Sneak Peek! Chapter 1 of Distant Cousin: Two Worlds Daughter

It was a late winter day in the spring semester when, as he did every year, Dr. Ernest Cheever, senior professor at The University of New Mexico Medical School, led a small group of top medical students on a diagnostic tour for UNM-Med's Rural Medical program. In room 216 of the Doña Ana County Regional Medical Center, four medical students were wrapping up their examination of an elderly Hispanic woman with diabetes.

Cheever was scribbling notes on a clipboard as they talked. This particular case was not difficult, and the words the students were using, like polydipsia and ketoacidosis, were expected. The students were nodding at each others' comments, pleased with their diagnostic acumen.  Only one bothersome obligation remained before they could move on to the next case.

"Ms. Mendez," Cheever said, coming down a little harder on the Mizz than absolutely necessary, "would you like a turn?"

On the far edge of the group, a small woman, a seventeen year old high school senior wearing the same white lab coat as the real students, barely nodded.

"Yes, sir," she said softly.

The med students watched with stony faces as the diminutive brunette held out a hand to the patient and began speaking to her in Spanish, as she had done with another patient earlier in the morning.

"Buenos dias, Señora Flores. Me llamo Clio Méndez," she said quietly. "Vivo en Mesilla. ¿Puedo examinarle, por favor?"

"Si, claro, señorita," the woman said, her voice encouraging, as if speaking to a granddaughter.

"Gracias," the girl replied. She clasped the hand between both of hers and held it for a minute. "A ver," she whispered, "con su permiso."

It took four or five minutes. Cheever impatiently scribbled a few more notes while the girl, unlike the real medical students, moved her hands around the woman's body, pressing lightly here, palpating there, but also listening on her stethoscope, and occasionally asking the woman a question. At one point she lowered her head close enough to the woman's face to smell her breath, though it wasn't obvious that she actually did so. She could have been merely examining her eyes. Her hands returned several times to the woman's throat and neck, fingertips moving gently, fractions of an inch at a time. Behind her the medical students smirked at each other. Finally she stepped back.

"Gracias, Señora," she said with a smile. "Es todo."

The woman held on to her hand a second.

"Gracias, mija," she said.

"Well?" said Dr. Cheever.

She collected her thoughts, glancing quickly at the most outspoken student.

"I agree with the overall diagnosis. Macrovascular complications are clearly present," she said, "but I found no sign of serious hypoglycemia. If surgery is planned I think the cardiovascular situation must be reevaluated first." She paused and looked at Dr. Cheever. "There is a significant aneurism in the external carotid artery, about an inch above where it branches from the carotid artery. It is large and could be a serious problem when surgery is performed on a hypertensive patient. It should be checked and probably corrected before any other surgical procedure."

Cheever squinted perceptibly. He jotted a note. One male student rolled his eyes.

"All right, then, let's head to room 224, if you please, folks."

The group filed past the main desk under the eyes of the floor nurse, RN Kimberly Martin, and Abel Lucero, the hospital human resources administrator, who had been going over personnel changes with her.

"Who's that girl, Abel?" she asked him.

"Huh? What girl?"

"With those medical students from Albuquerque." She nodded in the direction of the group wandering down the hall. "With that bearded professor?" she added.

"Oh, right, Dr. Cheever, with the Rural Medicine program. They were down in the ER yesterday. Now they're looking at cases up here."

"I know," she said, "but you see the kid following after them? Who is she?"

"She's not exactly a kid. She's a high school senior, but I agree, she looks younger. She's a project of Dr. Peebles'."

"The legend at the medical school? That Dr. Peebles? I thought he retired. I met him once, did you know?"

"I think he's semi-retired, whatever that means. I hear stories every so often. He seems to dabble in whatever strikes his fancy. The school gives him room to run, I guess. He's made them a lot of money over the years."

"And this girl is one of his projects?"

"Apparently. Cheever told me she's studied informally with Peebles for a couple of years. She's from down here somewhere, near Mesilla, I think."

"Huh. That's odd. What's the deal with her?"

"He said she's worked with curanderas for years. Peebles was so impressed with her medical skills that he got her permission to tag along with Cheever's fourth year students to see how she did. Cheever's supposed to keep notes on her as well as his own students. He's a little ticked off about that."

"With curanderas? You mean folk healers? Old women who burn incense and cast spells?"

"Now, now, Kim. I know you're from Baltimore, but it's a lot more than that. Curanderas have been a Hispanic tradition for centuries. They fill a niche in the local public health structure. They're basically harmless. Some are even helpful. Ask any old time doctor around here. They refer patients back and forth all the time."

"What's her name? Do you know her?"

"The HR guy at UNM-Med sent me her paperwork last week. I met her a couple days ago for an orientation. Her name's Méndez. Her first name, uh, let's see—Carol or Carla…Clio. That's it. Clio Méndez. Why so interested?"

"I dunno. She sort of caught my eye. She's dressed like the others but she's obviously not part of their group. She looks young and out of place. She tags along in back and they ignore her."

"Well, medical students are highly competitive. They probably resent her getting special treatment. Cheever wasn't keen on her either."

"Poor thing," Martin replied, sliding the clipboard under a stack of others. "She looked uncomfortable."

"Did you know, when I was little my parents took me to a curandera once?"

"Really? Why?"

"Well, I was having bad stomach aches. Our family doctor was stumped, and…oops."

The phone under Nurse Martin's elbow was beeping. She listened briefly.

"Yes, sir. He's right here. I'll tell him. Thank you, sir." She looked at Lucero. "That was Dr. Mitchell. He'd like to see you in his office."

"Uh-oh. It's too late for lunch, too early for supper. Must be trouble. See you later, Kim."

"I want to hear the rest of that story. Don't forget, Abel!"

Fifteen minutes later she was almost through making the changes to the duty list when the phone beeped again. Dr. Mitchell's secretary wanted to talk to Ms. Méndez, the girl with Cheever's group. She walked to room 224, knocked softly, and stuck her head into the room.

"Excuse me, doctor. There's a phone call for Ms. Méndez at the desk."

"Aha," he said. "Perhaps your bus is here." A student snorted. He checked his list. "If not, we'll be in room 227."

Nurse Martin led the girl to the phone as the group filed down the hall. She held the phone to her ear briefly and then hung up but remained in place, looking down at the counter.

"Miss? Is everything all right?"

"Huh? Oh, uh, yes, ma'am. I'm supposed to see Dr. Mitchell on the first floor."

"Ah. That's room 106, second door to the left past the reception desk."

"OK. Thanks"

Nurse Martin almost added "Good luck." She watched the girl walk by the elevator and disappear down the stairwell. Dr. Mitchell was the chief hospital administrator. She hoped Abel's prediction of trouble was incorrect.

The girl in question pushed open the door to a first floor restroom. She washed her hands and patted her face lightly with the wet paper towel, checking her reflection in the mirror.
She had to be in trouble. Nothing about being here felt right. Well, no, that wasn't accurate: being with the patients felt right. Even though she was no way close to being a doctor she felt she was helping at least a few of them.

It wasn't the hospital building that made her uneasy, or the staff. It was all of it together, the culture of the place. Healing was what she was interested in, but healing seemed to come after the business of medicine or the status of those who practiced it, with both of those second to considerations of money, which governed all. She couldn't look forward to spending years in an environment like this. Was she missing something?

She tried a smile in the mirror. It wouldn't fool anyone. Phooey. Tucking an escaped lock of hair into place, she pushed open the door to the passageway and headed to the main lobby.

In 106, Dr. Stanley Mitchell was conferring with Abel Lucero. Mitchell was wearing a white lab coat with the hospital ID card on a bead chain lying over his tie. Lucero, a file folder in his lap, was seated in front of Mitchell's chrome and steel desk. The only items on the desk were a computer monitor and keyboard and a telephone. On the left wall were a number of photos and plaques. Opposite stood a bookshelf with several dozen books and three garish trophies, one sporting a gold golf ball on a tee with the head of a garish gold 3 wood stuck to it.

"I know Peebles," Mitchell was saying. "Don't misunderstand me, Abel. I like the man. We owe him a lot. He's probably one of the fifteen or twenty most important figures in the establishment of modern medicine in this state. But he's been around a long time, a long time. He gets some odd ideas, and this thing with the Méndez woman is only the latest example. I wish I knew what he thinks he's doing with her."

Lucero shook his head and turned his eyes away from the glare through the plate glass behind Mitchell's desk. Mitchell could have closed the blinds had he wanted. Maybe it was his way of putting visitors off kilter.

"I wouldn't know about Peebles," he replied. "The politics of this is above my pay grade. But medically speaking, I guess you would say, he may be on to something with this young woman. Dr. Cheever's group has looked at a dozen or so patients so far, and she's had some surprising perceptions about four or five. Three that I know of have been checked out, and she was right in each case—detected things the others missed, that normally you'd need one of our scanners to find."

"Yeah, I read that in your file there. It does make you wonder."

"One gentleman swore she stopped his back spasms with a light massage."

"Oh, baloney. I've seen the placebo effect do that. Physical therapists can too. There can't be any way she can sense abnormalities by touch that careful palpation by an experienced doctor can't discover. The main problem as I see it is that she's upsetting Dr. Cheever's routine with his students. They need to concentrate, work together, and learn from each other, and she's distracting them. Cheever'll bitch to UNM-Med, and rightfully so, and it'll come back on me and I'll have to put out the fire, if I can." He grimaced. "I'm going to have to put a stop to it."

"Too bad," Lucero ventured, "Have you met her?"

"No," he said. "Have you?"

"I have. Gave her an orientation earlier in the week. Came on time, didn't have to be told anything twice, asked good questions. Seemed sharp."

The phone on the desk beeped discretely. Mitchell listened briefly, growling, "Send her in." He hung up while looking at Lucero.

Lucero thought she looked cool, self-possessed, and professional in her white lab coat, that is, if she were playing a doctor in a movie where high school students staffed a hospital. She barely smiled when Mitchell introduced himself. Oddly, when Mitchell shook her hand she held it a bit longer than seemed quite right. Cheever finally waved her to one of the other seats in front of his desk. She sat, back straight, hands clasped in her lap, holding her eyes on the edge of Mitchell's desk perhaps to avoid the glare…or maybe sensing what was to come.

Mitchell laid it out for her plainly. It didn't take long. She was creating a problem in his hospital. He was going to have to call an end to her presence on Dr. Cheever's team. He regretted it, but he hoped she would understand.

Still looking at the front of his desk, she waited a few seconds before raising her head. Her voice was lower and more deliberate than he expected.

"I understand, Dr. Mitchell. I know I was a distraction. Dr. Peebles wanted to provide me an opportunity to see if I might want to become a doctor. I do have some healing abilities, you see, but I don't understand them very well. Neither does he. He thought working with a professor and medical students might provide some insight. I apologize for disrupting the routine here. Please don't feel badly about letting me go. I was coming to the same conclusion myself."

"Healing abilities?" Dr. Mitchell prompted.

"Yes, sir."

"What healing abilities?

"Uh, well, for example, when we shook hands just now I detected you have a problem with your upper right arm or shoulder. I think it is causing you pain. Isn't that so?"

Lucero saw the surprise in Mitchell's eyes.

"It is," he said, softly.

"I thought so. That's the kind of thing I mean. I don't know how I knew, sir. It's a problem with the tendons in your shoulder, is it not?"

"No. There's a problem with the cartilage in the joint itself. I'm having surgery on it next week."

She shook her head.

"I don't think it's the cartilage, sir," she said. "I don't believe it requires surgery yet, though it could become more serious if not treated properly. It could become a rotator cuff issue."

"That's not what our orthopedist determined."

"No, sir," she said. Several seconds passed. "Dr. Mitchell, if you would allow me, I could examine it right now. If I'm right I may be able to stop the pain for some time, perhaps for good. If I'm wrong, then no harm will be done."

He looked hard at her for two beats, shot Lucero a glance, then back to the girl.

"All right," he said, suddenly. "Abel, you can be a witness."

He stood, took off his lab coat, untied his tie, and began unbuttoning his shirt.

"Shall I leave my undershirt on?"

"Yes, sir."

Lucero couldn't believe what was happening. Whatever did Mitchell think he was doing? Lucero had read Cheever's notes but those gave only the vaguest idea of what the girl might do. Now they were going to get an actual demonstration. He watched in fascination.

Mitchell was a little soft through the middle, but was otherwise a fairly trim, middle-aged man. The girl took his right hand in both of hers and held it fifteen or twenty seconds. Then she began working her hands up the forearm, feeling the muscles, probing carefully around his elbow, moving on to the biceps and triceps of the upper arm.

In some places she squeezed or massaged the skin. In others her fingers were still or pressed down. She had him hold his arm away from his body so she could feel the underarm area. Her fingers slid under the t-shirt to the top of his shoulder, roaming over the bones and tendons. It looked gentle but several times she asked, "Does this hurt?" According to Mitchell's responses sometimes it did and sometimes it didn't.

The minutes passed. Something had changed--she was no longer exploring. Her head was turned to one side and her eyes were closed. She was humming softly in time with her breathing, like a person barely snoring: "Mmm…mmm…mmm."

Freaky! What the hell was she doing?

Oddly, Mitchell's eyes were also closed. His head wavered as if he were attempting to locate some faint sound. Both looked to be in weird, bizarre trances.

Her fingers kneaded the flesh of the shoulder firmly, pinching, rubbing up and down, side to side. A half dozen times or more they moved to different spots while she pinched  an inch or two of skin and muscle between her fingers, long enough for her to make that peculiar hum several times. With her eyes closed, she had to be working by touch. It looked like her manipulations would be painful. Lucero prayed Mitchell's secretary would not poke her head in. This would be difficult to explain.

After some number of minutes, the girl stopped massaging, opened her eyes, and breathed deeply.

"There," she said. "I think I got it. How does it feel now?"

Mitchell opened his eyes as well, blinking several times. He moved his arm tentatively.

"Better. It doesn't hurt."

Gently, she lifted his arm out horizontally. He raised it the rest of the way over his head. She nodded.

"Good. Use the arm carefully for three or four days, please. If it bothers you any more, you may call me. Mr. Lucero has my number. Again, Dr. Mitchell, I'm so sorry to have caused you trouble. It was an honor to work with you, sir."

And with a polite nod to Lucero, she was gone. Mitchell moved his arm through a complete range of motion.

"I'm a son of a bitch, Abel. It feels normal. I'll be able to play golf again!"

"To quote the sage," Lucero cracked, "'Baloney. The placebo effect could account for that. Or a physical therapist.'"

Mitchell buttoned his shirt, raising his elbows several times.

"Yeah, OK, but no shit, Abel. She really did something to me, only I'm damned if I can explain what. It was weird. It felt electric, but also cold, and not just on the skin. It was deep in my shoulder. I can still feel it, sort of shivery and soothing. Did you notice anything unusual?"

"You mean besides a skinny little high school girl totally messing up the mind of a veteran hospital administrator? No, except for that everything seemed completely normal."

"Godammit, Abel. What the hell did she do? And how did she do it?"

"No idea, chief. Maybe you should ask Dr. Peebles."

Mitchell froze, his tie half knotted
"Won't happen. Never forget the basic rules of administration. Number one: 'Act in haste. Repent at leisure.' And number two: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' Forget Peebles. I'm gonna postpone that surgery. You get the hell back to your office and make us a tee time for Saturday at 9:00 am. If this shoulder hangs together that long I'm going to whip your ass. If it doesn't, well, don't throw that kid's phone number away. I don't know what she did, but if it doesn't last, I want another dose. Can you remember all that?"


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