PERSONAL BAGGAGE
A Tale of Marriage, Medicine and Murder

Chapter Twenty-Four

This is a preview to the chapter Chapter Twenty-Four from the book PERSONAL BAGGAGE by Margaret McMillion.
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Sunday night as she unpacked their suitcases, Penny separated clean clothing from a pile to be washed. She hung a pair of slacks in Johnny’s closet and opened his underwear drawer to replace the unused Jockeys. From beneath a stack of t-shirts the corner of an old cigar box caught her attention, and she folded back its cover to discover a mass of silver dollars.

When their children were young, Johnny had added one of these coins to each of their Christmas stockings every year until the little spenders rebelled against saving and traded them to him for paper money. Penny examined one of the tiny white rocks among the coins: a baby’s tooth! Johnny must have kept them when he substituted tooth-fairy money! She lifted Johnny’s father’s Bulova pocket watch to see a small piece of paper under it: an orange crayon drawing she remembered from long ago, a snowman by three-year-old Harriet.

At the bottom of the box was Penny’s own teething ring, which she had discarded in a previous cleaning rampage. She read the engraving of her name, weight, time and date of birth on the tooth-marked silver bell dangling from an ivory circle.

Monday morning Penny napped until nearly noon. On the counter she found a note from Johnny: “Look at this!” Beneath it was the “Issues” section of Jacksonville’s Sunday paper and as she scanned the headline, “DIXIANA HOSPITAL TARGETED IN LAWSUIT,” a sudden empty space opened in Penny’s chest.

The article stated that River Park Hospital was the defendant in an eight-figure lawsuit alleging that many unnecessary procedures had been performed for the purpose of increasing profits. The employees who filed suit claimed they were forced to resign for bringing the matter to public attention.

Penny poured coffee and cereal, flopped into her chair at the table, and folded the newspaper beside her bowl. She reread the article from start to finish. Why hadn’t she known about it? Why hadn’t the nurses just quit their jobs and gone to work at another hospital? She stared at her Grape-nuts as if the answers were contained within the bowl.

An image came into Penny’s mind: she was falling, crashing. “Stop,” she told herself. “I’m okay. I have a good job. Maybe those nurses couldn’t find other jobs.”

Refocusing her gaze on the paper, Penny buried herself in a companion article. It told of doctors all around the country who had come forward to expose unsafe conditions or incompetent colleagues, only to find that whistle-blower laws failed to protect them, that responsible agencies did little to correct problems or safeguard patients, and that they themselves became the target of hospital administrations and boards.

Her hunger superceded by adrenalin, Penny stared at the newspaper while her cereal grew soggy and her coffee cooled. Dixiana physicians had always run the show. When they didn’t get their way, they had withheld admissions. They blocked discipline of their colleagues in a good-ole-boy network—like last year when Dr. Graham had given Penny two inappropriate phone orders for insulin. She reported it to Mrs. Gwen, who said Dr. Graham would not be reprimanded, that the Chief of Staff had told her, “We don’t kick people when they’re old because we’ll be old ourselves someday.”

It wasn’t like that at Jacksonville Medical Center. Doctors who messed up were warned and placed on probation. If they didn’t shape up, they left for a family emergency and didn’t return. Staff physicians didn’t receive lavish gifts at Christmas or enjoy special privileges like the free Sunday dinners that River Park Hospital’s cafeteria provided for doctors’ families. Flossie Mae had told Penny that when Jacksonville’s ER docs complained about a small TV in their lounge and turned in a request for a large-screen set, both the small television and its stand disappeared and were not replaced.

Having turned in her two-week notice of resignation, Penny was scheduled to work only one more weekend at River Park Hospital. She knew nurses who had quit without working out their notices; she had even filled in for some of them. She could call in sick!
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"A nurse juggles jobs at two Mississippi hospitals, aging parents and a stressed marriage in McMillion's novel .... a comprehensive..."

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