All In Jest – Chapter 5

All In Jest


Pancho had become the de facto foreman of Sybil’s ranch, in part because he was the eldest and most experienced of the Mexicanos; and in part because he was a natural with horses.

He had spent a lifetime caring for horses. The place of his birth and youth was that segment of northern Mexico and southern Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California that should be its own country by virtue of shared language, customs, and interests.

The land and the people were dry and hard, spoke Spanish at least as commonly as English, on both sides of the arbitrary border the people worship Catholic Mary and an assortment of integrated aboriginal nonChristian saints, and abide by a code of laws more similar to that in the western United States during the century from 1810 to 1910 than to the present one.

The code was a harsh cowboy era one–might prevails, the weak obey, no one sends for the law or entertains other esoteric notions of justice than primal self-defense.

If you want to keep it, defend it.

Families come first in that forbidding land, then trusted friends, then the church, then the community at large–the latter two groups representing a weak and attenuated interest.

In Pancho’s and in the other Mexican families’ minds, Sybil Norcroft was more than the employer, the Patrona; she was a real friend–almost family.

Sybil drove out to the ranch to wait for the jury’s verdict.

She carried her Blackberry in her suit coat pocket, dreading, but hoping to hear its tinny ring.

It gave her a measure of tranquility to see the new fences, the neat roadway, and burgeoning little community of ranch out-buildings, and the stud and mare that had cost her so dearly.

Pancho came out to greet his Patrona. “Buenas,” he said. “I see that you are troubled, Doña. Is this the day of the jury?”

, Pancho. I am worried. This is very important to me. It would hurt me a lot to lose in the court today,” Sybil said as she allowed Pancho to assist her from the car.

He was the only man she ever permitted to show her chivalrous courtesies, but with the stolid Mexicano, it seemed to fit.

They had fallen into a communication habit of dropping a few words of Spanish and Spanglish into their majority English conversations.

“Would you like to talk about it, Doña?”

Pancho had a gentle way, and Sybil had found in him a natural wisdom and a placidity that were a comfort.

But she preferred to be alone with her concerns that day.

“No, gracias.

I would like to sit and think.

I’ll just watch you and the others work.”

In the distance, she could see the other two men moving bales of hay into the new barn.

Entiendo, Doña, my Carlita will bring to you some drink.

We were just having our loncha.”

Gracias, me gustaria,” Sybil replied absently, pleased that her Spanish was coming along, slowly, but easily.

Pancho left his Patrona to her own private thoughts.

Her horses gamboled about the paddock, full of vigor and enthusiasm.

Sybil envied them their uncomplicated lives.

She had purchased both the Tennessee Walker stallion and the mare from the horse farms of Ocala, Florida, during the only non-medical meeting trip she and Charles had made that previous year.

These prime breeders had cost her an even one million dollars for the stud and $350,000 for the mare.

If beauty alone were the criterion for cost, the price was fair.

The two plantation horses showed the richness of their American Standardbred, Thoroughbred, Morgan, and American Saddle Horse blood.

The stud was 16 hands high and weighed slightly under 1400 pounds, the mare 15.5 hands and 1100 pounds.

Both were bays, more muscular, heavier, and stouter than the popular quarter horse, less refined than the thoroughbred.

Both horses had been gently broken to the saddle, and with their calm, even temperaments were easy to approach and a pleasure to ride.

The defining characteristic of the breed, and a quality that was present in near perfection in George and Dolly, was the natural smooth and fluid gait, the running walk.

The horses were now walking one behind the other seemingly for Sybil’s enjoyment, swiftly–six to seven miles per hour–and effortlessly, one front foot striking the thick grass of the paddock a fraction of a second before its diagonal hind foot.

The hind foot overreached the forefoot print giving each horse a reaching, slightly straining appearance.

The lines of their backs moved in a sinuous straight motion free of any to-and-fro rocking or torsion.

For Sybil the powerful equines were beauty in motion.

For a few moments she forgot about the trial and the jury.

Carlita strode silently up to where Sybil stood at the paddock fence.

She laid a small platter of empañadas and a glass of pulpy lemonade on the broad top of a fence upright.

Sybil smiled her thanks.

Carlita quietly said, “Disfrutas del momento, Doña mía, estos tiempos son transitorios, muy transitorios.”

Almost absently, Sybil translated for herself–‘enjoy the moment, my lady, such times are fleeting, very fleeting.’

That was an apt description of her life of late.

A wellspring of anger towards Paul Bel Geddes, the self-appointed nemesis of Sybil Norcroft, intruded.

She charged him with the limitation of the momentos alegrías of her life.

For the first time, she recognized a base emotion in herself that she had not previously detected–hatred.

She hated Paul Bel Geddes.

For a brief moment, that emotion swept subconscious feelings of attack and vengeance to the usually guarded surface of her psyche.

She would have considered herself immune to the ignoble impulses to do any one bodily harm before that moment; but now, in an unprotected contemplative interval, she saw herself striking out like a muscular Amazon or lithe Valkyrie choosing who–Bel Geddes–would die and be escorted to Valhalla.

She shook off the choleric thoughts and tried to regain the dreamy tranquility that she had been enjoying as she contemplated her horses.

She could not bring back the tiempo transitorio, and blamed Bel Geddes.

Her mobile rang.

She gave a start.

She knew the jury was in.

The moment of truth was upon her, and she felt as if she was not up to facing it.

Like a child, she wanted it to be postponed.

“Hello, this is Dr. Norcroft,” she said into the thin cellular receiver.

Her voice sounded more normal than she would have imagined.

She was surprised at that.

“Dr. Norcroft, this is Angie Church in the ER. We have a train wreck here.”

“I’m not on call,” Sybil pointed out, annoyance surfacing in her voice.

“I know. Everyone else is up to their lower lips in alligator water. It’s been one of those days. We need you.”

Angie never exaggerated, and it went without further explanation that she had exhausted other avenues.

“I’ll be there,” Sybil said.

She hoped it had not sounded like a groan.

She ran back to her car.

The sudden exercise felt good.

Her mind cleared away the obscuring mist that had been accumulating during her reverie of animosity against Bel Geddes.

She forgot the weasel as she sped into the hospital.

Along the way, she telephoned the highway patrol to let them know that she would be breaking every speed law in order to get to the emergency room.

She could not help but savor a tiny one-upmanship over the cops.

She could speed with impunity.

The ER looked like a war-zone front line army surgical center during an attack.

Sybil hurried up to a pair of patient gurneys standing in tandem in the hallway.

She lifted the sheets on each of the stretchers and immediately wished that she had not. There were two dead children, both badly mangled.

“Car crash?” she asked Angie as she marched into the ER surgery suite.

“Yes. Worst MVA this year.

Two kids down; mother and father in the suites with multiple injuries.

A bunch of gang-bangers from the other car are in number three.

First thing we need you for is the father.

Decreased LOC, says he can’t move his legs.

You’ll have to find a place in line. He’s got a bad flail chest, bleeding out. Have a nice time.”

Angie’s attention was back on the artificial blood bag she was setting up.

Sybil wedged herself in between the general surgeon on call and the ER doc.

“Okay if I poke around?”

“Dr. Norcroft?

Glad you’re here.

Feel free. Kind of cramped quarters.

I’ve been as busy as the proverbial one-armed paperhanger in a hurricane, so my neurological left something to be desired.

Give us the word about the head and the cord.

We’ve got to get this guy to the OR unless you say that you have to crack his head or back and that takes precedence.

I think he’ll die from his chest wound if that’s the case,” assessed the ER doc, who was nominally in charge.

The general surgeon was the one actually calling the shots in the rapidly deteriorating situation.

“He awake?” Sybil asked.

“Yeah, kind of fadey, but we can talk to him.”

“What’s his name?”

“Turner. Jason Turner.”

“Jason!” Sybil called over the din.

“Yeah?” the patient moaned.

“I’m Dr. Norcroft, the neurosurgeon. Can you hear me? Do you understand me?”

“Yeah, I’m kinna foggy.”

“The doctors need to work on you.

Listen to me.

Answer my questions, and I won’t ask any more for a minute, okay?”

“Okay.” Jason’s voice was trailing off.

The ER team was fighting to put in a second chest tube and one set of nurses was trying to restart an antecubital IV line in collapsed veins.

“Tell me your name, your age, and what day it is!” Sybil shouted to be heard over the ambient noise and to penetrate the accumulating fog in the man’s brain.

His blood pressure was 50/40.

“Huh?” Jason responded.

Sybil had to prod him to get that.

“C’mon Jason. Try,” Sybil pleaded with him.

No one else paid her any mind, they continued with their work with desperate but controlled haste jostling the dress suit clad neurosurgeon who was out of place among the horde of green scrub suits.

“Okay, doc, I’ll try.”

He summoned up some reserve from somewhere down in his blood and oxygen starved brain.

“Name’s Jason Turmel…Turner…Turner.

What was the other thing? Ah, Jeez, that hurts.”

Another IV was placed in a neck vein.

“Your age, and what day it is.”

“Oh, yeah. Jason Turner. Ouch! Man that’s killin’ me!”

The second chest tube was sewed into place. Jason tried again.

“Jason. I’m 38…no, I’m not. I’m…I think it’s 39. Ouch! What else? Oh, yeah, it’s Wednesday. My little girl’s birthday. The 16th. How is she? How’s my little girl?”

“Can’t tell you right now, Jason. Hang in there. Can you feel this?”

She jabbed his left leg with a pin.

“Ouch! Jeez, I’ll say,” the beleaguered man yelped.

There were too many hurts coming too fast.

“This?” Sybil asked.

This time she stuck the right leg, but less vigorously.

“Pin. Yeah, pin,” he said, his voice slurring. “Jason Turner. 38.”

“One last thing Jason. Wiggle your toes and fingers.”

Nothing happened.

“Jason!” Sybil snapped. “Wake up. Just one more thing.”

“Yeah, Jason.”

“Wiggle your toes and fingers.”

He did, a few feeble movements, but enough to convince Sybil that he was getting motor messages down his cord.

She tapped the ER doc on the shoulder.

“I’ll butt out.

He seems okay neurologically.

Hard to tell for sure.

I think we’re just seeing hypoxia and hypotension.

He needs to get some blood up to his squash, I think.

You guys go ahead. I’ll help where I can and just observe him.”

“Great, thanks, Dr. Norcroft. I feel a lot better,” the general surgeon, Peter Midgel, said without looking in her direction. “We’ve got to get this poor train wreck stabilized and into the OR PDQ, or we’re going to lose him.”

“I’d love to have a CT or MRI, but we’ll have to compromise. Do what you have to do.”

No one responded.

Sybil did a cut-down on Jason’s ankle and put in a large line.

The team was now running blood and blood substitute through four separate ports.

The monitor showed the BP starting to edge upward.

Angie shouted into the ER surgical suite, “Doctor, one of the gang bangers is crashing. Nothing neuro, but could you lend a hand? I think he needs a trach!”

Sybil looked down at the smart and expensive gray silk suit she had worn to court that morning. It was spattered with blood and vomitus.

It would probably have to be thrown away, she mused idly.

“Be right there.

Set up the trach tray.

If you think of it, it probably needs to be done,” she said.

“Way ahead of you, Doc,” Angie assured her.

Angie had both good judgment and courage.

Sybil admired and appreciated that in her.

“You assist?” Sybil asked.

“Can’t,” replied Angie moving out of the room, “got to get the other three homeys over to x-ray and to the ortho suite.

Dickie Thompson’s good. He’ll help.”


Sybil swiftly moved into number two, the auxiliary ER surgical room.

The young patient was writhing on the table, his skin color turning blue and advancing to purple.

No air was coming through.

His face was smashed.

His nose was flattened beyond recognition, and the nostrils were full of hard clotted blood.

The boy’s mouth was occluded with a blackened, grotesquely swollen tongue.

“Give me some gloves, Dickie. Quick!”

Her hands were covered with Jason Turner’s blood.

She had not had time to don latex gloves on the way into Jason’s room; it was a serious oversight, but could not be helped now.

Sybil was glad that it was the family man’s blood and not that of one of the gang members.

She thought her chances might be better.

She, like all of her colleagues, was now, by reflex, exquisitely careful of blood.

She was fastidiously careful to avoid touching needles or blood for fear of getting hepatitis C or HIV.

The most recent HIV strain–number VII–was the deadliest and most rapidly fatal mutation yet.

Researchers at the NIH were beginning to see disturbing small similarities to Ebola Zaire, a suggestion that they were of a common origin from somewhere in rain forest Africa.

While Sybil performed the tracheostomy on the boy gangster–he could not have been more than eleven years old–she saw that Jason had been rapidly wheeled out, presumably to the OR.

“Get an HIV and a HepC on him for me, Daniel.” she called to the hurrying group.

Dr. Krempen shouted, “I will,” as he and Peter Midgel and the pulmonary technologist rushed by pushing the gurney as fast as they could.

The gangster’s respiratory tract was restored.

He pinked up and waked up.

He snarled at Sybil, and mouthed an obscenity at her.

“And thanks to you too, young man,” she muttered wearily.

She had not expected anything more.

She took off her gloves and washed her hands.

She realized that she had not thought about the McNeely trial in the past three hours.

She thought she should be grateful for small favors.

She found a pair of wrinkled, but apparently clean scrubs and slipped into a bath room and changed out of her bespattered and ruined clothing.

She called upstairs to the OR. Jason was still alive, but barely.

The desk nurse in the OR told her, “We got a chest cutter working on him. Farouk Ibn al-Hebreaus. How’d I do on the pronunciation?”

She had struggled with it.

“No worse than I do,” Sybil said.

Once again, she had cause to thank her lucky stars that she had been spared some misery. Ibn al-Hebreaus was an unapologetic sexist and anti-Semite who could not be convinced that his repulsive attitudes towards women and Jews might have some currency in his native Egypt, but they were regarded as Neandrathalic in twenty-first century United States.

She despised him for his boorish comments and blatant discrimination against the women doctors and nurses.

He held her in equal disdain for the mere fact that she was a woman who was not a shy retiring homemaker.

He loved to taunt her with his suggestions as to where women belonged–none of the places included anywhere a physician might work.

And she and Ibn al-Hebreaus had had a memorable run-in, one that became entrenched in hospital gossip and lore in perpetuity.

“He’s a good chest man. Glad he’s there,” Sybil said to the desk nurse, biting her tongue to keep from saying more.

“Yeah, but between you, me, and the gate post, I don’t let him anywhere near me,” the desk nurse confided.

Sybil knew all about his quick skillful fingers, and his charmed life at avoiding detection when he groped an unsuspecting female doctor, nurse, or ancillary person.

“Play heads up ball. See you,” Sybil said. “Give me a call when you know something, okay?”

“Will do, Dr. Norcroft. I take it he doesn’t have anything neurological.”

“I don’t think so, but I want to examine him again when he wakes up.”

“If he gets off the table. I wouldn’t give better than 100 to 1 odds against on that right now from what they’re saying.”

“Thanks, bye.”

“Bye, Doc. Hey, we’re all pulling for you in your malpractice case. That about done with?”

“Yes. “

“Good luck, bye.”

Sybil and the desk nurse put down their receivers at the same time.

It was good to know that she still had some supporters.

She called Carter Tarkington’s office.

He was there.

“Any news?” she asked without preamble.

They were about as familiar with each other’s telephone voices as they were with those of their respective spouses at this point.

“There is.

Bailiff called over to tell us that the jury said they had one more question and were ready to wrap it up otherwise.

I was about to call you.

We’re going to head back to the courthouse.

I think you might want to come along. I don’t think this is a false alarm, but you never know.”

It was four-thirty.

Sybil was dog-tired and filthy.

She hurried into the OR dressing room shower.

It was known colloquially as the Sybil Norcroft Memorial Shower.

She considered that bit of community sophomoric lore to be one of her small successes, despite the rancor that lay behind it.

The first day she had entered the Operating Room at Joseph Noble Memorial Hospital, she had caused a stir, a ripple on the tranquil surface of one of the last bastions of the hospital’s patriarchy.

She inquired about where she should change her clothes.

The orderly told her that the nurses’ dressing room was the third door on the left in the first hallway.

“I am not a nurse,” she had announced feistily. “I am a surgeon. Where is the doctor’s dressing room?”

She remembered the young man’s grin of participatory devilment.

He loved feminists, they caused so much trouble.

“First door on the left, second hallway. Have a nice day.”

He watched her all the way to the bend in the corridor.

Sybil steeled herself and opened the door.

To her relief, there was no one in the entire dressing room and lounge area.

She found a green sheet and walled off a bank of lockers near the doorway to the shower room.

She laid out her scrubs and hung her street clothes in a locker. for good measure, she took a shower.

As she slipped on her scrub shirt to become fully covered, Dr. Ibn al-Hebreaus pushed aside the curtaining sheet and stood before her naked and dumbfounded.

“Lady,” he shouted. “This is the doctor’s lounge. You have no business here. I am dressing.”

“I’m Dr. Norcroft, Doctor. We haven’t met.”

She eyed the angry Egyptian naughtily.

He acted as if she had not spoken.

“You go to the nurses’ dressing room.”

It was a flat statement and an order.

Ibn al-Hebreaus was used to having his orders obeyed, especially by women.

This one just stood there…Like she belonged. He got angry.

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me, Doctor,” Sybil said. “This is the doctor’s dressing room. I am a doctor. Ergo, I am dressing here. Nurses dress in their place. We doctors will dress here.”

He was at a loss for words.

The orderly who had directed Sybil to the doctors’ dressing room had slipped unobtrusively into the locker room and stood quiet as a mouse and listened.

“You had a shower? In the men’s shower?!” Ibn al-Hebreaus shouted.

He was furious at her effrontery.

“Right then, it was my shower,” Sybil retorted with the hint of pride of ownership that netted her the reputation as a serious ball breaker and resulted in the captioning of the shower as being Sybil Norcroft’s.

One piece of fallout from the confrontation was the undying enmity of Farouk Ibn al-Hebreaus for the newest neurosurgeon on the staff.

That was the past, and now, Sybil returned her mind to the problem at hand, the denouement of the McNeely trial.

She did not dare to take the time to drive all the way home to get proper clothes.

She wore fresh scrubs and put on a lab coat she found hanging in the doctor’s lounge. Carter Tarkington and Hyrum Willis were waiting at the defense table when she hurried in.

The plaintiffs and their attorney were at their table as well.

It was evident without discussion that the jury had said that they were ready.

“All rise,” commanded the bailiff.

Judge Kendricks swept in and took her place.

“Bring in the jury,” she ordered.

Sybil strained to get a hint of their verdict, but the jurors wore expressionless faces.

Sybil wished that she was half the poker player they all were.

They sat in their assigned seats.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached your verdict?”

“We have.”

The forelady handed a sealed verdict envelope to the bailiff who took it to the judge. Judge Kendricks opened the envelope, read the verdict, and wiped her face of all expression.

She looked at the jury and never glanced at either the plaintiffs’ or the defense’s tables.

Sybil wrung her hands.

She was sure her face betrayed her soaring anxiety.

Her face was wan, weary, and grey.

“Madam Foreperson, what say you in the matter of McNeely versus Norcroft?”

“In the matter of McNeely versus Norcroft, Superior Court Case Number 5/28/2009-82901–the case numbers reflecting the date of commencement of the trial—we, the jury, find in favor of…”

Sybil felt heart palpitations.

She was sure the forelady was pausing.

“…the defendant, Sybil Norcroft.”

Sybil sat like a statue, afraid that she would break the spell and wake up to find that she had heard wrong.

Carter moved first.

“Congratulations, Dr. Norcroft. I never doubted for a moment that you would be exonerated. Congratulations!”

Sybil roused.

“Thanks. Thanks to you, Carter…and to you Hyrum. You did a great job. I owe you a lot. I want to treat you to the best dinner they can cook at The Chez Saint Jacques.”

The haute cuisine restaurant was famous in the region, apparently a copy of an exclusive club in old Saigon during and even before the Vietnam War mid last century.

“You’re on. Mind if I have a hug?” Carter asked in his ebullience.

“Take two,” Sybil said, and matched her words with two exuberant squeezes.

She kissed Hyrum’s cheek which made him blush.

Judge Kendricks called down from her bench, “Ladies and gentlemen, if we could please restore order.”

Her reference was directed largely at the throng of spectators who were leaving the courtroom led by a cadre of media reporters.

Sybil could see the television cameras and crews just outside the doors waiting to pounce when she left.

She shivered.

No television had been permitted in courtrooms since the O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles back in the nineties.

“Would you like to have the jury polled, counselors?” Judge Kendricks inquired once order was restored.

“Yes, your honor, the plaintiff certainly does,” demanded Paul Bel Geddes.

He appeared shocked, in a state of acute discombobulation.

It was obvious that he had not dreamt that the verdict could go against him.

He had a deeply hurt expression on his face.

Sybil loved it.

Carter winked at her and nodded in Bel Geddes’s direction. They shared a warm grin.

“The defense would also like to hear a polling of the jury, your honor.”

The judge queried each juror in his or her turn.

The verdict was rendered 11 to 1.

Agnes Harley, a retired bookkeeper, put it for the majority, “That Canadian doctor came down here and lied.

Didn’t look at the right video, out and out lied about how the operation is done.

Even his own radiologist said he was wrong about that aneurysm thing.

He got $35,000 to lie, enough to move a saint.”

The lone dissenter said, “I thought that Dr. Norcroft was an arrogant and uppity feminist, just trying to prove that she’s as good as any man. She wouldn’t get help, and she wasn’t paying attention. That’s what I thought. I don’t care what the others think. I’d vote thissa way again.”

She was a frumpy little woman with defiance in her gaze.

“We will appeal, your honor,” Bel Geddes stated anticlimactically, his face drained of color and bravado.

“Forget it, Dr. Norcroft, it’s over,” said Carter. “Go home and eat raw meat.


I chose to use a pseudonym for personal reasons. I’m a retired neurosurgeon living in a rural paradise and am at rest from the turbulent life of my profession. I lived in an era when resident trainees worked 120 hours a week–a form of bondage no longer permitted by law. I served as a Navy Seabee general surgeon during the unpleasantness in Viet Nam, and spent the remainder of my ten-year service as a neurosurgeon in a major naval regional medical center. I’ve lived in every section of the country, saw all the inhumanity of man to man, practiced in private settings large and small, the military, academia, and as a medical humanitarian in the Third World.