Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Blog Tour: The Best Doctor in Town



Date Published: Nov. 7, 2019

Publisher: Jan-Carol Publishing, Inc.

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Set in Southwest Virginia and inspired by actual events and the story of the small town's most revered doctor, who may just be a serial killer. A local police officer with a tarnished reputation, a reporter who manipulated facts, and the doctor's chief intern, who may be a thief, have pieces of the puzzle. Yet no one in authority believes the great doctor could be responsible. All the while, patients are dying.


Chapter 1

Patient Love

Lying among the crumpled sheets on a hospital bed, the dying man gasped for air. Stretching a trembling hand into the air above him, Joe Blevins struggled to focus his clouded eyes on the familiar face of the smiling, be-speckled doctor peering down toward him. The words came hard, pushing through gasps of air.

“Please. Doc Briggs. Help. Me. I. Have. Never. Been. Sick. I am only 63 years old.” His chest heaved, and with each exhale, the haggard face deflated.

With a consoling pat on Joe’s shoulder, Dr. Nicholas “Briggs” Oxenbriggs slowly increased the drip on the IV that traced down to the man’s withered arm.

“Joe, I love you. You are my favorite patient. I will take good care of you, my friend, good care.”

Dr. Oxenbriggs pulled a slender syringe from the breast pocket of his crisp, white hospital jacket, and in one calming move, he pushed the clear contents of the cylinder into a port on the IV line. He carefully lowered Joe’s extended arm to his side. “It’s okay, Joe. This will help. I assure you. I love you.”

Briggs stepped back, cocked his head from side to side, watching like a cat waiting for a trapped mouse to move. Joe struggled, gasped, shuddered, then finally convulsed and fell backward. Silent. Dr. Oxenbriggs leaned over his now dead patient, raised Joe’s left hand, and removed the diamond-studded ring from his limp pinky finger. Studying it for a moment, Dr. Oxenbriggs dropped the glittering hoop into the breast pocket on his lab coat. For a moment, the tall, muscular doctor with greying salt and pepper hair rubbed his patient’s placid face, and then with a sigh, he said, “I loved you, Joe, and you are much better off now.”

Dr. Oxenbriggs patted the ring resting in his jacket pocket. “I will always have you with me,” he whispered.

Leisurely, he pulled the emergency call button, then yelled urgently into the speaker.

“Code Black. Code Black. This is Dr. Oxenbriggs. Code Black. STAT!”

Almost instantaneously, the emergency team of nurses, assistants, and medical residents shoved into the room at the Lone Mountain Medical Center in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. They found Dr. Briggs frantically pressing his hands into the dead man’s chest, performing CPR on the lifeless body of Joe Blevins.

“Hurry! I’m losing him. Joe! Joe! Stay with me!” Dr. Oxenbriggs ordered the bevy of nurses, medical residents, and assistants who quickly moved into action. No one seemed to notice that the heart monitors had long-since stopped beeping.

After a while, Briggs said softly, “Call it.” Another voice responded, “Time of death, o-eight-hundred.”

Briggs stood, staring at the body of the man who had been very much alive just a few moments before. He rushed forward and gathered Joe’s body into his strong arms. He wept. “Joe, you cannot be gone.”

Several members of the team tried to pull the doctor back, but he jerked away. Soon, he reluctantly and gently laid the body onto the bed. Briggs shook his head, wiped his face, straightened his lab coat, and wiped a single tear from his cheek.

“I’ve done all I could, all I could. He was my favorite patient. Can someone call the family, please?”

Two of the medical assistants reached out to console Dr. Oxenbriggs, but he jerked away from their touch, turning to rest his hands on their shoulders instead. “No need. No need. I’m more concerned about Joe and his family,” Briggs choked back a sob and moved toward the door. Before he pushed out into the hallway, he turned to one of the residents.

 “Sign the death certificate, please? I need to be alone for a moment.”

All except one member of the team watched reverently as with one long sigh, the grand doctor strode out of the room into the bright bustle of the hospital corridor. Once out of view of the room, Dr. Oxenbriggs patted the breast pocket of his starched-white lab coat and smiled. “I loved you, Joe. You’ll be with me always.”

The doctor who hung back was Dr. Ash McKay, who did not give way to the worship of Dr. Oxenbriggs. He remained quietly standing in the darkest corner of the late Joe Blevins’ hospital room, entertaining an uncomfortable, nagging suspicion. As chief resident and top Fellow in the Community Medical Care Program that Dr. Oxenbriggs headed at Lone Mountain, McKay often stood alongside Briggs when he saw patients. McKay had been the first to respond last week when they lost another elderly patient.

In that case as well, when the team responded to Dr. Oxenbriggs’ call for help, they found the great physician frantically performing CPR on Mrs. Sarah Madison. In what was an almost identical display, Dr. Oxenbriggs had struggled heroically to will the elderly woman back to life. He had sobbed that he loved her. He mourned that he had lost his favorite patient. He stood over the body and wiped away tears. The scene was all too similar for the analytical Dr. McKay. He had no evidence, but the voices telling McKay something was wrong roared rather than whispered.

Last week’s patient was a 77 year-old mother and grandmother, Sarah Madison. She had raised 10 children alone in the tiny community of Josephine, just outside Norton, Virginia. Set in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountain chain that enveloped most of Wise County, Josephine had once been a thriving train stop with some homes, a church, a store, a post office, and even a one-roomed school. By the time Sarah found the place, all that remained were the fading remnants of the one-roomed schoolhouse, the church, and a limestone train depot that stood defiantly on the edge of the weedy, rusted railroad tracks.

What most people thought of as abandoned, Sarah saw as a home for herself and the children. Her husband died in a mining accident in 1960. The union benefits helped, but they did not put a roof over Sarah’s head, and the money didn’t buy food for the table. Sarah couldn’t find work in those days. She had been walking home to the rented house up in the holler when she passed by the tiny sign that said, “Josephine.”

Something drew her to the overgrown site. She walked along the remnants of the dirt road that led to the train station. The weeds dragged against her skirt. The briars nicked her legs. Once, she looked at the thicket surrounding her and thought about snakes. Copperheads were not uncommon, and this was the season for them. She stepped more carefully, making her way to the train station, which still stood defiantly as if it were a sentry guarding the site against the encroaching weeds and overgrowth. Sarah peeked inside the broken glass. Something scurried along the floor. That didn’t scare her. From what she could see, the structure appeared sound. Sarah stepped back and scanned the entire area.

It needed work. She was not afraid of that. She and her children could turn this place into a home. She walked around, envisioning a future here. She stooped down and picked up a handful of dirt. The soil felt silky and rich. Good for corn. Where weeds and saplings grew, Sarah saw rows of green corn bending softly to a gentle wind. Where green kudzu covered the train station, Sarah saw a clean limestone home with a red door and grey front porch. Where there stood nothing more than emptiness, Sarah saw a manicured lawn filled with the delightful laughs of children—her children.

She didn’t ask anyone if she could move into Josephine. Sarah figured that it had long ago been abandoned, so no one cared. She was almost right. For the next several years, Sarah and her children cleared the land together, rebuilt the floor in the train station, planted a garden, and eventually bought a cow and some chickens. They created a fence around the old store and turned it into a milking barn and chicken coop. She made this once ghostly place a true home that protected and loved Sarah and her family for nearly 50 years.

After she and her children had been in Josephine for nearly a decade, they were visited by a man who claimed that he owned the property. He told Sarah that she would either have to pay rent or leave. Normally suspicious of authorities and afraid of losing her only home, Sarah asked for some time to think about her options. The man gave her one week.

Sarah’s oldest son, who was now in his 20’s and preparing to go into the military, offered to talk to his recruiting officer in Kingsport. That turned out to be the best idea in the universe as far as Sarah and her family were concerned. The recruiting officer guided Sarah’s son to the court records. Through that, he learned that the man was lying. The land had been abandoned years ago. If Sarah worked with the county to pay the back taxes, she would own the land outright. It took another five years, and with the help of her now grown son and daughter, Sarah and her family earned the deed to the land.

Until a fall forced her to hobble about on crutches, Sarah Madison kept Josephine alive for a growing family that now included a dozen grandchildren and couple of great grandchildren.

“Strong mountain grit,” her oldest daughter had described her mother. “She had to do all the repairs, raised us, and worked as the cook in the elementary school down in Big Stone Gap to bring in a little money.”

Probably because of her hard-scrabble life, Sarah never suffered the diseases common to most of her mountain neighbors—heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or depression. Yet, within a month after that short fall inside her home sent her to the hospital, Sarah began to hallucinate. She suffered two minor strokes, convulsions, became very forgetful, and finally, she could not swallow. Food particles trickled into her lungs, and in the end, the once vibrant woman lay nearly motionless in a hospital bed—a heap of heaving bones and skin. She died in a room at Lone Mountain Medical Center while all her children and grandchildren had gone home to rest.

Even the passionate skills of Dr. “Briggs” Oxenbriggs had failed, and the staff’s admiration of Briggs solidified when they witnessed him surreptitiously wiping a tear outside Sarah’s hospital room.

Briggs counseled Ash following Sarah’s death. “Sometimes the elderly person innately knows death is coming and does not want their family to live with those memories. Therefore, the dying person somehow summons the will to pass when none of their loved ones are present. You do all you can and then know people like Sarah are at peace—out of the pain, the struggle, the hurt.”

McKay didn’t subscribe to that theory. He considered himself a scientist whose primary area of research was the human body. He had little faith in anecdotal or empirical evidence—only that which could be proven, and preferably after double-blind, peer-reviewed research studies to verify the results.

Now, recalling the two scenes, a stubborn hunch protruded from the deep recesses of Ash’s analytical mind. He tried to push the idea out—negate it because there was no factual basis. Yet, the notion would not abate. Could it be that his boss, his mentor, his reason for choosing the Community Medical Care Program, the unrivaled Dr. Nicholas “Briggs” Oxenbriggs had just staged some grand emotional pageant for his staff to witness? But to what purpose? There was no evidence of anything other than the fact that Dr. Oxenbriggs had worked valiantly to save two patients. All Ash had was a weird, unwanted thought that he willed himself to ignore.

Meanwhile, in another hospital room down the hallway, Eliot West paced in front of the hospital bed, where his father, Ira, sat and watched. Beside him sat Eliot’s mother, Etta, gently holding Ira’s hand. She kept a keen eye on her husband for any signs of another stroke. Meanwhile, Eliot could not be still. In his mid-thirties, Eliot’s compact, muscular frame looked more like that of a body builder than a police officer.

“Son,” Ira said, “Please sit down.”

“Dad,” Eliot’s raspy voice contradicted his nervous movements. “We’ve been waiting a long time since they brought you up here from the ER.”

As he moved, the black handle of his handgun jutted out beneath his brown leather jacket. Ira, whose eagle eyes never missed a thing, saw the weapon.

“Son, how did you get that gun in here? There are rules, even for cops, you know,” Ira chided. A wry smile crossed Ira’s pale face. He was an older, greyer, and slightly thinner version of his son. “But sit down, please. You’re going to cause me to have a stroke.” Ira smiled broadly.

“You’re not funny.” Shaking his head of shoulder-length brown hair and pushing his eye glasses back onto the top of his head, Eliot flopped into the black recliner across from the hospital bed. He could not stop fidgeting, glancing from the door to the room and back to his father.

 “May as well laugh,” Ira spread his free arm and kissed Etta on the head. “After all, laughter,” he began, and Etta and Eliot chimed in.

“…is the best medicine.”

“Okay, you win, Dad,” Eliot stretched to his full height and forced himself to sit still.

Looking to Etta, Ira warned her. “Mamma, I will be home in time, so don’t you even think about packing that truck by yourself.”

Petite, with short, dark hair and a round, pug-nosed face and two deep, brown eyes, Etta West gave her husband a look of astonished anger. “Ira, we are not going to Michigan. I’ve already called your brother to tell him.”

She stood beside the bed, stretching to her full five-foot-five height, and began to fluff Ira’s pillows, moving him as necessary. Smiling all the while, he accommodated her fussing over him.

“Etta, honey, this was a mild stroke. As you can see, I’m perfectly fine, and I want to see my brother. With that cancer he has, there isn’t much time.”

Etta adjusted the white sheets and soft, blue blanket around her cheerfully-compliant husband. Over their 40 years of marriage, Ira had come to one conclusion: Etta wins every time. He loved her so much that he never wanted to be the cause of any pain or distress for her. Theirs had been a relationship that defined the word “cherish.” Eliot watched them for a long moment, wishing his own marriage had been more like his parents, trying to discern what they did right and what he failed to do.

He had met his wife, Rhett, in Knoxville the first year he had worked for the city police department there. As a rookie patrol officer, Eliot put in long hours, night shifts, and went to school so he could advance in his career. Rhett had been a rock of support, and Eliot thought he was providing the same love and security for her.

Yet, there was never enough money, never enough time for one another. Rhett rarely complained, but Eliot saw the pained looks when she had to make do with an old dress to wear to her sister’s wedding. He felt guilty when he could not buy a nice gift or take her to a special restaurant for their anniversary. He wanted to see Rhett smile, to hear her laugh, and to be as joyful as she had been in the beginning of their love. Eliot said he owed her that much and more. He wanted to cherish Rhett in the same way he saw his parents love one another. Eliot desperately sought a means to bring their love to life again. The scheme he landed upon seemed foolproof. It didn’t seem like a crime at all. Take the drugs and illegal booze confiscated and used as evidence in court cases and sell it back to the criminals. It was nearly a perfect crime. Nearly.

Eliot’s thoughts were broken when the hospital room door swung wide and Dr. Oxenbriggs strode in. Ira sat up straighter. Etta moved toward the tall, bespectacled doctor and extended her hand.

“Doctor Oxenbriggs,” she said with a tone of relief. “We’re so glad you’re here.”

“Hey Briggs,” Ira exclaimed. “Will you tell my warden and jailer here that I’m fine and we can go to Michigan next week?”

“Hello, Ira, Etta, Eliot. I must be in the wrong room. I’m supposed to be checking on a stroke patient,” Dr. Oxenbriggs moved with grace, warmly caressing Etta’s hand and then in seemingly one motion, grabbing Ira’s outstretched hand.

“I tell you, I feel great,” Ira said emphatically.

Etta shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Too great, Dr. Oxenbriggs. He thinks we’re driving to Detroit just as planned before all this.”

While listening, Dr. Oxenbriggs examined Ira, checking his eyes with a light, looking into his ears, thumping on his back, and watching as Ira followed the doctor’s gestures with his own hands. After a moment, the doctor stood back, folded his arms, and rubbed his chin.

“Well, Ira, you did have a mild stroke, and I want to admit you to the hospital for a couple of days run a few more tests. Then, assuming you keep progressing, you can go home,” Dr. Oxenbriggs counseled.

Etta offered her husband and son a satisfied look and walked past Dr. Oxenbriggs to stand beside Ira, where she began adjusting his blanket and fluffing his pillows again. Her next words were interrupted by Dr. Ash McKay, who opened the door and stepped inside. Looking around apologetically, he quickly realized that Dr. Oxenbriggs was in the middle of a consultation.

“Oh, sorry. Dr. Oxenbriggs, room 112 needs you—as soon as you can, sir,” Dr. McKay whispered.

Briggs smiled broadly, reaching out to welcome McKay. “Everyone, please meet Dr. Ash McKay. He is my chief resident. You will be seeing him from time to time. He’s the best I’ve seen in years, and we are so fortunate to have him in our community medical program.”

Everyone in the room smiled and nodded. Then, turning his attention to Ira, Dr. Oxenbriggs walked to stand by the bed. He told the West family how he met Dr. McKay through the Remote Area Medical program and how so many young medical professionals were learning about the needs in Southwest Virginia through the RAM. Ash noticed that Dr. Oxenbriggs carefully avoided taking any credit for attracting the interns or for growing the community medical program that kept the best and brightest here after their graduation.

People who knew of Dr. Briggs’ contributions to improving medical care for the people of this remote region would have said he was being unduly humble. At that very moment, Ash would have agreed with them. But a few short weeks later, he would find himself being the only dissenter in a town full of Briggs’ disciples.

“Dr. McKay,” Briggs proudly stated. ‘I’d like you to meet my favorite patient, Ira West. He has had a mild stroke. Looks like he’ll recover nicely. But he has some concerns about going on with his life and taking a planned trip. What would you tell him?”

This was a test, and Ash knew it, but he was less certain of the right answer. He knew from experience that a response that differed from what Dr. Oxenbriggs wanted could cost him. He felt everyone staring at him. The pressure increased.

“I would tell you, Mr. West, that Dr. Oxenbriggs is right. Strokes are tricky. Consider this an ounce of prevention, and take all the time to recover,” Ash hoped the sigh he released did not betray his anxiety.

After a moment, Briggs displayed that brilliant, approving smile Ash had come to know so well. He pulled up Ira’s chart, scribbled a few notes, and placed it back into a holder on the foot of the bed. Eliot, who had been uncharacteristically silent, walked toward his father’s bed, where he could look Ash McKay and Oxenbriggs straight in the eyes.

“If you’re sure he will improve,” Eliot stated.

“You father has an excellent prognosis,” Ash McKay said.

“I can hear you,” Ira West chimed in. “I’m still alive over here.”

“Honey, don’t be rude. Of course you are!” Etta West chastised her husband.

With a chuckle and pat on Ira’s arm, Dr. Oxenbriggs swept out of the room. They watched him disappear into the hallway. Then, Dr. McKay picked up Ira’s medical chart, studying the notes left by Dr. Oxenbriggs. Quickly glancing back at the door, McKay flipped through the pages, then furiously wrote down something on the top page. Although Etta and Ira did not notice, Eliot caught McKay’s struggle to hide his reaction to whatever he had read in the chart. McKay slid the chart back into its slot.

“I’ll be on duty through tonight and tomorrow. So, I’ll check on you later. I’ve added a couple of tests here, all routine—cannot be too careful. Doc Briggs is right. Strokes can be tricky,” McKay tried to get out of the room before anyone could ask any questions, but Eliot confronted him.

“What kind of tests?”

Ash addressed his response to Ira, ignoring Eliot. “Just a couple of more in-depth ultrasound scans—to check the blood flow to your brain, Mr. West. I see they did the CT and a routine MRI when you came in through the ER. The carotid ultrasound will show us the carotid artery, which delivers blood to the brain. We just want to be sure there’s no serious blockage. The second is like the MRI, and again, it gives us more detail about the blood flow to your brain.”

Etta walked to face Ash McKay. “Are you sure we need all these tests? You won’t be cutting on him, will you? Nothing invasive.”

Dr. McKay shook his head, offering her what he hoped was a comforting smile.

“Mrs. West, there is no surgery, nothing invasive whatsoever. These tests provide more detail—help us understand what caused this incident and give us information to provide more effective treatment for your husband. Are we all in agreement to move ahead?” Ash waited for their nods of agreement as Eliot stood to leave.

“It seems we have two good doctors, so I’ll head off. Mamma, want anything from the house? I know you won’t go home. I can get it and get back before my shift tonight.”

“You won’t need anything, Mamma,” Ira called out. “I’m going home real soon.”

Dr. McKay hurried out of the room, hoping to avoid talking with Eliot in the hallway. He always hated that moment when a doctor was forced to talk to a member of the patient’s family, especially when that family member was a skeptical police officer. Besides, Ash was in a hurry to look up some additional information on the medical protocol for stroke patients. While he knew each doctor had his or her own methods, something he read in Ira’s treatment plan seemed out of the standard care. He had to get his information quickly—before Dr. Oxenbriggs realized he was not on the floor.

About the Author

Amelia Townsend loves telling almost true stories. She has worked as a newspaper and TV reporter, freelance producer and director, writer, and now PR hack. She is a proud graduate the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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