Chaos at Crescent City Medical Center
"Move over Robin Cook - the queen of New Orleans medical thrillers is here!"
Do you love the Big Easy? You may feel uneasy when you learn about the City's sinister underground...
Hospitals are supposed to be safe places, aren't they?
It's Mardi Gras season in post-Katrina New Orleans. Thousands of tourists have flocked to the city, paralyzed traffic and jammed the French Quarter with drunken crowds and garbage. City officials expect record crowds and the biggest boost to the Crescent City economy since the big storm.
Alexandra Lee Destephano, legal counsel for Crescent City Medical Center, is anticipating her third Mardi Gras season and her date with dashing art historian Mitch Landry to the biggest Mardi Gras ball in New Orleans. But hold on. Alex is stat-paged to the hospital and learns from her boss and former husband, Dr. Robert Bonnet, that the wife of the governor of Louisiana has been found unconscious and covered in blood in her hospital room.
To make matters worse, patients have left the hospital against medical advice, and staff have refused to work. By the end of the day, the ball is the last thing on Alex's mind.
An Author's Republic audio production.
Release date: January 14, 2014
Publisher: Bluestone Valley Publishing
Print pages: 439
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Chaos at Crescent City Medical Center
The Voodoo Queen faced the river as she stood at the edge of Congo Square. The weather was typical of the Big Easy in February. It was chilly, soggy, and biting cold. The High Priestess pulled her warm dark cloak around her as a heavy mist engulfed her and shrouded her from peering eyes.
But sometimes you just can’t hide. The evil spirits still saw her. She couldn’t hide from them. She heard them whispering in the wind. Their sound was like the rustling of leaves and the eerie sound of moans and lightly-tapped staccato drums. Every now and then she heard the good spirits respond. Their sound was like a fine violin and the tingling outrage of a triangle. The queen turned back to her worship service. She had called her people together to worship and summon the good spirits. The Voodoo worshipers were committed, focused, and intent.
This gathering had purpose. It was not a Voodoo activity to entertain thousands of curious tourists who thronged the French Quarter the week before Mardi Gras. It was a gathering to call upon every Hougan and Mambo she could. She needed every good spirit available. Queen Miriam needed help. She needed every decent priest and priestess in good standing to appeal to the Iwa on her behalf. The Iwa were spirits that made things happen — good things and bad things. She needed the help of the good spirits.
The Queen watched the dancers as they gyrated, swayed, and whirled in the firelight. The women were barefoot, the men shirtless, their bare chests glistened in the firelight. The singing was loud, accompanied by chanting, clapping, and foot-stomping. Tonight she’d allowed drummers to attend the gathering. She needed the drummers to gain the Iwa’s attention. The drummers beat their long instruments so quickly the drumsticks blurred before her eyes as did the women dressed in flowing white dresses with brightly colored headpieces.
Queen Miriam Charbonnet, the High Priestess needed help. She needed every bit of power, control, and influence she could amass — every attribute, every resource, and every spirit she could summon. The work ahead was too much for her alone. She needed the Mambos, the Laos, and every Witch Doctor and good spirit she could gather. Bad times were ahead. Evil times. Days of destruction faced them in their New Orleans’ homes.
The sounds of the worshippers reverberated in her ears and deafened her. She lost focus as the drumming and dancing became frenetic. For a moment she was transported to another place where she saw only evil. The Iwa are letting me know my job will be long and hard and my enemies great. Miriam lifted her eyes in gratitude. She knew she had a rough time ahead.
The piercing cold penetrated as she returned to Congo Square. A great fire burned behind the dancers and illuminated them. The q body felt scorched, her skin hot. She remained still until the dancers faded from her vision, and the drumming ended. She was left alone by the fire. High Priestess and Voodoo Queen Miriam Charbonnet prepared for battle. She was the queen, a decedent of generations of Haitian and New World Voodoo Queens. I can do this.
Seconds later a stray cloud covered the moon. It was pitch black. The fire was gone and so were the worshipers. A bitter stillness settled in the icy air. Miriam heard whispers all around her. The spirits were battling each other.
She dropped and sat cross-legged on the cold ground and looked at her weapons of war, the numerous gris-gris she'd amassed. The queen had hand-fashioned them from herbs, powders, feathers, fabric, and bits of nature. Slivers of glass and bits of earth completed her collection. Her amulets were magic. They were gris-gris, and potions were guaranteed to provide healing, protection, and strength — or cause pain, death, and disease. Her magic was strong and powerful. Power that could inflict hurt and destroy enemies at a simple command. Power that could dissolve deception, hurl curses, cast spells, and ruin lives. She would need this power soon. She would need tremendous power.
There was trouble coming. Bad trouble. Evil and malevolent predictions so strong she wasn't sure she or her people could fight them. Danger and deception that could destroy lives of many fine people in New Orleans. People who were her friends. People who had helped her people in years past. People she loved and cared for.
Queen Miriam Charbonnet never forgot those who cared for her. She looked in the distance for the Mambos and Hougans. She prayed they would come. She needed the spirits. She paused and felt for them, listened for their whispers. The queen was wise and commanded the respect of the Voodoo — the good Voodoo that is. Miriam was the only one who could stop the curses and hexes cast by the dark spirits and evil ones.
She couldn’t do it alone. Once again, she turned her ear to the wind to listen for the whispers of the Iwa. There was no sound.
Fear pounded her body and then passed through her heart.
She didn’t know if she would make it.
The pungent smell of Cajun spices permeated the February New Orleans air. With only one week before Carnival, the French Quarter blazed with activity. Ornate iron balconies bowed under the weight of dozens of people pressed together tightly for a better look at the street below. Being "up" on a balcony during Mardi Gras was prestigious and gave one an immense sense of power and control over the crowd below. You could get people in the streets to do just about anything for a Mardi Gras throw — a string of plastic beads or an aluminum doubloon.
Raoul Dupree, a waiter at Tujague's Restaurant, smoked outside the door of the European-styled bistro. His eyes were riveted on a half-clothed gorgeous man hanging over a balcony a few doors down. The man was teasing a lovely, but drunken young woman in the street. The man fingered a string of cheap gold beads in front of her and repeated, "show your tits" continuously. The crowd repeated the chant, until it became loud and deafening.
The young woman kept reaching for the gold beads, just to have them snatched from her grasp each time. She looked around and smiled drunkenly at the large crowds gathered nearby and above on the balconies. Other female bodies pressed against her and grabbed for the beads, but the man above had eyes only for the one young woman.
The man smiled at her, taunted her, and lured her to the beads. Crowds on the street were wildly excited. They hollered, clapped, and stamped their feet.
Finally, in the flick of an instant, the young woman pulled up her white T-shirt, exposing her perfectly formed young breasts. The crowd went wild, clapping and shouting with approval. The woman grabbed her beads, held them up for the crowd, and quickly disappeared into an alley.
Raoul smiled and shook his head. Mardi Gras amazed him. After a lifetime of Carnival seasons, he still wasn't used to the heavy partying, drunken and lewd behavior so common during the season. People would do anything for a Mardi Gras trinket. He shrugged his frail shoulders as his eyes again found the handsome man just as a hand reached out and roughly grabbed Raoul’s blond hair. Startled, Raoul looked around quickly and saw the flushed face of the frowning Tujague’s maître d' bouncer.
"Your boys in the private booth are getting anxious, Raoul. Better get your skinny ass up there and keep ‘em happy. We don't want any of those thugs on our bad side," said the burly maître d', gesturing toward the door.
Raoul stamped out his cigarette butt, grimaced, and ran up two flights of stairs to a private dining room, where three men sat in a rear booth smoking after a long lunch. Tujague’s, the oldest restaurant in the French Quarter, had a reputation for privacy and discretion. It was a meeting place for prominent New Orleanians engaged in all sorts of legal and illegal business. Privacy, good food, and excellent service made the restaurant a favorite.
The men talked quietly as Raoul waited outside the dining room. One glance at the group convinced him not to interrupt. He recognized one man, but he'd never seen the others and wondered how they were connected. From what he'd observed, he didn’t think they knew each other. He doubted they'd met before. They clearly weren’t friends. After cocktails and several bottles of wine, Raoul noted their conversation had moved from strained politeness to menacing anger that seeped out from the doorway before abruptly ceasing as he entered the room.
The man Raoul recognized was mobster, Frederico Petrelli, from Chicago, who'd recently moved to New Orleans to oversee the Dixie Mafia's activities in the riverboat and land gambling operations. Raoul knew Rico because he often dined at Tujague’s and had his special waiter, Matthew. Unfortunately, Matthew was off today due to illness.
Raoul kept his distance as he eyed the group. Frederico terrified him. The mobster was in his mid-fifties, balding, and forty pounds overweight. He had a long irregular scar on his right forearm, and dark beady eyes. He glared at his companions with distrust and impatience. His thick-pursed lips moved back and forth over a wet cigar. Frederico was a classic picture of a vicious mafia boss with no respect for human life. Raoul also noted his large, meaty arms, and powerful hands he kept clenched through most of the conversation.
The second man was distinctive, but differently than the gangster. He was tall, with a swarthy complexion, and dark oiled hair pulled back into a ponytail. His face was long and narrow with an aquiline nose. His thin lips curled in a permanent smirk. His eyes looked dead and empty and were a strange color, a blackish-yellow. The man had a sinister appearance. It was impossible to tell his age. He could be anywhere between thirty and sixty. He was big, well proportioned, and in perfect shape. A feeling of evil hung over him.
Raoul knew the ponytailed man was in perfect shape. He spent most of his time visually undressing men, and he could easily imagine the man’s six-pack abs. His clothes were expensive, as was the gold medallion hanging around his neck. He wore dark trousers and a custom-designed dark shirt opened at the neck. He caressed a leather strap in his lap as if it were a lover as he alternately tapped his well-manicured nails against the shiny walnut table. His dark eyes moved side to side as he followed the conversation between the other men. His strange eyes were unreadable and contributed to his menacing, evil appearance.
The belt-like leather strap captured Raoul’s attention. It was only about two feet long and lay across the man’s lap. The ponytailed stranger said little. He terrified the gentle-natured waiter. Raoul rubbed away chill bumps on his arms. He shuddered, thinking the man looked like the devil.
Their guest looked normal. Raoul wouldn’t have noticed him if his companions weren’t so macabre. The third man looked about forty years old. He had brown hair and an honest face. He spoke with a Midwest accent and seemed normal. The ordinary man was speaking when Frederico called Raoul into the dining room. Frederico interrupted the ordinary man.
"Give us sambukas and a pot of coffee and get outta here,” Frederico barked at Raoul.
Raoul left quickly but overheard something that made him freeze.
The ordinary man spoke, “I want Robert Bonnet ruined and dead. I don't know what your interests are in the Bonnets and the medical center, but I want Bonnet dead. He killed my wife and baby three years ago. Kill him.” The ordinary man’s eyes were crazed with hate.
Raoul's ears picked up at the mention of Robert Bonnet. He knew Dr. Bonnet from the medical center where he worked as a volunteer on the AIDS floor. Dr. Bonnet had operated on his lover last year when other surgeons had declined. Dr. Bonnet didn’t care that Josh had HIV and would probably die anyway. He’d wanted Josh and Raoul to have all the time together they could. Dr. Bonnet was kind. He’d pulled strings to get Josh a new liver and a chance to live. In the end, Josh had died. The threats against Dr. Bonnet troubled Raoul, so he paused for a moment longer and eavesdropped outside the room.
Frederico glared at the third man with a bored expression. "Shut up, Mercier. No time for emotions. Emotions cause mistakes. No mistakes, you hear?" The gangster’s voice had become low and threatening as he glared at the ordinary man. "You make a mistake, you pay."
The ordinary man stared at him.
The evil one with the ponytail nodded his head and said, "Salute," and raised his cup in a toast.
Frederico glared at the ordinary man. "Get it, choir boy, no mistakes. You know what to do."
The ordinary man nodded.
Raoul returned to the serving area as his heart thudded heavily in his chest.
"You’ve got to handle this doctor situation, Alex. You treat Robert Bonnet differently from the other staff physicians. This is the third complaint we've had against him in less than six months. Do something,” Don Montgomery whined. “That, as lawyer for this medical center, is your responsibility. You’re paid to keep the doctors in line."
Alexandra Lee Destephano sat on the edge of the sofa as she listened to her boss rant and rage. Don Montgomery was the chief executive officer at Crescent City Medical Center. She was used to his tirades and had learned to ignore him. She glanced around the executive office. The office was stiff, formal, and uncomfortable and mirrored the pretentious nature of Crescent City Medical Center’s haughty CEO. Don Montgomery was tall and uptight in his Versace suit and Louis Vuitton watch. His thinning brown hair framed his cold unsmiling face.
He looks like a fish, Alex thought, but returned to reality as he closed the distance between them and entered her personal space. Alex rose from the sofa, backed away from him and stood behind a Queen Ann chair. She overlooked the sarcasm in her boss's voice and prayed for patience.
Alex struggled for control. "Let’s review these claims and see if they’re actionable. I don’t think there is." She watched the frown flicker across Don's angry face.
The CEO stood up, walked to his office door, and opened it. “I don’t have time, and it’s not my job. I’m up to my neck in healthcare regulations that are going to cost us millions, millions of dollars, and I don’t have time to discuss your ex-husband’s inability to practice safe medicine. Figure it out on your own. That’s what I pay you for.”
Alex felt anger seep through her brain and struggled not to roll her eyes as Don continued his self-aggrandizing.
“Don’t forget that I run this hospital. The financial success of this place is my responsibility. I second-guess our competition and keep our market edge. My leadership has saved us time and time again. If not for me, the board of trustees would have voted for that HealthTrust merger six months ago."
Alex was sick of Don’s self-proclaimed savior behavior. He gave no credit to the efforts of the physicians, staff, and volunteers who were part of the success of the world-class and prestigious Crescent City Medical Center. Don took credit for all accomplishments at CCMC and cast blame on others when things went wrong. She sighed as the CEO continued praising himself.
"If I didn't have a pulse of things we'd be history. Only the best hospitals with strong leadership will survive these times, but I can't do it all." Don paused for a moment and then shook his finger in her face. "Now, take care of this problem immediately. I don’t want to hear about it again.”
Alex shook her head at the CEO's disrespectful, patronizing superiority but held her tongue. "I'll meet with Dr. Bonnet this week."
Alex left the office, her self-worth intact. She wondered how many executives she’d have to train. Don was already the second one in her two-year tenure as in-house legal counsel for Crescent City Medical Center. It was getting old. Her thoughts returned to Robert. Was she biased toward him? In all honesty, she wondered if she treated her ex-husband differently from other CCMC physicians. Sometimes feelings of uncertainty and guilt clouded her mind. She hoped it didn't cloud her professional judgment as well. She thought about Robert as she returned to her office.
Robert Henri Bonnet, M.D., was the chief of surgery at CCMC and a favored son of New Orleans. He was a skillful physician. They'd met over ten years ago at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, when Robert was a resident in general surgery, and she was a doctoral student in clinical nursing. The couple had dated less than a year before they’d married in a small ceremony at the UVA Chapel. Their union melded two of the most powerful families in the South — the aristocratic Bonnets of Louisiana, and the powerful Lee family of Virginia.
Her musings continued as she passed through the luxurious atrium of the world-famous hospital into the Café where she ordered a latte. She allowed herself to think about her failed relationship. The marriage to Robert had been perfect in the early years but had gone horribly wrong. She wasn’t quite sure when the marriage headed south. She’s been devastated when he’d asked her for a divorce. Alex rarely saw Robert at CCMC and knew little about his personal life. She was curious about Don’s angst toward him. Her intuition suggested that something or someone was involved, but she wasn’t sure what it was.
Alex reflected on her meeting with Don as she sipped her coffee. Other physicians at CCMC presented greater legal risks. The hospital's famous vascular surgeon allowed his physician's assistant to perform cardiac surgery, and Alex suspected the nationally known cancer physician practiced active euthanasia. She considered these physicians much more dangerous than a few complaints about Robert.
Alex had considered her divorce with Robert prior to accepting employment at CCMC. Their marriage had been over for four years, and their parting amicable, if you didn’t consider her broken heart. Much of their difficulty had centered on Alex's decision to go to law school and postpone having children until she’d established a law practice. Robert, a product of a traditional family, didn't like the idea of a professional wife who worked outside the home. Over the duration of their marriage, their individual lives took separate paths — Robert's in medicine and Alex's in law. Alex believed two miscarriages, during her third year of law school, were the major reason Robert had divorced her. He’d wanted her to quit school at the onset of the second pregnancy, but Alex had refused, noting that she was healthy and close to graduation. Robert became depressed when she miscarried again. After several months, he announced he wanted out. He moved out of their home shortly afterward and filed for divorce. Later that year, he returned to practice medicine in New Orleans.
She'd been devastated by the divorce but knew it would have been hard to build a life with Robert and meet her professional goals. After the divorce, and her graduation from UVA law school, she'd accepted an offer from a chain of Catholic hospitals in Houston.
Alex's tenure with the Catholic hospital group had provided her with extensive experience and a solid legal practice. Her nursing background added depth to her ability to analyze malpractice cases.
Alex mulled over Don's curious question as she looked around the glass atrium. Why was Montgomery concerned about Robert? Her instinct suggested something was up, some internal political controversy. She made a mental note to speak with Robert soon.
Alex entered her office suite and noticed her secretary was late. She’d finished checking email when her striking blonde bombshell secretary, Bridgett, who was almost six feet tall in red spiked heels, knocked on her door and came in.
"Happy Monday, Alex," Bridgett sang. "We've got a new complaint for the book. You’re gonna love it."
Alex looked up and smiled as she waited patiently for Bridgett to continue her story.
Bridgett finger-combed her long blonde hair and grinned. "Well, the patient's probably a nut bunny, but then what’s new?"
Bridgett was dancing with excitement. She couldn’t wait to tell Alex about the newest patient complaint. Her blue eyes sparkled at the newest adventure in the legal advisor's office. Bridgett loved her job, and she was good at it. She could sell ice to Eskimos in January and had prevented many lawsuits at CCMC by simply listening and supporting families in crises.
Alex laughed. “Okay, Bridge, spit it out. I want to hear the complaint.”
Bridgett, still laughing, thumbed through the book as she framed her answer. The Crescent City Medical Center’s book, The Craziest Patients Ever, was a compilation of the most colorful, unusual, and creative patient complaints known to the medical center. A new entry to the coveted book was an event known and enjoyed by only a few, very select individuals. Colorful stories included complaints from a guy who'd forgotten he'd agreed to have his foot amputated and complained later when it was missing, and a woman who had committed her husband to the Pavilion, CCMC's psychiatric facility. Later she sued the hospital for negligence after she signed him out against medical advice. In addition, of course, there was the New Orleans Voodoo Queen who swore the hospital had “taken” her magical powers after surgery. The suit was still active in city court.
Bridgett continued to string Alex along, not telling her the new story until Alex erupted into a fit of impatience.
"Tell me. Don't keep me waiting."
Bridgett hesitated a few more seconds. Finally, she began, ”This one is straight out of the Emergency Department—”
“Yeah. Hurry up! You never know when someone will interrupt us around here,” Alex noted as she scanned the outer office.
“Well,” Bridgett continued, “This man came into the ED and told the admitting clerk that he had to see a doctor right away because he couldn’t talk—”
“Who was talking for him?”
“He was talking for himself.”
Alex stared at Bridgett uncomprehending. “I don’t get this. What am I missing? How could he not talk if he was talking?” Alex looked confused.
Bridgett grinned. “That’s probably a good question. Well, I guess the clerk didn’t even notice that he could talk and sent him back to see a doctor. Then they called in a throat specialist.”
“Terrific,” Alex said sarcastically, shaking her head and smiling. “We have a bunch of rocket scientist clerks over there, don’t we?"
“Yep,” Bridgett replied, “but that’s not new news.”
Alex nodded agreement. “Then what?”
“He saw a doctor, some new guy to the CCMC ED, who kept insisting to the patient that he could talk until the patient just went bonkers. He screamed, yelled, and started to run.”
Alex rolled her eyes. “And then?”
"The doctor left him alone and raged at the ED admitting clerks. Then he wrote an order for a psych consult about the time the throat surgeon came to see the patient. A minute later the nurses heard a bunch of screaming and the sounds of stuff breaking coming from the person's room. When they checked the patient, he’d torn up the room, climbed up on the wall-mounted TV, and was swinging back and forth on the TV while it was still attached to the wall.”
Alex looked at Bridgett, dumbfounded. "What did the nurses do?"
Bridgett shrugged her shoulders. "Called security, but the man jumped down from swinging on the TV, ran out into the lobby, and turned the potted plants over on Don’s oriental carpeting. Dirt was everywhere. If that wasn’t enough, he turned the water fountain machine upside down on the carpet and created an enormous mudslide.”
Alex covered her mouth with her hand. “Don’s gonna have a fit. He just had those carpets installed—”
“You haven’t heard the end of it yet, Alex."
Alex stared at her secretary, her eyes huge. “What else?”
Bridgett was excited, her long red nails clicked against the desk. “He ripped the pictures off the wall and smashed glass all over the marble floor.” Bridgett dissolved into peals of laughter. “I heard Don almost had a heart attack when they called him.”
“Wow. I bet he just about died,” Alex said, thinking this must have occurred just after she had met with him.
"Probably. Anyway, the guy was clearly acting crazy and people were afraid of him. Lastly, he ran over and turned the coffee wagon over. The marble foyer was a black gritty mess.”
“And the art collection smashed to smithereens. Good Lord, how long did it take CCMC security to get there?”
“All of this happened quickly, probably five minutes tops."
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