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He’s staring pointedly at my framed diplomas stacked against the wall behind my desk, still waiting to be hung. Beside them, there’s a mountain of issues of European Spine Journal and old textbooks. Spinal hardware litters most of my couch. Admittedly, it’s a mess. It’s why I meet my patients in the conference room for consultations.
“It’s like stepping into the laboratory of a mad scientist,” he notes with a teasing smile. “I wouldn’t be surprised to find the secrets of the universe in here.”
He’s wasting my precious time. “What can I do for you, Dr. Lopez?”
“Oh right—busy busy. We doctors never have enough time, do we? Well, I’m about to get a lot more of it actually. You’ve heard I’m retiring, haven’t you?” A rumor has been circulating for months, but I never thought he’d actually go through with it so soon. He has another five years of surgery left in him, ten if he pushed himself. “Yup. Laurie’s pretty excited. She has all sorts of plans for us for the coming months—a Caribbean cruise, holidays with the grandkids. Your parents live here, right?”
I nod as I start sorting through my emails, triaging the most important ones and deleting the ones from medical device reps I don’t care to entertain.
“Lucky for them. They’ll be close by when you have kids. All the better to spoil them rotten.”
Kids. My gut clenches. Right. I tense and finally glance up at him.
“Congratulations on your retirement,” I say, my voice professional and unfriendly. “Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?”
He grins and threads his fingers together on his lap. He looks mighty comfortable in my office, like he plans on staying here for quite some time.
“Sort of. You’ve probably heard me mention my surgical assistant a time or two?”
I rack my brain but nothing comes to mind. “If you have, I wasn’t listening.”
He laughs. “Never one to bullshit are you, Dr. Russell? Anyway, Bailey is great, one of the best damn surgical assistants I’ve ever had, but unfortunately, I’m going to leave her high and dry in a few weeks when I retire.”
“Why is that my problem?”
He shakes his head, and then wags a Let me teach you something finger at me. “Bailey isn’t your problem, but she could be your salvation. Kirt put in his two weeks’ notice—”
“Kirt was never going to last. He doesn’t have the stomach for surgery.”
I arch a brow and give him my best bored expression. “Just say what you’re hinting at or get out of my office. I have shit to do before my resident arrives.”
He stands and leans over, pressing the button on my office phone that connects me to my secretary.
“Patricia, are you at your desk yet?”
A second later, her words bite through the line. “What do you want? It’s too damn early. I haven’t even had my coffee yet.”
“I understand and I apologize for the inconvenience,” Dr. Lopez says, his voice full of deference for the woman who actually wears the pants in this place. “But would you mind checking real quick to see how many surgical assistants have applied to replace Kirt?”
I get his point even before there’s a long silence, followed by a chuckle from Patricia. “No one yet, but I only put the ad out a couple of days ago.”
Dr. Lopez is wearing a shit-eating grin. “That’s what I thought. Thank you, Patricia. Now you can go enjoy that cup of coffee and I won’t bother you again.”
His finger lifts up off the intercom button and silence fills my office. We stare at each other across my desk. He couldn’t be making his point any clearer if he was waving his hands wildly overhead, pointing to a marquee that spelled out, Matt, you insufferable asshole, no one wants to work with you!
I look away first and clear my throat. “I get it. You can get out of my office now.”
He fails to hide a big victorious smile before he turns for the door and I think he’s finally going to leave me in peace, but then he throws out one last piece of advice over his shoulder. “I know you like to operate as a lone wolf, but the best surgeons know how to be team players. You’d be an idiot to let Bailey slip through your fingers. She’s been my right hand for the last four years, and if circumstances in her life had been different, she would have made a damn good surgeon herself. Take my advice and hire her before it’s too late.”
The time has come: Dr. Lopez’s last week with the practice. He’s taken to wearing Hawaiian shirts under his white coat. Vacation brochures litter his desk. Movers will be here on Friday to pack up his office. He has one foot out the door, and I still don’t have a new job. He agreed it was best for me to contact a headhunter, and she found a few open positions. Unfortunately, none of them quite fit the bill. Most are too far away. Some are even across the country, not to mention the salaries weren’t as high as what I make here. I’d be taking a major gamble, moving Josie, and earning less, all in the hopes that the surgeon I end up working for is half as decent as Dr. Lopez.
At this point, it almost makes more sense to switch specialties. I tell this to Dr. Lopez on Monday while we’re eating lunch in his office, printed emails from the headhunter spread out on his desk between us. We’ve already found something wrong with every single one of them.
He acts deeply affronted by the idea of me moving out of spine.
“You’d be bored out of your mind on another floor,” he says, sipping on coconut water while luau music plays from his computer.
I shrug, trying to come up with another specialty that would interest me. “General ortho wouldn’t be so bad.”
He narrows his eyes as if I just said I wouldn’t mind dabbling in prostitution. “Remind me again why you don’t want to just take the position with Dr. Russell?”
“Well, first off, he hasn’t offered it to me.”
“Because you haven’t applied.”
“And also, I’ve heard the horror stories.”
“Can I offer you some insight?”
I tip my head to the side and present a knowing half-smile. “You’re going to anyway. Why ask?”
He cuts the music and leans forward in his chair. The tone of our conversation changes in an instant. “We all know simple, successful surgeries are lucrative. There are enough routine fusions to keep this practice afloat for the next decade. Dr. Russell doesn’t see it that way, though. To him, the second a procedure becomes routine, it means he’s not pushing himself hard enough. He’s high-strung and intense in the operating room because he’s striving to do better, to be better. Why do you think the gallery in his OR is standing-room only? Why do you think people travel from all around the world to observe him while he operates? It’s not because he’s playing it safe, and it’s not because he’s a mild-mannered surgeon. I completely understand if you don’t want to work with him. Hell, I wouldn’t. Give it some thought, though, kid. Worst-case scenario, we reassess and try to place you with a surgeon down on two.”
He knows what he’s doing. The second floor is where the hand surgeons operate. I’d be assisting on outpatient carpal tunnel procedures day in and day out, and I would bash my head against a hard object within the first few days.
As the day progresses and the deadline to make my decision looms closer and closer, I try to mostly ignore his words of wisdom, but I can’t. He’s striving to do better, to be better. Right. That’s all well and good, but Kirt had to pop TUMS like they were candy while he was working for him. Word on the street is the guy’s currently in therapy for PTSD.
Still, a small part of me wonders if Kirt might have been exaggerating. It occurs to me that I’ve let the rumors about Dr. Russell taint my perception of him past the point of logic. I mean, most of them aren’t even believable. Making device reps cry? Firing surgical assistants in the middle of a procedure? That one time he was supposedly so mean to a nurse she sued the company for subjecting her to a hostile work environment and won the case? According to urban legend, she lives on a private island near St. Barts. Even I can admit that’s probably unlikely.