Sunday, June 12, 2011


“Mr. Donaldson, it’s nice to see you again. How have you been?”
“I’m doing well enough - I think you’ll find I’ve lost a few pounds since my last checkup.”
“That’s good to hear. I take it that you get to the gym a little more often, like I suggested last year?”
“Yes, sir, I have, mostly thanks to my wife. She’s been nagging me about it ever since I turned 40.”
Dr. Clark chuckled. “I know what you mean. My wife’s been on my case for years, trying to get me to eat healthy. Seems to think it’ll make me live longer. I told her I would eat as much as I want, I already know how I’m gonna go.”
Frank Donaldson gave the doctor a quizzical look. Noticing this, the doctor wearily pulled a slip of paper about the size of a dollar bill out of his wallet. He handed it to Frank. The slip of paper had two large, bold words written on it.
“PLANE CRASH,” Frank read aloud.
“A couple of months ago, someone donated a Machine of Death to the hospital,” the doctor explained. “Our plan was to use it on the terminally ill, to see if they had any chance of recovery. For example, if we had a burn victim whose cause of death was going to be FIRE, and he reached the point of no return, we could notify his family. Similarly, if his cause of death was going to be DROWNING or something like that, then we knew he would survive.
“It was a good plan. A few of the doctors, myself included, tested it beforehand. That’s where I got this slip.” The doctor paused for a minute. “I wish I hadn’t done it now. I was supposed to go to D.C. for a conference last week, but the hospital sent someone else instead... I’m grounded, literally, and somehow it’ll still be a plane crash that kills me.”
There was a long silence between the two men, until Frank asked, “How can you be so sure that the machine is right? What if you die some other way?”
The doctor shook his head. “Nope, it’s been verified. We used it on a few dying patients, and we got exactly what you would expect: CANCER, HEART ATTACK, etcetera. For some people, knowing how they’re going to die gives them peace of mind. I don’t understand it.”
Frank wasn’t sure that the doctor was looking at it the right way. “Still, it’s got to be better than not knowing, right? You said it yourself, it can give your family the opportunity to prepare.”
The doctor switched back into professional mode. “If you’d like to take the test yourself, you need to fill out a consent form. The procedure requires a small blood sample, which I can take at the end of your checkup.” It was clear to Frank that the doctor wasn’t going to change his opinion, and that their conversation on the subject was over.
“Yes, I think I’d like that.”
The checkup proceeded as normal, with neither man speaking about the machine again.
At the end of the checkup, Dr. Clark handed Frank the medical release form. “We used to be able to perform the test without the patient’s consent, or the consent of their family, until recently.” Dr. Clark’s expression was vacant, as if he were lost in thought. Frank saw the look on the doctor’s face, and decided against asking about what happened to change the hospital’s policy.
Frank read through the form carefully, signed it and gave it back to the doctor. The doctor withdrew a vial and a syringe from his lab coat and proceeded to take a small blood sample from Frank’s left arm. “I’ll be back in about five minutes with your results, so just sit tight.” Dr. Clark’s face tightened into an odd sort of forced grin, and he took the vial of blood with him out of the room.
Frank was left alone with his thoughts for the first time since the checkup began, and he started to worry. Have I made a mistake? he asked himself. I figure it’s probably just going to be HEART FAILURE or OLD AGE or something like that, but what if it’s not? What if it’s something I can’t give up? Even if I try to change my lifestyle, this prediction’s set in stone. Might as well enjoy what life I have left, right?
Dr. Clark had been gone for only two minutes when he returned, looking clearly distraught. “Mr. Donaldson, there’s been an issue with the machine. Er, well, it’s technically correct... You’d better have a look for yourself.” The doctor handed Frank a slip of folded paper like the one Dr. Clark carried in his wallet. Frank, hands shaking, took the paper and unfolded it like he’d done before.
“DEATH?” Frank read, puzzled. “Is this some sort of joke?”
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