By Adeline McElfresh, ©1959
For the first time in her life, Kay Manion was running away, driving alone cross-country, fleeing her position as a surgeon in a large California hospital. The young and beautiful doctor could not face the thought that a moment of weakness had endangered a patient’s life—or that the man she loved, Dr. Frank Silvester, was infecting her with his own self-serving attitude toward medicine. But when the floodwaters of a raging river suddenly stranded Kay in the ravaged town of Woodbine, she could run no longer. In the midst of terrible human disaster, she had to prove her worth as a doctor. Forced to choose between a love she could not forget and a new love she could not bring herself to trust, Kay learned how foolish a woman’s fears could be, and how wise her heart.
“Since when have pain and illness and death recognized office hours?”
“I’ll bet when he takes my pulse I’ll really register!”
“That was good—‘Good,’ Kay said.”
“She was, first of all, a doctor. First a doctor, then a woman—”
“Her heart plummeted to the toes of her pumps.”
“If you don’t stop talking I am going to pop a thermometer under your tongue.”
“You can’t believe that, Kay. You’re no dewy-eyed teen-ager, you’re a doctor, sweetheart—you know love is strictly biologic.”
“A surgeon pitting his skill against time realizes that time has snatched his patient’s life and is running away with it and he doesn’t dare make one swift, reckless plunge to catch up. If he does, if in his haste the hand holding the scalpel, the fingers tying a ligature, or handling a clamp—as hers had—God—please God—”
“Perhaps she needed to get away from strictly surgery for a while, perhaps that had been a part of her trouble. She had heard it argued that surgery was not for a woman. Pediatrics, definitely. And o.b., internal medicine. But not the long tedious grind that was surgery.”
“Didn’t it give her a turn, sometimes, to open people up? He wan’t right sure that he approved any such shenanigans, looks as though if God had wanted such things done he’d have put a zipper in.”
Kay Manion, M.D., is fleeing California in her red Jaguar. Like all VNRN heroines who flee home, she’s running from a terrible tragedy: While in surgery, she starts thinking about her miserable love life and misses the call for a clamp from the senior surgeon. An artery spurts for an extra moment or two until she is called back to earth—but “in that infinetismal span of time before the strength she willed came back into her hands, had Harvey Webster’s chance for life been snatched from him?” In the throes of despair, Kay’s “heart and her whole future crumbled and trampled beneath her own foolishness,” she flings her belongings into a bag and heads out of town, before it’s even known whether Mr. Webster is going to pull through. (This is the second VNRN I’ve read where an extra second of hemorrhage convinces the heroine that she’s a murderer; see also Surgical Nurse by Florence K. Palmer.)
Stopping at a gas station in Indiana for directions, the friendly fella there warns her under no circumstances should she stay on Route 50, because there’s a huge flood coming. But when she gets to the intersection where she’s supposed to turn, she’s busy ruminating over that fateful day and biting her lip “until the salty taste of blood was there,” so she just keeps on going. Even as the water gets higher and she has to drive on flooded roads, it never crosses her mind that maybe she ought to turn around. Until she’s crossing this rickety bridge and it collapses under her.
She’s saved by a couple of locals, but now she’s stuck in this backwater, because the bridge was the only way out. But they can always use another doctor, and before long she’s helping with disaster management. She always seems to be seconds away from hysteria, though; Harvey Webster is never far from her thoughts, of course, but even when she’s in the middle of treating patients, she’s still hysterically obsessing: “Kay opened her mouth to ask why hadn’t the Davidsons gotten out while they could, then closed it, the words unspoken. Why didn’t people, herself included, do a lot of things? If she had paid attention to her driving she wouldn’t be here, she would be headed east on 50, far from flood-drowned southern Indiana by now. If she hadn’t followed her foolish heart until even the marrow in her bones was weary, if she hadn’t fallen in love with Frank Silvester the instant their eyes met that day in Dr. Frank’s cubbyhole of an office—she withdrew the needle from Evy’s hip, straightened.” This woman is a nervous breakdown or a malpractice lawsuit, or both, waiting to happen. Fortunately, she can turn it down a notch after page 50, when she finally calls home and finds out that Harvey Webster is going to be all right. The wise old doctor she talks to tells her that she was running not just from Harvey Webster—“It was Frank, too,” she thinks. “And—and her—”
You see, back in California she is engaged to one of those ubiquitous young doctors hoping to set up an office catering to neurotic rich women, apparently not recognizing that his fiancee is, perhaps more than anyone, in need of his services. To develop his clientele, Frank spends a lot of nights out club-hopping and being seen at all the fashionable spots, and poor Kay has been at the verge of exhaustion trying to keep up with him and still get up early for surgery in the morning. But on her midwestern detour she meets steady, dependable Chris Buford, publisher of the local newspaper. For some reason, he falls for her, and now Kay has another reason to anguish endlessly and speak with italics and em dashes: “Chris, I—Oh, Chris, please! I—I don’t know!”
The town is predictably on the verge of going under in the flood, but relentless sandbagging by the townspeople saves it, and there is much rejoicing. The strain, however, is too much for the elderly doctor, who is felled by the hard work: “Pinching the doubt in the bud she found a pulse in the muscular hairy wrist, with an eye on the sweeping second hand of her watch counted … seventy-nine…eighty…eighty-one, and it was a minute. Eighty-one! Oh, God—” Before she completely freaks out, someone ought to remind her that 81 is a normal pulse. So Kay has to stay on to help, and six months later, the old doc is better and hoping she’ll stay permanently. But there’s a rumor going around town about Chris and a beautiful music teacher, who is soon sporting a diamond. Kay flees home to California without finding out the truth of the situation—clearly she hasn’t learned anything at all—and we’ve got 20 more pages, plenty of time to develop a subplot! Back at the hospital, the staff is gossiping that one patient declined surgery, “not if Dr. Manion was to do the operating,” and that she’s a tramp, and now the medical board wants to see her in a closed session. But another surgeon tells her that there is “a master plan behind the whole thing,” an attempt to drive her out of the hospital. Who—who would do such a thing? Oh, God—
Frankly, I’m torn over this book. Kay is a horrible doctor, unable to keep her mind on her work and needing to be talked in off the ledge on every other page. Though she does seem to be a magnet for disaster, the amout of emotional drama she wrings from even ordinary events is seriously psychotic. The camp factor is turned up to eleven, and though it does offer up numerous laugh-out-loud moments, it can feel overdone at times and leave you rolling your eyes at yet another self-absorbed diatribe. I did enjoy the fairly realistic descriptions of surgery and the red Jag—before it drowned, anyway—but this book is a roller coaster of amusement and exasperation. I think it’s worth reading—aloud, preferably, to a group of like-minded friends—but be prepared for a wild ride, on a rickety, collapsing bridge.