Distance and affinity

I’m pretty sure he’s Filipino, from his chestnut skin and rolling accent. He wears a short-sleeved shirt, pale blue, with his name embroidered on the pocket: Paul. The same name as the Filipino nurse I met in my first rotation as a fresh-faced intern: too-friendly young Paul who stood against me in the medication room and pressed his hand over mine and made me freeze.

This Paul is a generation above. Salt-and-pepper hair, thinning at the temples. A slight stoop to his shoulders. A slight paunch at the gut. He walks along the corridor towards me, tacking to one side with the weight of his bucket and mop.

‘Hello! Where are you from?’ His round eyes regard me warmly, as though we’ve met dozens of times before. Perhaps I remind him of a daughter, or a niece, or an old girlfriend.

I smile and reel out the words I must have said a hundred times.

‘Oh, I thought you look Filipino! I’m Paul. Are you the new doctor?’

I nod sheepishly, glancing away from his cleaning equipment.

Over the next six months, we wave intermittently at each other, and exchange simple words, with a mixture of distance and affinity.

The Hospital Is Not Your Mother

– Hey, Younger Me.

– What’s up, Older Me?

– What’s going on with you? Why are you slaving away at work? Why are you losing sleep over stress?

– There’s too much work. I have fifteen patients to see in a day, but even if I skip lunch and write my notes really fast and speed-walk between wards, I can only see ten.

– Please take a lunch break.

– But if I don’t take a lunch break, maybe I can leave work on time.

– Take a bloody lunch break.

– Well, I’m having lunch with my supervisor while we do an assessment.

– Didn’t you do an assessment last week?

– There are so many to get through. We have to do one almost every week. I prepped til 11pm last night and then I couldn’t fall asleep.

– Oh dear.

– I need to make a good impression with my supervisor, so he’ll give me a good mark for the rotation, and a good reference for my next job.

– I know.

– I have to go. They’re paging me about an aggressive patient in ED.

– But you were just going to pee.

– I have a large bladder.

– Hey, Younger Me. Just wait up one sec.

– Yeah?

– Stop killing yourself for the hospital.

– What?

– Pieces of yourself. Your time, strength, purpose and passion. You’re giving it to the hospital. What for? They’re not going to give you any love. The hospital is not your mother. To them, you’re a mere cog.

– I’m doing it for my patients.

– Not anymore. Not when you’re like this. Go home, Younger Me. Step out of the whirlwind, just for a space, and you’ll see.

– I can’t. They’re paging me in ED. I’ll see you later.

Two Minute Research

He walks past me, doubles back, and approaches with an earnest smile. Black backpack. Black skinny jeans. Black sneakers.

‘Hi! Do you have two minutes? I’m doing some research and I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions.’

We are kin unmet: brittle black hair,  almond-shaped eyes, olive skin that holds scars easily. There is an immediate sense of similarity.

‘What sort of research?’ I ask, tucking my handbag in to my side.

‘I’m doing a theology course.’

It’s not an answer, but more than an answer. He talks about his studies, and I’m listening, but he’s not telling me much. I smile and listen harder.

‘Mind if I pull up a seat? I’ve been walking around all day.’

We sit, knees pointing together, in the foyer of the library. He’s talking about his faith now. I wait for the research to begin. At my elbow is another Chinese girl, playing on her phone. Several feet away, a tall white man huddles over his laptop.

‘I was wondering, where are you at, in your beliefs? Do you believe in God?’

I stare into his crinkled eyes. I’m at the end of my journey; he’s in the middle of his. The question is a bridge through time. I could tell him so much, but it’s impossible in this space. I give him a single word answer.