GOALPOSTS • by T.Y. Euliano

“Why do we have to rotate on Labor and Delivery?” I say. “It has nothing to do with neurosurgery.”

“Oh for God’s sake,” Sheila says. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and some poor pregnant woman will have a brain tumor, just for you.” But I don’t think she means it. Probably.

I have zero interest in gynecology, even less in obstetrics, but neurosurgery residency is competitive, so I have to get A’s, which means studying it all, and feigning interest each rotation. I honed my skills on pediatrics — such annoying people… and then there were the kids. A few were semi-cute, one played peek-a-boo from his mother’s lap, another grabbed my stethoscope and put it on his head. Maybe he realized I’m a neurosurgeon-in-training. Once the vaccinations appeared though, the cuteness dissolved into a red-faced shriek. Kids are, at their core, unpredictable. The one thing I can’t handle.

Now it’s my wife’s turn on pediatrics, which is good. She’s been a little weird since her OB rotation — cooing at babies and making goofy faces at toddlers. Don’t get me wrong, the faces are adorable, but it’s as if a switch has flipped in her brain. A dangerous switch that was supposed to stay firmly in the off position for the foreseeable future. We agreed. I should have pressed for it in writing.

Last week, out of the blue, she said, “The chief resident on OB has two kids. We don’t have to wait for graduation.”

Once I could speak, I reminded her of our schedule: years of residency, then years of debt to repay, then years to reclaim all the living we missed out on, and then a child. She was deaf to reason.

“Imagine a baby with your eyes and my nose,” she’d said. Sheila does have a cute nose.

“More likely it would end up with my nose.” I have a very dominant nose.

“Oh God, never mind,” she said, laughing her beautiful laugh, and she kissed my very dominant nose.

I thought we were good, back on schedule, until last night. “We should start trying to have a baby, in case we have fertility problems.” Fertility problems? Fertility is the problem.

“Who are you, and what have you done with the single-minded, high-achieving, goal-directed woman I love?” I reminded her, complete with visuals, of our life’s goalposts, framing multiple diplomas — MDs, residencies, a fellowship or two, alongside photos of us sky-diving and canyoneering and heli-skiing. “A baby now would disrupt the plan.”

She was quiet after that, my reasoning too sound for argument, but woke up grumpy, probably dreading pediatrics. I feel for her, especially starting on Newborn Nursery, but the experience should flip that switch right back where it belongs for another decade or so and return my wife.

As we enter the hospital, she says, “Have fun on OB, I loved it,” with that weird, wistful smile.

I give her my skeptical eyebrow raise, it always makes her smile, except today.

“You could try having an open mind for once.” She does not appreciate my snicker. “Is it so impossible?”

Whoa. “Open mind, get it? Neurosurgeon, opening minds?”

She doesn’t get it.

***

The first two vaginal deliveries are snapped up by fellow students, all starry-eyed at the prospect. Perfect. Not my, umm, area. I’d rather assist with the C-section; at least that’s surgery.

At Sheila’s voice, I turn. She’s presenting a patient to the pediatrics team on rounds in the hallway. So competent and articulate. Our eyes meet and I get a small smile. She does have a cute nose.

I return to my patient’s chart. Healthy, first baby, elective Cesarean for breech presentation. A minor operation, as operations go. Nothing compared to aneurysms and brain tumors.

As I approach, my game-face of stoic professionalism firmly in place, the patient and her husband smile broadly. Smiles in preop. Weird. I introduce myself. “I’m a medical student on the OB team.”

“Welcome to the birthday party.” She pats her protuberant abdomen.

“Hard to believe we finally get to meet our little guy,” her husband says.

Funny, I’d never thought about it quite like that. They go in as a couple, and come out as three, a family.

“Ready?” The anesthesiologist also smiles. I’ve landed on another planet, a galaxy far far away from neurosurgery.

As the OR staff prepare the patient, I’m fascinated by the activity of her abdomen.

“Your baby knows it’s time,” the nurse says. I wonder.

I scrub, gown and glove. The OR is my future, except this surgical patient is chatting with her husband. I glance over the drapes, intercepting a look between them that burns into my retinas — like fireworks and ‘I do’ and bungee jumping.

Moments later, the resident has reached the uterus and curly hair appears through the incision. “Slide your hand beneath the head and lift,” the resident instructs.  Soon the shoulders emerge, followed by arms, legs. A baby boy.

As the resident clamps the cord, my eyes are glued to the perfect little face, screwed up in a cry. Not the annoying, unpredictable cry of pediatrics, but the welcome squall of new life. He grasps my finger with his tiny hand and my breath catches for the first time since Sheila said, “yes.”

“Show him to Mom and Dad,” the resident says.

I hold him in my arms and show him to his sobbing, smiling, elated parents. “He has your nose,” the mom says. Their coos and cries fade to the background. They made this little person. One only they could make. Their future. He calms and blinks, long eyelashes hiding dark blue irises. In his face I see goalposts framing first smiles and first steps, Christmas mornings and Little League.

I hear Sheila say, “Our turn,” and think maybe. She takes the infant, and in that moment, the ground shifts beneath us. Not an earthquake, but a tremor, a small opening, of my mind, of our goalposts. Maybe just large enough for a baby.


T.Y. Euliano, MD writes medical thrillers inspired by her day job as a physician, researcher and medical educator. She is a tenured professor at the University of Florida and has been honored with numerous teaching awards, nearly 100,000 views of her YouTube teaching videos, and was featured in a calendar of women inventors. Her short fiction has been recognized by Glimmer Train, Crime Bake, Bards and Sages, and the Faulkner Society; her debut novel, The Cure, was a finalist for RWA’s Daphne Award. Her blog is dedicated to helping writers get the medical details right.


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