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Prologue

At Death’s Door

Irene

December 1981

The fluorescent blue lights above the operating table cast a sallow green tone to the naturally bronzed skin of the Native American women whose shallow breaths filled the tense room with sound. Sweat formulated into small beads at the top of her hair line. The room was cold and sterile, but she was still sweating. It didn’t make sense, but her sweat was the last of anyone’s concerns.

There was an ambulance en route. Irene looked at the young woman lying on the table as she paced back and forth near the exit. The patient remained eerily still.

Thank God she’s still alive, she thought to herself. It was only by a miracle, and possibly the antibiotic she’d just injected into the young woman’s vein, but she was still alive.

The two doctors who should have been attending her were instead off shouting somewhere in the distance. Irene could faintly trace the scent of a cigarette. It wouldn’t have surprised her in the least that he would light a cigarette at a time like this.

This was wrong, this was all wrong. He was a physician. He wasn’t supposed to make these types of mistakes. And yet somehow he had, and now a woman’s life hung in the balance.

Irene prayed that ambulance would get there quickly. She didn’t have much time. That much she was sure of.

The patient’s hand moved absently to her rounded belly. She was murmuring. The medication was wearing off. They didn’t have much time.

Time was moving so slowly. Nothing felt real. This had to all be some kind of nightmare. On instinct, Irene approached the table and stroked the woman’s forehead. “Sssshh. Ssssshh. It’s okay. Everything’s going to be ok.”

The patient’s eyes did not open, but her hand remained poised atop her abdomen.

Unable to wait any longer, she opened the door to the surgical room and peered out toward the hallway. The faint sound of sirens grew louder in the distance.

They’re coming.

She could hear the two doctors shouting in her office. They were arguing about what to do. This wasn’t supposed to happen. One kept screaming that he wasn’t going to get arrested. He wasn’t going to jail for this. The other doctor, Irene’s husband, kept shouting for him to calm down. Everything was going to be okay.

But she knew that was a lie. They had nearly killed someone. If it wasn’t for her intervention, they most likely would have intentionally murdered an innocent woman. As far as the doctors were concerned, killing her would have been much easier than allowing her to live. If she lived, there was likely to be an investigation. But that was going way too far. Irene would not stand for murder in her clinic. Which could have been considered an oxymoron considering her clinic was established to conduct abortions, but she was not going to allow her husband to kill an innocent woman. Instead she opted at the most critical moment to step in and intervene. She gave her the antibiotics and kept her alive. As far as the law was concerned she should be a hero. She saved a woman’s life. Not only that, but it was likely she’d saved the baby as well.

They’d had no idea how far along she really was when they scheduled her for the procedure. The baby was breach. Her stomach was small. When they measured her using the tape measure there was no way to tell. The woman was well into her third trimester, but she’d never told them. She’d lied and it was almost too late before they’d discovered the truth. Her baby was nearly delivered. Late term abortions were illegal and now they had a real situation on their hands.

The siren became nearly deafening as the van pulled up into the parking lot. The ambulance was here. There was a loud knock on the front door. She listened as one of the doctors exited the building through the back door. There was no doubt. If this woman was going to live, she would have to be the one to save her.

Making the only decision she deemed possible, Irene ran to the front door and let the EMT crew in.

“Please, follow me,” she urged. “She went into labor. We didn’t know. We simply didn’t know.”

The response team moved quickly to move the woman’s body onto the gurney. She was becoming more and more coherent and began crying and howling in pain.

Irene closed her eyes as the crew pushed past her and placed the woman in the back of the ambulance.

She took a deep breath, attempting to breathe a sigh of relief. It was over. She was safe. As many procedures as she’d seen over the years, she was nearly certain the woman would make it. Her baby might be born premature, but at nearly thirty-two weeks, the likelihood was high that the baby would, too, survive.

For a split second, amidst the silence everything seemed quiet and back under control. It took a minute to understand why her husband had rushed passed her and slammed the front door shut.

She was gone. The patient was gone. What was the problem?

It was then that Irene saw through the glass of the front windows the blue and white lights of the parked police car and the large antennae of the news van that was parked beside it.