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O.Henry Ending

The Magic of Sweet-Tea

By Deb Hosey White

I was a pale, thin, sniffling child. Ghostlike white hair and see-through skin with celery green eyes wide with worry. My chewed nails reflected my fear of all I didn’t yet know or understand. Severe allergies explained the wet, wadded tissue forever balled up in my fist.

I remained a sickly child until my pediatrician scheduled me for a tonsillectomy at age 7. Those thirty-six hours in the hospital ruined me for any healthy relationship with the medical community. Never mind the lies they told about “all the ice cream you can eat” after your tonsils are out. My nightmare hospital experience included a disturbingly incongruous moment that remained a mystery until I was old enough to get the joke. A silent orderly wheeled me into surgery. The room was already bustling with masked doctors and nurses. Flat on my back, the bright lights hurt my eyes. No one spoke to me. I was cold, frightened and needed to pee. Then the doctor leaned in and said, “Here we go!” I couldn’t imagine where we were going. Ether dripped from a large eyedropper onto a metal sieve covered with cheesecloth pressed over my nose and mouth. I began to panic. No one had explained anything, except the ice cream part. “Breathe normally,” a voice said. I flinched and some of the foul-smelling ether splashed onto the anesthesiologist. He pressed the sieve more firmly onto my face. “Count backwards from ten,” he commanded, muffled by the mask. “Ten,” I began. Then one of the nurses said to the anesthesiologist in a giggly coquettish voice, “Pee-yew! Doctor, how does your wife sleep with you at night?” “As a matter of fact, when I’m around, she sleeps quite well.” As the room erupted in laughter, I dropped down into a rabbit hole of nightmarish unconsciousness where adults laughed in the same room where frightened, sick kids got their tonsils yanked out. After that, I spent a lifetime fighting anxiety attacks every time I underwent a medical procedure, large or small. Then I moved south. My first medical encounter in North Carolina involved a trip to the podiatrist. The appointment was a short consult on a painful big toe — a straightforward, in-and-out-in-no-time appointment. Until the doctor took one look at my toe and announced I needed a little surgical procedure. “It won’t take long,” the doctor told me. “We can take care of this right here, right now.” And off he went to find a nurse and a big needle. I immediately started feeling queasy. I was not mentally prepared for

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scalpels and stitches. When the doctor returned, I attempted to beg off. “You know, I drove myself here. I wasn’t planning for you to actually do anything today except look . . .” My voice trailed off. I sounded so lame. “You won’t have any problem driving — it’s your left foot. The sooner we take care of this the sooner you’ll be on the mend. He was laying out a line of little cutting implements as he talked. The nurse was swabbing my toe with iodine. When he swiveled back toward me, rubber gloves in place and needle in hand, I was holding my breath and feeling lightheaded. “Are you OK?” Normally, at this point in my panic attack, I lie and say I’m fine. But his soft Southern accent sounded sincerely concerned, so I told the truth. “Actually, no. No, I’m not. I’m feeling a little woozy and scared.” He lowered the needle — the one that was half the length of my foot. “No problem. I know just what you need. Sweet-Tea.” The nurse smiled and kept swabbing. I thought I’d misunderstood but before I could say, “Pardon?” he was on the intercom: “Bev, can you send in Sweet-Tea, please?” “Oh. Um, no. I don’t drink sweet tea but thanks anyway.” I tried to sound polite but a touch of big city skepticism crept into my voice. I wondered — did sweet tea come with everything here in the South, including surgery? “Oh Sweet-Tea’s not a drink. She’s a person!” Just then the door opened. Into the room trundled an adorable little lady dressed in happy-face sunshine scrubs. A cap of red curls bounced around her cherub face, and her round cheeks glowed. She took my hand between her two chubby little soft ones — as soft as biscuit dough — and proceeded to smile sweetly into my face, calmly telling me everything was going to be just fine. “Meet Sweet-Tea!” said the doctor, a grin as wide as Texas on his face. I started laughing and crying at the same time. Suddenly I was amused and comforted. Sweet-Tea held my hand and talked so serenely, I was enchanted. Walt Disney couldn’t have created a better distraction. Before I knew it my toe was wrapped in cerulean blue tape and I was ready to go. After Sweet-Tea left, I told the doctor he could clone and market her to the medical community. He just chuckled. Human touch is such a simple thing. Right there for the asking. No prescription required. Although you can’t get Sweet-Tea just anywhere, I’ve learned that when I’m anxious, it’s OK to ask for someone to hold my hand. OH Deb Hosey White is the author of the novel Pink Slips and Parting Gifts and the Beyond Downton Abbey guidebook series. Although she’s lived in Greensboro for several years, she still doesn’t drink sweet tea. The Art & Soul of Greensboro

Illustration by Harry Blair

and a touch that calmed the spirit

June O.Henry 2014  

The Art & Soul of Greensboro