I am used to harsh dismissals from those more religious than me, but she had something else in mind. "So you say." She continued to knit amid a dramatic pause. Her hands moved swiftly, expertly. "Let me ask you then, Doctor. Why do you come see him the same time every day?"
"I do?" I said, surprised.
"Doctor, please. Don't disappoint me." The knitting needles clacked, the video game bleated.
"Well, the lab results come out late. I don't know. Never thought about it."
"Every day, Doctor. The same time."
"Maybe. I guess so."
She continued to knit, not looking up. "You know. You went to medical school. Please, don't disappoint me."
I waited. "Really? Tell me."
She sighed heavily, for the first time betraying the burden of caring for a dangerously ill child. "Why?" she said. "Because what would happen, Doctor"—she now glanced at me—"what would happen if you didn't?"
I shook my head. "I would be late?"
Another sigh. "No. You couldn't. You couldn't come at another time." She finally looked at me. "See, Doctor," she said, her face glowing, "you, too, are observant. It is your way."
I stayed a long time in the room, but she said nothing else. She continued to knit, the Orthodox Madame Defarge. The boy shook the controls of the video game and grumbled. I wandered out.
For the next few weeks, the mother gave me a radiant smile whenever I arrived at the room, but we never resumed our discussion. I made a point, however, of changing the time I went to the pediatrics floor—I would show her a thing or two. I visited first thing in the morning or else at the end of the day.
To my surprise, though, I found it very uncomfortable to visit at the new times. My routine had deeper and more mysterious roots than I had realized. And eventually I could fight it no longer—I once again began to visit the floor in the late afternoon.
After several weeks, the boy was discharged. He and his family returned home for a few months so that he could rest up for a bone marrow transplant. I never saw him again.
I could discover his fate with a few simple computer keystrokes. But here, too, superstition or habit or faith or whatever one calls it trumps rational thinking. I worry that by looking him up, I might jinx him. You see, we doctors never really know why one patient gets better while another dies. So like primitive animals, we often go about our business along the same well-worn rut. We are scientists, sure—but when the chips are down, we're never too far from rubbing a rabbit's foot.