by Maryetta Ackenbom
“Wait a minute, I’ll be right there.” Helen raised herself slowly from her narrow bed and sat for a moment before struggling to her feet. It was getting harder every day. Soon it would be time.
She limped to the door of her simply furnished room and opened it. One of the nurse’s aides greeted her.
“Good morning, Helen. Sorry to bother you. Did I wake you?” The young woman offered a half-smile.
“Joanne, it doesn’t matter if you did, I sleep so lightly. But no, I was awake. Just getting my old body ready to face another day.”
“It’s Mr. Kerry, in room 306. He’s in a bad way again. He’s asking for you.”
“All right. I’ll come in a few minutes.”
Helen made her slow way to the bathroom, easily avoiding the drab but serviceable institutional furniture. She washed and dressed her heavy body in an old kimono. Then, in her closet, she found the locked metal first-aid box she had kept for many years. She opened it and poked around inside for a moment, put it back, and picked up her cane to go and see Tom Kerry.
She looked up and down the green-painted halls as she entered the men’s wing of the assisted living residence. Green is for hope, she thought. As she passed one of the few windows, she glanced out at the drab November landscape. Not much green out there. Pittsburgh is the pits in the wintertime. A corner of her mouth crinkled at her simple pun.
At the door of room 306, she looked down the hall again, seeing no one. Knocking softly, she opened the door and entered.
“Good morning, Tom,” she said. “I hear you’ve been feeling bad again.”
“Oh, yes, Helen,” the old man whispered. “I can’t stand it any more. I can’t even get out of bed, and I hurt all over. Look, after all the medicine I take, look at how my hands are shaking.”
Tom slowly extended his emaciated hands. Nothing he could do would stop their tremors.
“Please help me, Helen.”
Helen lumbered over and sat in a chair close to his bedside. The familiar odor of rubbing alcohol and aged flesh was strong. She put her hand on Tom’s forehead.
“Calm yourself, Tom. Be calm and rest.” She continued stroking his forehead, smoothing back the sparse gray hairs on his head.
“Helen, I’m ready to go. Help me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t want to talk to anyone else first?”
Tom paused, took a shallow breath, then said, “You know I don’t have anyone. Go ahead, Helen.”
Helen paused also, remembering her past conversations with Tom. She thought he had spoken of a son, but she was unsure. She sighed.
“Relax. Concentrate on my hand on your head. You won’t feel anything, you will be all right for an hour or so, and then you will be at peace.”
Without moving her hand from his head, Helen withdrew a syringe from the pocket of her kimono and pricked the old man’s arm. He took so many injections for his illness that no one would ever notice another mark on his thin arm.
Helen stayed with him for awhile, talking quietly. For a few minutes he responded, but as time went by his whispery voice faded away. Helen left after half an hour, knowing he was sleeping, but beyond hope of recovery.
She shuffled back to her room, deep in thought. That makes eight here, and some thirty before. I only have a few syringes left. One must be kept for me.
Helen considered all the years behind her. Nursing school, where she was the star pupil; hospital training, where she fell in love with all her patients; outpatient nursing, where she learned about the horror of very sick folks alone in the world. She then specialized in care of the elderly, and worked for the county, both in clinics and in private homes. She studied her subjects thoroughly, so she knew all the symptoms and aspects of the incurable illnesses that took lives slowly and painfully. She knew the drugs which would cure and those which would alleviate pain, and how much of each it was safe to use.
Helen’s elderly patients loved and trusted her, and frequently asked for her help. She felt she was obligated to give it.
She recalled old Mrs. Allen. The bedridden woman was not really old; she had just reached seventy. But diabetes had taken both of her legs and her sight, and now she had sores on her back and thighs which were not healing. Helen was less than half Mrs. Allen’s age at the time, but the two women had developed a relationship that went beyond nurse and patient. After a few weeks in the hospital, Mrs. Allen became Helen’s close friend and confidant. She had heard about Helen’s ambition to become a nurse after her fiance was killed in some foreign war, and Helen told her about her training and her desire to help ease the suffering of the aged and terminal patients.
Mrs. Allen told her one day, “You are the only reason I have for living. My husband’s dead, my only daughter has disappeared somewhere with her boyfriend. I wish you were my daughter.”
“I would like that.”
A few days later, Helen received notice that she was being transferred, two thousand miles away to the West Coast. Mrs. Allen’s blind eyes wept tears of grief and outrage when she heard.
“Helen, you must do one thing for me before you leave. You know all about medications. It is your vocation, your calling, to relieve pain. You can easily relieve me of the burden of my body. Please, Helen, do it.”
Helen wept with her. She felt the pain, physical and emotional, of the older woman. She had to do it.
That was the first one.
Now, she herself was alone, in a nursing home, with incurable diabetes eating away at every cell in her body. She thought she could hang on a little longer, however, and perhaps give help to a few more ailing friends before she herself needed help.
The next day, Tom’s son arrived at the nursing home with Sheriff Bailey. No one knew Tom had a son, but the residence’s records showed his name, and he had been informed of the death.
He announced himself to the receptionist, “I’m Harold Kerry. Tom Kerry’s son. I’d like to see the manager.”
When Cal Gardner, the residence manager, arrived, Harold said, “I’ve been to the funeral home to see Tom, but I want to ask some questions about his death.”
Cal said, “Of course. Come into my office.”
There, Harold continued. “Tom and I never got along, Gardner, but I still loved him. Just for the record, I have to follow up on what happened to him. I’ll need his medical records, doctors’ names, everything. The sheriff here will back me up. I have my birth certificate to prove who I am.”
Cal raised his eyebrows and looked at Sheriff Bailey. After receiving a nod from him and inspecting Harold’s documents, Cal pulled Tom’s file out of a metal cabinet and handed it to Harold.
“I can’t let you take the file away, Mr. Kerry,” he said, “but there’s a little room here with a copy machine and a table, a couple of chairs. Take all the copies you want. When you finish, just leave the file with the receptionist.”
Harold came back to the home a week later, again accompanied by the sheriff. This time, Bailey took the lead. “Gardner, I’m going to need to question some of your staff. Can you give me a list of their names and how to contact them?”
“Sure, Sheriff. What’s up?”
“Well, I’m not real sure, but it looks like Mr. Kerry was not ready to die. They did an autopsy and found his condition wasn’t that bad. Right now, we’re just doing some background checking.”
“I’ll be glad to help,” said Cal. “All of our staff were investigated before they were hired. I’ll show you the records. I certainly don’t want any hint of irregular treatment here.”
Investigators from the sheriff’s office were in and out of the residence for the next two weeks, interviewing staff and patients. Their lists of personnel to be questioned grew shorter, but their suspicions increased. In their investigations, they learned of several other residents who had recently died. It seemed that they all had incurable diseases, with limited life expectancies, but when death came, it was rather sudden.
And then they learned that there was a retired nurse among the residents.
Cal Gardner told the investigator who brought up Helen’s name. “She’s one of our favorite people, Jim. As a nurse, she knows how to care for friends in pain. She’s under oath—she’d never do what you’re suspecting.”
Jim put his hand on Cal’s arm and smiled a little wistfully. “We’ve often found that Helen is just the type of person who would be so involved with a friend’s pain and discomfort that she could easily be convinced to help them. She might use whatever merciful means she understood, even to the point of helping her friends out of a useless, painful life.”
They continued down the green-painted halls to Helen’s room in the women’s section. Cal was so sure that Helen couldn’t betray her friends, and the trust bestowed upon her as a nurse. It can’t be Helen. But who?
When they came to Helen’s room to talk to her, they found her in a trance-like state, lying on her bed. There was no trace of syringes or medications which could cause overdoses, except for the insulin which Helen had to take daily. She had not been as careful with herself, however; an obviously new needle mark showed red on her arm. But she had managed to make the syringe disappear before she collapsed on her bed.
Helen’s many friends gathered at her door when the emergency technicians arrived. They could not revive her.