At a hospital well known from its glory days in a preceding century, patients still come to be saved, or at the very least, succored. Despite the crumbling walls, peeling paint, creaking elevators, dingy windows, and lack of up-to-date therapies and diagnostics, the dedicated physicians, nurses, therapists, and many others strive to uphold the reputation of this once-mighty temple of healing.
Among the latest class of newly minted physicians, Johan Boyce stands alone. There is none more dedicated, educated or isolated. While his comrades share the joy and frustration of training, they also are able to break loose, to inhabit the local ale houses and pubs, finding relaxation in humor, romance or physical exertion. Johan scorns what he considers a waste of precious time and instead looks for the quiet nook to expand his medical knowledge base. His roommate and fellow doctor encourages him to update his wardrobe and come out with him, but to no avail.
And so, Dr. Boyce haunts the hallways and meeting rooms, looking for a peaceful place to read, an effort which leads him to the eighth ward, where half the beds are decommissioned. The lights tend to flicker, perhaps in mourning for the unused beds and the patients whose lives and deaths have filled them. Among these deathly silent rooms, Johan finds the perfect haven. By coming up the back staircase, and quietly slipping down the hall, he enters the observation area of room 687. There is a desk, a lamp, and quiet. He can see through a small window a pair of gloomy unused beds, a now-dry sink and yellowed linen.
One evening, as his colleagues carouse and recreate, he silently retreats to his new haven with his reading. He arranges the lamps, pens and notebooks and stares at the written words, graphs, charts and diagrams. Despite having found a place he thought quiet as a tomb, he is unnerved by sounds from one of the patient beds. Looking up, he notices a pale man lying there, struggling for breath. He watches him push the call button, and a nurse enters. He has never seen her before, as he never really noticed a nurse at all, other than as being a pair of hands to pass an instrument or turn a patient. But this woman is different: She is young and lovely in her white starched uniform, her hat sitting firmly pinned on her auburn curls. He is smitten.
He knows he doesn't belong there; he is all too cognizant of order and propriety. But he is drawn to watch. He sees the young nurse bathe and comfort the ailing patient, though he never sees a team of physicians pass by. He finds it hard to leave when it is time for rounds. When he does assemble with his fellow doctors and attending physicians, they notice he looks tired and distracted. His roommate, who had noticed his unmade bed earlier, assumes Johan spent his night in a more traditional pursuit. He is glad for him.
Over the next few days, Johan spends every spare minute watching through the narrow window, as his angel of mercy cares for one sick patient after another. He cannot face his reading, cannot concentrate; he only sees her hair poking from beneath her cap, or imagines her gentle touch. He is distracted on rounds, misses details on his patients. He denies anything is wrong to his worried colleagues.
One day he finds himself running up the back stairs to the eighth ward, and all the lights are dimmed. They have closed the back half of the ward in a cost-cutting move. He rushes to room 687 and is relieved to see his desk light still burns, his papers are still intact, and behind the viewing window, his nameless object of fascination is caring for another patient. He takes his seat, and quickly loses track of time.
Eventually he must head home for a change of clothing and sleep, but he finds his roommate there, posing questions Johan can't and won't answer. Why hasn't he been on rounds? Is he taking drugs? Is he going to pay his share of the rent? Has he given up on medicine? Little does his roommate know, thinks Johan, how much he is learning by watching his special nurse. He runs from the apartment and heads back to the hospital. He grabs a baguette on the way, his lone sustenance.
He dodges past the rounding team, not wanting to be seen, and hurtles up the seven flights, choking down the dry bread as he ascends. He enters the room and all is dark. There is no patient, no desk, just an empty lifeless bed. He leaves the observation area and runs into the patient room. A mouthful of dry bread fights against his xerostomia. It is then that he tries to swallow and begins to choke. His hand grabs for his throat. He beats against his own chest, and falls to the bed, reaching for the call light. As his vision dims, he seems to feel a pair of arms reach around him from behind, but they are so pale and cold.
The eighth ward now remains closed, the entrance boarded up following the tragic death of an intern. But to this day, from an observation window outside of a well-used patient's room, when the light is just right, you may see an earnest young doctor and a spectral nurse practicing the healing arts, giving succor and salvation to a pale patient.