This is part three of another exercise from The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich. The idea is to write the same scene from three different perspectives, and see explore how the exact same event can be different from a different character’s point of view. This is similar to the four part “Genesis” exercise I did earlier, except instead of first person I’m utilizing subjective third person. I used Novakovich’s suggestion for the event my scene is based around, which takes place in a doctor’s office.
Cathy Vidic knew Dr. Herbert wasn’t the kind of doctor Ms. Hayes needed. Right when she checked Ms. Hayes in, Cathy could tell this was the confident kind of woman who didn’t need any hand-holding; if anything, Lisa Hayes needed a subtle directness. Analyzing and adapting to patients is what Cathy did best. It’s what made her a good nurse. Even when Cathy’s first impression was wrong, she could usually catch her error and adjust her behavior to fit the patient’s needs. She wasn’t perfect, of course—Cathy was certain there were those she read wrong—but she did her best.
But she knew Ms. Hayes right from the start. Lisa had requested a “doctor patient with paps” as she had “vaginismus (a pelvic floor dysfunction), which caused muscle spasms and made such exams difficult” for her. Not wishy-washy, but not harsh—just a woman who knew what her body was about. The exact kind of patient Dr. Herbert would be incompetent to treat.
Of course, in Cathy’s opinion, Dr. Herbert was incompetent to treat any patient. He was a good doctor, certainly, and highly intelligent; but given his social skills, Cathy thought his talents would be better used in a research facility, discovering a vaccination for Chlamydia or something. He shouldn’t be working with patients.
The only reason he was perceived so well by the women who were his patients was entirely on them, and not the skills of Dr. Herbert. The women he saw were mostly older, belonging to a generation that wasn’t educated about their bodies. They were ignorant, and as such they didn’t really perceive what was good doctoring. (This wasn’t to say all older women were like that. There were plenty—like Cathy—that knew a good doctor when they saw one and knew Doctor Herbert wasn’t it.)
As soon as Lisa had been assigned Dr. Herbert, Cathy tried to get someone else for the young woman. “Look,” said the head nurse, who was something of a despot—“this girl wants a patient doctor, she gets Doctor Herbert. If she didn’t want a man to examine her, she shouldn’t have made a fuss.” That nurse always infuriated Cathy. Their job was to help people—not punish patients for making tiny requests.
Cathy and Lisa got on just fine. Cathy phrased her questions to be objective yet specific to Lisa—like a business way of doing things. Lisa seemed to take to that dialect, so Cathy stayed with it. She could tell Lisa was feeling a bit victimized by the system, and who could blame her? When Cathy asked if Lisa had tried seeing a physical therapist for her vaginismus, the young woman just shook her head. “I can’t afford it.”
“Won’t your health insurance pay for it? If you had a doctor’s referral . . .”
“Nope. As long as I can get a pap, they don’t care about anything else. I suppose I could always lie and say I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t relax enough . . .”
“As of yet we don’t offer a forgery service, but I’d be happy to suggest it.” That got a laugh from her, but Cathy could sense the bitterness in it.
After leaving Lisa in the exam room to prep the tools needed for the pap, Cathy happened to see Dr. Herbert. She gently caught his arm. “Excuse me, Doctor . . . I don’t mean to bother you, but . . . I just wanted to make you aware that this is a younger woman, and you might want to talk to her a little differently than you do your other patients.”
Cathy knew the moment she started talking that this was a mistake. Dr. Herbert was so confident in his bedside manner that even a suggestion would set him on edge. “Thank you, Nurse Vidic, for your concern regarding the patient’s well-being. But I assure you I’m quite capable of putting my patients feelings and comfort above all else.” With that, he returned to his files. Cathy sighed and left to prep the materials. “It’s that attitude that worries me . . .” He was so arrogant! Now he’d be so full of himself, she doubted he’d notice if his patient was a baby giraffe, let alone uncomfortable.
Cathy felt bad for Lisa. She was at the mercy of the system, from her non-humanitarian insurance all the way down to the tyrannical head nurse of the clinic. And Dr. Herbert wouldn’t help with the matter. At best, he’d just leave Lisa feeling more used; at worst, the clinic was likely to have a sexual harassment law-suit on their hands. Cathy thought all this as she was arranging the tools for the exam—that’s when she noticed the scalpel. Cathy grabbed it and set it on the tray. She supposed she’d put in there for Lisa; in case she was feeling victimized or abused, she’d at least have a weapon to defend herself within reach. Not that Dr. Herbert would intentionally harass her, but he certainly could unintentionally. Then again, Cathy could hope that Dr. Herbert would prove her wrong about his social ineptness.
Unfortunately, he didn’t. From the moment he walked into the room, Cathy could see the disaster about to strike. Dr. Herbert wasn’t even making eye-contact with Lisa—he just immediately assumed what was going to make her comfortable and didn’t even bother to check Lisa for confirmation. And the way Lisa looked to Cathy, practically screaming “why on earth are you letting this man continue?” made the nurse feel like a co-conspirator against the young woman. Cathy felt so helpless.
There were a few times when Cathy was tempted to give Dr. Herbert a light smack upside that pompous head of his. Not while Lisa was changing and he tried to shoo Cathy out—that was just insulting. But when he kept touching Lisa without warning her, making her tense before they even got to the pap; when he down-talked her and over-explained everything . . . If Lisa hadn’t asked her to stay, Cathy would’ve gone straight to the head nurse and demanded a different doctor. It was just so upsetting to see this smart young woman suffering because of other people’s egos. This wasn’t what health care was supposed to be about.
She wanted to do something during the pap. She almost asked Dr. Herbert to leave—as a RN, Cathy was qualified to take a simple, routine pap like that. She’d have more success than Dr. Herbert, that was for sure. But she kept her mouth shut—an argument in the exam room (which was sure to happen the moment Cathy asked Dr. Herbert to leave) wasn’t going to help Lisa try to control her spasms. But as Dr. Herbert continued, Cathy realized that Lisa could probably handle an argument better than the Doctor’s incompetence. Cathy stood, and decided she should phrase her suggestion as a question; the easier she was on Dr. Herbert’s ego, the more likely he was to comply and leave the room.
That’s when it happened. Lisa had grabbed the scalpel, and used it to slice Dr. Herbert’s ear. For the first time in his six years at the clinic, Cathy heard him say “hell.” What shocked her wasn’t Lisa’s action (someone suffering from severe vaginismus could attack even the best doctor), but rather Cathy’s own pleasure at it. While a part of her was happy that Lisa had done something to give her a sense of control—even if it wasn’t the most positive thing—Cathy knew it was mostly her own little ego that was pleased at seeing Dr. Herbert knocked off his high-horse.
Cathy took control of the crisis, of course. She reassured Lisa they’d get another doctor for her, as she led Doctor Herbert out of the room. She hoped Lisa wouldn’t get sued for assault—she’d do everything she could to make sure Lisa didn’t get sued.
Dr. Herbert proved to be far more compassionate than Cathy had realized. Even while she bandaged him up, all he could talk about was getting better help for Lisa. Granted, his assertions were all wrong, but at least he cared. That was what mattered.
But when she went to the head nurse, and told her what happened . . . well. Cathy felt like she had her own scalpel to slice with. After delivering the news, she added “Next time a patient makes a request I’d say we’d do well to listen to it. Rather than teaching them what’s-what for ‘making a fuss,’ that is. Wouldn’t you?”