Contemporary Fiction Writers

Short Story: A Chance of Hope

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  • #115383
    Kristianne Hassman
    @kristianne-hassman

      Hi friends! I would welcome any critiques on my short story “A Chance of Hope.” I need to submit it to the short story contest by next Tuesday, so I would appreciate if you could give me feedback by this weekend.

      Thanks so much!

       

      “Doctor, her heart rate’s spiking.”

      Ruthie’s voice cut through my concentration, but I don’t dare look up. “Check the oxygen,” I tell my anesthesiologist, keeping my eyes trained on the pool of blood slowly draining from the girl’s head.

      “The tube is clear,” she says. “But her pulse is almost 250.” The ECG machine begins beeping frantically.

      “Keep an eye on her pulse and blood pressure,” I say. “Tell me if it gets any higher.” The scrub nurse helps hold the draining tube in place and mop up the blood, but it just keeps coming. My chest tightens. It’s too much blood.

      The seconds tick by and the ECG machine continues to beep. Ruthie watches it like a hawk. “270,” she says. The beeps grow faster and closer together until it’s a constant string of high-pitched alarms.

      The patient shifts suddenly, her breathing erratic. She stills.

      “No pulse, Amber.” Ruthie’s voice is calm, but I know she’s panicking. She never uses my name in the operating room. The ECG machine won’t let up its beeping. “She’s going into cardiac arrest.”

      Time seems to stop. I have seconds to act. “Start CPR,” I shout. The room erupts in activity as my staff work to start the patient’s heart again. My assistant secures the wound. Ruthie hooks up the bag mask as I start chest compressions. Compress, release. Compress, release. 27, 28, 29, 30. I pause, checking her pulse. Nothing.

      One of the nurses attaches a defibrillator. We all stand back as she activates it. The patient jolts and Ruthie checks her pulse. Still nothing.

      We continue the process. Thirty chest compressions, ventilation, defibrillation. Ruthie administers epinephrine. My dread rises as the seconds pass with no change. Why isn’t it working? What went wrong?

      My hands seem to move of their own accord. All I can hear is my own breathing. The beeping computers, the monitors, the swish of clothing as my staff hurry about—all of it fades into the background. All I can focus on is keeping this little girl alive. Compress, release. Compress, release. Check pulse. Compress, release. Compress, release. Check pulse. . . .

      A nurse takes over for me. I monitor the bag mask. We switch when she tires. Compress, release. Compress, release. Over and over and over again. How long has it been? It can’t have been more than fifteen minutes.

      I glance up at Ruthie, who is checking her pulse. “Anything?” I ask.

      She shakes her head, her expression sober. “Nothing,” she says. “Not even a tiny flutter.”

      My staff continue taking turns with the chest compressions, activating the defibrillator every few minutes. My heart beats furiously, and I try to breathe calmly. I can’t let her die. I can’t let this happen. But ten minutes later, there’s still no sign of a pulse.

      “Amber,” Ruthie says. “It’s been forty minutes.” Her eyes meet mine. “It’s not working.”

      “No.” I shake my head. I will not give up. “Sometimes it takes a while. We just have to keep trying.”

      I motion for the nurse to activate the defibrillator again. The patient jolts and stills. “Amber.” Ruthie’s hand brushes my arm, and I flinch. “She hasn’t been breathing for forty minutes. Even if we were able to revive her, she would suffer severe brain damage. It’s too late,” she says softly.

      I stop. Slowly, I move to check the girl’s breathing. Her face is pale, too still. Her chest isn’t moving. I check her pulse and her pupils one last time. No response. I step away, suddenly feeling numb. “Sophie, call the mortuary,” I hear myself say to one of the nurses. She leaves to make the phone call. The rest of the staff quietly begin to clean up and put tools away. Death hangs in the air.

      I claw at my mask, suddenly needing air, and strip off my gloves. “Are you ok, Amber?” Ruthie asks, stepping up beside me.

      I dispose of the gloves and mask before heading to the bathroom to change. “I’m fine.”

      Ruthie follows me. “You don’t look so good. Maybe you should take a few minutes before you tell the family.”

      “I’m fine,” I repeat. I reach for the bathroom door. “They should know right away. It’s the least I can do for them.”

      I change into clean clothes before I turn down the hall to the waiting room. The walls are white, stark, cold. Like the little girl’s face. I try to push that thought away and steel myself to meet the parents. When I enter the waiting room, they jump to their feet. Their expressions are anxious.

      I swallow the lump in my throat. There’s no easy way to break it. “She didn’t make it,” I say. “I’m so sorry.”

      The mother gasps softly, and the father puts an arm around her. Her sobs pierce my heart. The father turns to me, his eyes full of anguish. “Thank you, Doctor,” he says.

      I try to speak. I want to comfort them, but I can’t. I can only nod before I turn to leave. My stomach twists, and suddenly, I have the urge to run. Far away. The walls press in on me. I can’t breathe.

      My eyes latch onto the window at the end of the hall. Fresh air. I need fresh air. With my shift over, I can take a few minutes. I rush toward the door. Everything blurs around me. Vaguely, I hear a nurse ask me if everything’s all right. I don’t answer. I can’t answer. All I can think about is getting out of this place.

      I push the door open, taking in a deep breath of the cool spring air. Green blooms everywhere. In the park across the street, trees burst with pink and red blossoms. I cross the street and push through the park gate. I follow the path until I find a secluded bench. I sink onto it, pressing my hands into the cold concrete. Breathe, I tell myself. In and out. In and out. My heart calms and I lean back, closing my eyes.

      Something brushes against my hand, soft and fluttery. I look down. It’s a wildflower, quivering in the breeze. A handful of them have sprung up all around the bench, a splash of warmth in the dark green grass. I finger the soft petals, remembering something Mom used to tell me every year when the frost killed our flowers.

      “Winter won’t last forever, Amber,” she’d say. “The flowers will come back next year. Deep under the soil, there’s a seed growing there, waiting for when the sun shines again. And when the sun does come back, it’ll pop back up as a beautiful flower.”

      When I was little, I had always doubted her. I would cry when the flowers died, thinking they were gone forever. But each spring, Mom would call me over to the window. “You see?” she’d say with a smile, pointing to the little buds sprouting. “Winter never did win.”

      I brush the flower away, a bitter taste in my mouth. Now I know better. Mom was wrong. Winter does win. Death wins. And in this harsh, unforgiving world, a life is snatched away as quickly and easily as a wildflower snuffed out by the frost. In real life, there’s no seed waiting to sprout on the other side. There’s only emptiness. And pain.

      I’d had such high hopes when I’d first entered medical school. But how naïve I had been. I’d always loved helping and healing people and animals. There’d been no doubt what I would do once I graduated high school. But what I hadn’t known was the heartache. The helplessness of not being able to help someone. The mistakes.

      I had never considered that it might hurt worse to help someone than to not. That it would hurt far worse to get attached to someone than to never know them at all. I grip the edge of the bench. What is the use of helping when it only ends in loss—when it leaves me with a gaping hole in my heart?

      I stand abruptly, needing to get away from my thoughts. I start briskly down the path, tucking my hands inside my pockets. Why am I thinking like this? Why can’t I simply push past it this time? I can’t just quit. It’s my job, after all. But a small part of me caves. How much easier it would be if I didn’t have to do this. No more long hours, no more stress, no more heartache. Maybe I should consider it. Doctors—even surgeons—have been known to switch professions before. I’m beginning to see why.

      “Ma’am!”

      I look up as a woman approaches me, waving a hand at me. She holds a cellphone to one ear. “Ma’am, there’s a little girl over there who’s fallen.” She points in the direction she came. “She’s badly hurt. Can you help them while I call 911?”

      I nod. “Of course. But what can I do?”

      She meets my eyes. Her face is kind and wispy grey hair curls around her face. “You’re a doctor, aren’t you?” she says.

      I reach for my tag before I realize it’s not there. “Yes,” I say, frowning. “But, how did you—”

      She turns away as someone picks up on the other side. “Hi. We have a girl here with a severe head injury. She’s in Westmont Park near the parking area. . .”

      I sprint down the walkway until I come upon a man and a woman—probably the parents—kneeling beside a little girl on the grass. She’s very pale and her eyes are closed. She’s probably unconscious.

      I kneel beside the couple. “What happened?” I ask as I check the girl’s pulse. A weak throbbing meets my fingers.

      “She fell out of the tree,” the woman says, turning to me. She strokes the girl’s hand, tears brimming in her eyes. “Right onto the concrete.”

      I pull off my jacket and bunch it up. Gently, I lift the girl’s head and slip it under her head. My hand comes away sticky. With blood. “Do you have something to stop the bleeding?” I ask. “Maybe a rag or a shirt?”

      The man rushes away and comes back a moment later with a blanket. “This is all we have,” he says.

      “That’s perfect,” I say, taking it and pressing it to the wound. “The ambulance should be here in a minute.” I can already hear the sirens coming from across the street. I try to talk conversationally with the parents to keep them calm. “I’m Amber Sanchez,” I say. “I’m a neurosurgeon at Westmont Hospital.”

      The man relaxes slightly. “I’m Seth Evans,” he says. “This is my wife Abby.” Abby gives me a small smile. “And this is our daughter Emmie.”

      Emmie suddenly moans and her eyes flutter a little. “Emmie?” I say, feeling her pulse again. I press the blanket tighter against the wound. “Emmie, can you hear me?”

      Her eyes flutter open. “Help me,” she moans.

      I squeeze her hand gently. “We are, honey,” I say. “Just hold on a little longer.”

      She looks up at me, and something flickers in her eyes. A fire, a resolve. It’s as though she’s saying she won’t give up. Then her eyes close again and her head drops. She’s unconscious again. Abby moves closer, offering to hold the blanket in place. I let her.

      “Is she going to be all right?” she asks anxiously.

      “I don’t know,” I answer. I’ve learned that it’s best to tell the truth in these situations. “We need to get her to the hospital as quickly as possible. She’ll probably need surgery to stop the swelling.” I look her in the eye. “I promise that the hospital staff will do everything they can to help her.”

      Just then, several paramedics appear at the top of the hill and rush toward us. I stand back, glad to let them do their job. As they lift her onto a stretcher, I pull out my cellphone. I punch in Ruthie’s number and hold it to my ear. She answers after the second ring.

      “Amber? Where are you? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Her tone is tense, and I can almost see her biting her nails the way she does when she’s anxious.

      “I’m sorry,” I say. “I needed to . . . get away. I’m at the park across the street.” I tug at a loose strand of hair. “Listen. There’s a girl here with head trauma. She’s probably going to need surgery. Could you let Dr. Turner know to be ready?”

      “I can,” she says. “But you know, you could do it, Amber.”

      My chest tightens. “I just lost a patient, Ruthie,” I say. “I can’t do that to another family.”

      “Amber,” Ruthie says firmly. In her mom tone. “Stop beating yourself up about it. It wasn’t your fault. You knew before you even started that she had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving.”

      “But I was sure I could help her,” I say hoarsely. “I thought we had a chance.”

      “You of all people should know that things don’t always go the way we think,” Ruthie says. “Especially in surgery.” She pauses a moment. “What matters is that you did your best, Amber. The rest is up to God.”

      I nod, even though I know she can’t see it through the phone. Somehow, she always knows what to say to make me feel better. Though I’ve worked with her in the operating room for years, she’s been my closest friend for longer. “Thanks, Ruthie,” I say. “I’ll see you later.”

      I hang up and jog after the paramedics as they rush toward the waiting ambulance. I follow on foot as the ambulance squeals across the street and into the hospital parking lot. I arrive just as they wheel Emmie into the emergency room. Nurses hook her up to an IV and treat her external injuries. A neurologist comes to meet with Seth and Abby and orders a CT scan.

      I go to find Ruthie while we await the results. She meets me in the hall. “Dr. Turner was just called into an emergency surgery,” she says. “He won’t be available for at least two hours.”

      The familiar feeling of panic returns. I know what Ruthie wants me to do. But I’m not sure I can do it. “We’re still waiting for the results.” I turn back down the hall. Ruthie follows. “She may not need surgery right away,” I say, even though I know that’s probably not true.

      When I return, the neurologist is talking with Seth and Abby in a private partition. Emmie lies nearby on a bed.

      “There’s internal bleeding in the brain,” he is saying, pointing to the scans. “She’ll need immediate surgery to stop the pressure.”

      “Is it life-threatening?” Seth asks.

      The neurologist looks sober. “Yes. She will most likely not live if she doesn’t have the operation.”

      Seth looks to Abby before he nods. “If it will save her life, we want you to go ahead with it.”

      The neurologist hands him a form. “Then we’ll need you to sign this consent form.”

      I move to stand beside Emmie’s bed. “Dr. Turner, the neurosurgeon who is usually on duty in the ER, is in emergency surgery right now,” I say. “It’ll take at least two hours.”

      “You said you were a neurosurgeon,” Seth says, turning to me. “Can you do it?”

      I suddenly feel like the breath is being squeezed out of me. “You . . . you want me to do it?”

      Seth and Abby both nod. “If you’re willing, Dr. Sanchez,” Seth says. “You were the first one there to help us. We trust you to do what’s best for our daughter.”

      I swallow hard. “I . . . I can’t promise anything. I can’t promise it will work.”

      “We know,” Seth says. He looks me in the eye. “But we want you to try.”

      Emmie suddenly shifts on the bed, and I turn. Her eyes are still closed, but her hand reaches out, grabbing for mine. Then she squeezes my hand. It’s so tiny I can barely feel it, but it goes straight to my heart, giving me the assurance I need. She trusts me. She’s not going to give up. And if she’s willing to hold on a little longer, then I should do everything in my power to give her a chance at life.

      I look at Seth and Abby. “I’ll do it.”

      The next few minutes are a flurry of activity as my staff and I prepare for surgery. Scrubs are donned, masks tied, lights positioned, and monitors hooked up. The doors close and everyone stands at their places, ready to start at my signal. I take a deep breath and pick up the scalpel.

      Two and a half hours later, the surgery is complete and Emmie is in the recovery room. As I go to let Seth and Abby know, I can hardly believe it went so smoothly. And yet, that’s the nature of my work. Two surgeries with the exact same procedure can end with completely different results. And that’s something I simply have to accept. Some things are out of my control.

      I take them to see Emmie, and something stirs inside my heart as I watch them tearfully reunite with her. Ruthie joins me in the doorway.

      “Aren’t you glad you did it?” she says with a knowing smile.

      I return her smile. “Yes, I am,” I say. “I’m very glad.”

      And I am. Though I can’t save every life, I am glad I could at least save hers. These moments make all the hard days worth it. They keep me going when I feel like quitting.

      My thoughts shift to the woman from the park. “You know,” I say to Ruthie. “There was this woman in the park earlier. She came up to me while I was walking—in fact, just as I was thinking about giving up on my career. She was the one who told me about Emmie and that she needed help.”

      I glance at the little family, a smile on my lips. “It was like . . . like she knew that I needed Emmie as much as she needed me.” I look at Ruthie. “It was like she knew who I was and what I was going through.”

      “You think she was an angel?” Ruthie says teasingly, a twinkle in her eyes.

      “Maybe,” I muse.

      Ruthie laughs. “You’re reading too much into it,” she says. “I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. She probably saw your tag or recognized you from the hospital. Anyway, what’s important is that you saved Emmie’s life.”

      She leaves me standing there, wondering. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I am overthinking it. But a part of me still likes to think that she was an angel. An angel sent to remind me that my job is important. To remind me not to give up. And maybe, to give me another chance at hope.

      #115384
      Taylor Clogston
      @taylorclogston

      I’ll read and have critique by today or tomorrow.

      For future reference I suggest posting a Google Drive or similar link so you can take your story down after you’ve received advice. You don’t have any ability to delete or edit an SE post after a short initial period.

      "...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and Margarita

      #115390
      Ella
      @writergirl101

        @kristianne-hassman

        Wow!  That was amazing!  I only spotted a couple of things that won’t take long to fix.

        Kristianne Hassman wrote:
        Breathe, I tell myself. In and out. In and out. My heart calms and I lean back, closing my eyes.
        Maybe you could use italics to distinguish her thoughts for readability’s sake.  If you decide to do that, then maybe you could scan the manuscript and italicize her other thoughts for consistency.

        Kristianne Hassman wrote:
        The helplessness of not being able to help someone.
        Maybe a synonym here?

        Kristianne Hassman wrote:
        The neurologist hands him a form. “Then we’ll need you to sign this consent form.”
        Again, repeated words in back-to-back sentences.  Consider a synonym?

        Kristianne Hassman wrote:
        I nod. “Of course. But what can I do?”
        I think maybe a little more confidence on Amber’s part, unless that goes against her mood.

        Kristianne Hassman wrote:
        I suddenly feel like the breath is being squeezed out of me.
        Maybe more showing, to make the reader feel what Amber’s feeling.  (E.g.  ‘I inhale, but no breath fills my lungs.  I dig my nails into my palms as panic hits me like a tidal wave.’  Ok, that was terrible, but you get the idea…? 😊)

        Kristianne Hassman wrote:
        My thoughts shift to the woman from the park. “You know,” I say to Ruthie. “There was this woman in the park earlier.
        “Woman in the park” is mentioned twice.  Consider rephrasing?

        Lastly, to add a bit of consistency and finality, you should tie up the ends by stating how winter never wins.

        Overall, though, that was so good!  You definitely have a good chance of winning. 👍

        When something goes wrong in your life, just yell, "Plot twist!" and keep going. 😎🍰

        #115391
        Ella
        @writergirl101

          Sorry, the quotes didn’t work.

          When something goes wrong in your life, just yell, "Plot twist!" and keep going. 😎🍰

          #115430
          Taylor Clogston
          @taylorclogston

          I agree with Ella about the close repeats and formatting.

          All I “know” of operating rooms comes from TV, so please be patient =P First, would anyone bother thinking or saying “ECG machine” instead of just “ECG?” Second, would the MC be required to formally call time of death, or is that just a TV thing?

          Why is this the patient who gets to the MC? Has she never lost a patient in all her years of practice before, has she never lost a child, was this the third child in a row, or what?

          I don’t know that the angel bit is helpful to the story. Her being present for what seems like an identical situation to her previous failure is miraculous enough without injecting what feels like whimsy into a story about children dying. And if you do keep the woman letting her know in the beginning, even if you keep the “you’re a doctor, aren’t you?”, I strongly suggest you remove the “you think she was an angel?” stuff from the end. The reader already understands that.

          I think a the more powerful end point is with her going into the OR for the second time with us not seeing the result, because it seems to me that the point of the story is that she picks herself back up and takes another step despite not knowing if she’ll succeed or fail, not that giving it another is rewarded by success.

          "...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and Margarita

          #115466
          Kristianne Hassman
          @kristianne-hassman

            @writergirl101

            Thanks so much for taking the time to read it and give suggestions! I really appreciate it. I will think about how to rephrase those sentences. 🙂

            #115467
            Kristianne Hassman
            @kristianne-hassman

              @taylorclogston

              Thank you for reading it and for your suggestions. You brought up some good points that I will definitely consider. As for the ending, I personally prefer when stories have some sort of closure rather than ending abruptly. I can see what you mean about the angel part not being necessary. I don’t think I’ll take it out completely, but I’ll think about how I can make it more subtle at the end.

              #115470
              Ella
              @writergirl101

                @kristianne-hassman

                Glad to help!  I like your style–it was easy to follow.  I’d love to read anything else you post!

                When something goes wrong in your life, just yell, "Plot twist!" and keep going. 😎🍰

                #115555
                Kristianne Hassman
                @kristianne-hassman

                  @writergirl101

                  Oh wow, thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ll be sure to tag you when I post anything else in the future. 🙂

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