fly in there? There are never supposed to be insects in the operating room! It wasn’t my imagination. I’m sure it wasn’t. I know what I saw. That’s why I tried to flick it away. Oh God, how stupid was that? You killed a man shooing away a fucking fly. What if someone had seen you do that? You’d be done as a surgeon. Maybe you should be. You let a fly break your concentration and it resulted in the death of the person you were to save. Yeah, maybe you should really be doing something else.
Though the idea of returning to work disturbed Bellamy, a slew of commitments forced him back to the hospital––and the operating theater. As a consequence of his absence, he had four difficult surgeries to perform on his first day back. Gird your loins and get back in the saddle, Niles. For Christ’s sake, this is your life. It was an unfortunate accident. They happen, man. It wasn’t deliberate. Stop persecuting yourself!
By the time Bellamy prepped for the first operation, his confidence had mostly returned. Just another transmyocardial revascularization. How many of those have you done? Dozens without a complication, right? So get it done, Niles. Life goes on. This is what you do, and you’re goddamn good at it.
His first procedure went smoothly, but halfway through his second, things took a disastrous turn when he saw a fly climb from the small incision he had made in his patient’s chest. Oh Jesus, What the . . . But this time rather than swipe at it as he’d done before, he pressed his scalpel against the insect, cutting it in half. Yet with the same motion, he pushed it back into the incision’s opening, severing vital tissue and causing his patient extreme hemorrhaging.
It took Bellamy a few crucial seconds to realize what he had done and then he desperately attempted to stem the effusive bleeding. His patient quickly flatlined and was declared dead shortly after. Remarkably, once again, no one in the operating room had witnessed Bellamy’s actions, and as before he made no effort to assume blame. However, he was deeply shaken and cancelled the rest of his surgeries for the day. Was it really there? Am I seeing things? How could this be happening? You killed another patient. I can’t operate any more. I’m done. Totally frigging done, he thought, changing into his street clothes.
* * *
That night, Bellamy contacted the head of the hospital’s surgical department and informed him that he was taking a leave of absence.
“Is this because of the recent loss of your patients, Niles?”
“I just need some time, Ted. I haven’t taken a breather in four years, and I need to get away for a while.”
“Don’t torment yourself about what happened. You know you did everything you could. It comes with the territory. You can’t save everybody. That’s not the way it works, Niles.”
“Well, it’s just gotten to me. I need to clear my head and calm my nerves. My hands are...I’ll take a month and then be back at it.”
“Do what you have to do, Niles. I understand.”
“Hey, Ted, can you have maintenance check the surgical suites to make sure that nothing is getting in them? That they’re totally sealed?”
“What would be getting in there?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I think I saw something flying around in OR-2.”
“Really? Jeez, I don’t see how that’s possible, but I’ll have it checked out.”
“Thanks, Ted. Just a precaution.”
* * *
Bellamy pleaded with his wife, Madeline, to take a couple weeks off from her law firm, but she claimed it was impossible given the heavy caseload she had. In turn, she encouraged him to go away alone, arguing that it would be better for him to be by himself.
“You need to regain your focus and confidence...get some real rest, Niles. I don’t know what’s bugging you, but you haven’t been yourself for a while.”
Bugging me...yeah, that’s the right word. I’m going nuts because of a freaking bug, thought Bellamy, still trying to convince his wife to accompany him.
“I just can’t. These cases are crucial to the firm, and there’s no one there able to take over for me. I’ve been working on these lawsuits for months. I’m sorry, honey. You go, and if I can get a couple of days between court appearances, I’ll join you. God knows I could use a little R&R, too.”
“Fine...fine. I’ll go, but only for a week if you’re not coming,” pouted Bellamy.
“No, you need more than a week to return to your old self. Book three weeks, and I’ll promise to come down for a few days, or at least two.”
Bellamy reluctantly agreed to Madeline’s plan, and the next afternoon he was on a plane headed to the Caribbean. As soon as he exited the airport terminal at his destination, he felt better. The sunshine seemed wonderful after the long grey months of winter in Cleveland. It is good to get away. I’ve got to put it back together, or I won’t be worth anything to anyone, thought Niles, catching a cab to his hotel.
* * *
The first thing Bellamy did when he arrived at his room was to change into his shorts and take a seat on the terrace overlooking the hotel pool and nearby beach. Yes, this is good...really good. He soon nodded off as the warm sea breeze wafted over him. When he woke up an hour later, he felt even better than he had. Hungry, he called room service and ordered a sandwich and garden salad.
“Oh, and I’d like a Tanqueray martini extra dry with olives and rocks on the side.”
Room service soon arrived with his order and placed it on a small table on the terrace. It was at that moment that, to his dread, Bellamy noticed a large fly near the server’s head. He instantly swung at the insect and in the process struck the head of the diminutive hotel employee with considerable force. The blow caused the man to lose his balance and topple off the sixth floor balcony.
Bellamy screamed in horror as the server struck the cement skirt surrounding the hotel pool. Several sunbathers ran for cover as the pool water began to turn crimson from the runoff of the victim’s blood. Vacationers on an adjacent balcony called for help as Niles remained too shocked to move. In minutes, police were pounding on his door. As soon as he responded, he was cuffed and taken to the local jail.
Witnesses at the hotel claimed they had seen Bellamy attack the hotel employee. Despite his representation by one of the best lawyers chosen by his wife, the court convicted him of murder, and he was sentenced to 20 years in the island prison.
“It was an accident. I was just trying to kill goddamn a fly,” mumbled Niles repeatedly as he was led away to begin his long incarceration.
At first the prison guards joked about the behavior of their new inmate, who swatted frantically at the empty air in his small cell.
“Loco,” they laughed, “El medico es un loco.”
But they soon tired of the bizarre scene and began to pay little attention to the once prominent heart surgeon.
The only way Bellamy could escape the constant assault of the hundreds of flies that occupied his cell was through sleep. And even then he could often feel them land on his skin.
Michael C. Keith writes fiction and teaches college.
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