Chapter 1 – Dr. Farouk Madani

2011/12/15, 23:18:16 – Department of Coroner, Medical Examiner’s Office

I would have done it, even without the money. Regardless of having a license or not, I am a doctor, and I chose my profession because I wanted to help people. I had sworn to Allah that I would use my skills to ease human suffering to the best of my ability. Having an injured man brought before me, in dire need of medical help, how could I not do all within my power to treat him?

But the money bought my silence. That, of course, was what the rich man wanted: “No questions asked.” And I know enough from experience – both in Iraq and in America – that when a man is injured by bullets and he has rich, powerful friends who do not want questions asked, one does not ask those questions, or one risks incurring similar injuries. So I silently began the task of treating the patient.

If I did not have to concentrate so hard on the delicate procedures, I might have become angry at the rich man’s demand. He had come into the morgue, pretending to belong in my workplace, with information about me which bared my life almost as much as the cadavers brought in naked for an autopsy. He had dumped an obscene amount of US dollars (declining in value yet still the most sought-after currency in the world) on my table, then stepped back, assuming that I would be bought for the price of a license to do his bidding.

Rich, powerful men are all the same, regardless of color or country – they think that any man can be bought, as long as the price is right. Well, they think wrong. Or at least, I was not “any man,” or I would not have been forced to flee my native country to wield a scalpel only on the dead, making a meager wage compared to what my colleagues in the hospitals made – some of them not even as careful with their patients as I.

Oh, yes… I have seen some of their handiwork. Patients ravaged by cancer, patched together with not even a thought for their comfort or dignity. The scars from their sutures spoke louder than any toxicology report: their physicians cared not for their well-being once they knew how little time they had to live. They did as little as possible, merely to collect the money from the surgery, and moved on to other, more lucrative patients. It angered me that some of them were still allowed to practice medicine when they did more harm than good – increasing the suffering of those already dying – with their supposed “treatment.” Insha’Allah, may there be justice for those who suffer needlessly at the hands of such vultures!

But as I worked on the injured man, the rich man tried to assist me, and I noticed that he, too, had injuries, although his were old and accustomed to. His labored movements told me of their severity, for even with the best medicine America had to offer (and with the money he had at his disposal, no doubt it had been the very best medicine) he was not able to overcome the lingering effects. He must have sensed my eyes on him as he took away the bloody towel, for he gave me a sharp look of reprimand as he returned. Yes, of course: “No questions asked.” I focused my attention on the bleeding man lying on the gurney.

This man was an open book. He was a soldier, as every shrapnel scar and healed gunshot wound declared. To my query, the rich man answered that he had been given two painkillers an hour before, but that would have merely dulled the pain; still, the soldier was awake, even alert for the most part, bearing the added pain of the stitching without a word of complaint. Here was a fighter, one who knew how to forge through the pain if necessary. He was silent now only in order to save his strength. I had no doubt that if the men who had shot him burst into the room, he would be on his feet in an instant, ready to fight back.

So, I had a rich man, injured some time in the past, who was willing to pay a small fortune to have the soldier treated for gunshot wounds by a man whose silence (he assumed) could be bought. What kind of trouble were they involved in? Drugs? Most likely, although the rich man did not seem like the type – but then again, even the rich needed someone to supply them with their drugs, did they not? And perhaps the soldier was his bodyguard or runner. Perhaps it had been an altercation with a rival drug supplier. They all seemed to have guns these days, even the boys who peddled it to their fellow schoolchildren.

I finished suturing the entry wound on the front of the soldier and indicated that I would have to roll him on his side to treat the exit wound on his back. The soldier attempted to move himself but the rich man stopped him.

“John, don’t – just rest now,” he scolded, pulling away the soldier’s hand from the railing which it had gripped in preparation for the effort.

Between the rich man and I, we were able to reposition him without much trouble, since the soldier (though tall) was lean. The rich man kept his hands on the soldier’s back, supporting him while I cleaned the wound and began my work. As I stood next to him, I realized that the rich man was trembling – ever so slightly, and yet, there it was: the first hint that this man was human after all, despite his uncanny knowledge of my situation and ruthless determination to take advantage of it. While suturing a particularly badly frayed piece of the soldier’s flesh, I realized that the rich man’s strange demeanor did not come from an imperious assumption of my acquiescence but from something much more common, much more basic, which I should have recognized much sooner: fear.

He was afraid that the soldier would die – afraid that I would not be able to give him the treatment that he needed. Compared to that fear, the fear that I might not comply with his wishes had been secondary, maybe not even worth considering. He had brought a bagful of money, unceremoniously dumping it on my table in the hopes that it would buy my silence, but even that was irrelevant if I could not save the soldier. The money itself was worthless to him unless it could buy the other man’s life. Had I thought or even wished to make such a demand, he probably would have brought more.

So then, the soldier was more than a hired mercenary or even a business partner. They could not be brothers, as there was nothing in their features to suggest even a remote familial resemblance. Friends, then? Possibly. But remembering how agitated the rich man had been when he had first made his demand – and it had been agitation, I saw now – how his eyes could not be wrenched away from the soldier for more than a second, roving from one wound to the other and then back to the pallor of his face… I hit upon the truth: they were lovers.

Such shameful things were forbidden in my country, and those found guilty of perversity were soon punished by their family, community, and law; however, in America they were allowed to live freely in their sin, even to demand celebrations of their strange obsession. I felt my flesh crawl as I thought of these two men doing that which was against nature, but I swallowed down my disgust. The man before me was bleeding and in pain – my responsibility was to ensure that he would heal from his wounds, nothing more nor less. What Allah required of him in the Judgment after death was none of my concern.

Finally finished with the largest of his injuries, I placed clean bandages over it and taped them securely. Once the soldier was resting on his back again, the rich man hobbled to the sink and returned with dampened paper towels, which he used to gently wipe the sweat from the soldier’s face.

“He is lucky that the bullet did not penetrate his intestines,” I said as I worked on his thigh wound, worried that they might begin to show more effusive signs of their unholy affection and hoping to prevent it. “A few centimeters more to the inside and not even the best ER in the city could have saved him.”

“Not luck,” the soldier replied, startling both of us. “He wasn’t… aiming to kill.”

“Oh, of course… how considerate of him,” the rich man said with bitter sarcasm.

“We were trained… hit right there… Least amount of… permanent damage… but… high yield of pain. Supposed to… incapacitate… subject…”

“Hush,” the rich man whispered, taking one of the soldier’s bloody hands and wiping it with the paper towel. “At least you’re still alive… and I plan to keep it that way. Just relax and let me take care of this.”

There was a part of me that was repulsed by the tenderness conveyed by those words, but at the same time I could not remain unmoved by what they were going through. It was obvious that the soldier was the stronger of the two, ordinarily, but with him “incapacitated” as it were, the rich man was struggling to provide the strength and fortitude they both needed to get through this ordeal. I continued to stitch away at the front of the soldier’s thigh, relieved to find that the bullet had not nicked his bone. I had already ascertained that it had not hit his femoral artery – if it had, he would have been dead by the time he had been rolled into the morgue.

The rich man finally stopped his nervous cleaning of the soldier’s hands and now simply held them in his own. The gesture reminded me of a time in Najaf when a man was brought in with an acute case of Volvulus – a rare, dangerous condition in which a portion of intestine twists upon itself and must be surgically corrected, even removed. As the pain had seized him in the ride to the hospital, he had gripped his wife’s hands so tightly that even placed under anesthesia, he had not released them. The wife begged me to allow her to stand by her husband during the surgery, so I had the nurses cover her burqa with a sterile sheet. She stood there, praying under her breath, for the entire three hours it took to treat her husband. When we were ready to wheel him out to the recovery room, she had collapsed, but she still had not removed her hands from his.

It was the same sense of oneness, of unity, that I perceived from the two men in my morgue now. They needed each other as life and breath, as necessary as blood and bone and flesh. I could not understand how this could be, and yet, undeniably, it was so. I had completed the stitching required on the front of the soldier’s leg, so I motioned to the rich man that we would have to roll him again, this time on his other side – the side with the abdominal wound. It would not be pleasant for the soldier.

“Do you need more medication?” the rich man asked him, already pulling out a prescription bottle.

“No… No more drugs,” the soldier said, his voice soft yet sure. “Don’t worry – I’ve had far worse before.”

The calmness with which he delivered the statement was what unnerved me. It was not an empty boast, but a certitude born of experience. Earlier, I had seen some tell-tale scars on his chest as I had cleaned it with disinfectant, and what I had suspected then, I now knew as a fact: this man had been tortured. He was more than a common soldier – he was a survivor.

As I began stitching the last open wound on his body, I saw some of his muscles tense, ever so slightly. The medication must have worn off. But the man merely took deeper breaths to master the pain, and after a moment – since he was facing the rich man, who was holding him on his side – he began to speak in a low tone meant only for his lover.

“Harold, I almost forgot to tell you… the girls are all right.”

“Of course they are… I wouldn’t have expected any less of you,” the rich man replied, his overly gruff manner belying the depth of his emotion. He might even have been holding back tears.

“They’re safe now… They can take care of their mom’s house.”

At the first mention of “girls,” my hands had almost stopped their work, for I thought these men might be human traffickers. But I immediately realized that a man who traded in human flesh would not think to report on the safety of his commodity while having his bullet wounds sewn together. No, those sorts of men would give no thought to other human lives while their own bodies were wracked with pain. I chastised myself for even suspecting such a thing and realized, as I continued working on the soldier’s leg, that I had come to respect and admire him in so short a time. And when he said that they were “safe,” I found myself believing him.

“I’m sorry, Harold…” he whispered. “I shouldn’t have called Carter… It’s all my fault…”

“John, never mind that now!”

“But she saw you,” he insisted. “If I hadn’t screwed up, she would’ve never known…”

“John, just… try to rest,” the rich man sighed, placing one hand tenderly on his lover’s face. “It will all work out, I promise. You just need to concentrate on getting better…”

“Thank you, Harold… for coming to rescue me.”

This time, the trembling in the rich man’s body was too obvious for either of us to miss. He grasped the soldier’s hands again in an effort to stop it, or at least make it less noticeable, but he could not trust his voice to speak without betraying him. So he simply gripped his lover’s hands, without another word, until I had finished stitching and bandaging him.

I went along to help the rich man get his lover into his car – an expensive car, with bloodstains now on the back seat – but was startled when the soldier tried to stand on his one good leg.

“No, don’t try – not yet!” I hastily cautioned. “There are too many muscles connected from the thigh to the abdomen and you could rip out the stitches. They have tools for getting in and out of a wheelchair – they sell them at most medical supply stores – but for now, we use this.”

I pulled out an old backboard (a discontinued model that had somehow been left in our building) and lowered the gurney he was on until I could slide him down along the backboard onto the passenger seat. The rich man had moved into the driver’s seat to assist from inside, and he now directed me on how to move the seat back and recline it as far as possible. That allowed the tall soldier to lie in relative comfort.

“Here, take this – we don’t need it,” I said, placing the old backboard in the car. “You will have someone to help you get him out, yes?” I checked.

“Yes, plenty of strong men,” the rich man assured me.

“That is good. Take care of my first living patient in America,” I told him with a grin, adding, “Your secrets are safe with me. Go in peace.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” the rich man said, his eyes warm and human.

The soldier reached for my hand and clasped it. “Thank you,” he echoed, his voice soft but his grip strong, adding, “Wa alaikum as-salaam.”

Yes, indeed – insha’Allah, may peace abound to us all.

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