I went to a small school that offered theory but not much practice for a big city hospital where I interned.
My first patient at Bellevue was Jose, a 13-year-old boy with diabetes and a high blood sugar.
Because I was disorganized in writing orders for him, Nancy Maldonado, the nurse, was impatient with me.
“Get it together doc, Jose doesn’t have all day,” she told me.
But another intern, John, hit the hospital running. He was a surefooted fellow who went to NYU and had many rotations at Bellevue, where he’d worked up patients and knew how to make things move.
Late winter, when he asked me to go skiing, I said, “I’m not great shape, you know.”
“Don’t worry, fella,” he laughed.
On a gray Saturday, as we drove up the East Side Drive towards New England, I reminded John, “I can’t start out on advanced trails right away.”
“It’ll be okay, ” he said.
I had a pair of ski pants, sweater, parka, a purple woolen cap and gloves. John let me use his extra pair of skis. I rented boots when we arrived.
As we took the lift, I paid no attention to trail signs. John slapped his skis together, eager to get going, but I didn’t feel ready for the mountain.
High above, there was muffled quietness, clicks of the chairlifts at junctures on the way up, calls from skiers on the hill. At the top, I followed John to the trail he picked.
“For God’s sake!”
“What?” John seemed not to know.
The slope was steep with patches of exposed ice, and below were fields of hillocks or moguls that required sharp skiing to navigate around or turn on their crests. This was an expert trail I was taken to without a chance to warm up.
“I’m not in good enough shape for moguls, John,” I didn’t come here to complain, but my life was on the stairways at Bellevue, in the bacteriology lab where stain got on my fingers, in taking my patients in wheel chairs to X–Ray and studying journals so I could learn from mistakes. I couldn’t succeed on this trail.
John took off at the moguls and disappeared over the hill. I started diagonally down but skidded on the ice, then released the edges of my skis and aimed at the moguls, but at too great speed. I fell hard into a trough and hurt my shoulder.
Headed for disaster, I unsnapped John’s skis, threw them atop my right shoulder, the poles on my left, and dug the heels of my boots in crusted snow to get out of the way of skiers coming down.
I planned to walk in the trees, aside the trail to the bottom and practice on easier runs, but the trail turned to the right, away from me. I assumed it would wind back, so I went straight into the woods to meet the trail below.
I used my thighs to push ahead in the deep drifts and began to fall from unsteadiness on rocks and roots of trees. When it was after 3 p.m., there wasn’t much time of light left in the colder woods.
I was aware I was on the back of the mountain and had travelled northeast. I should turn back and follow my track in the snow, I thought, but as I considered this, I had to keep moving. With every step, the mountain pulled me further down.
In my tired mind, I believed stumbling forward easier than climbing back up in deep snow. I had no water or food, neither matches, flash light, knife, map or compass.
I cursed myself for allowing a day of innocence to change to mortal danger that would come if I broke an ankle and couldn’t even hobble ahead. Fear came in my throat.
I ditched John’s skis and hoped he’d understand, but he’d have to have been there and seen how severely the stakes changed.
I zipped up my parka tighter, pulled my woolen hat over my ears and put my hands through the ski pole straps. I thrust one pole, then the other, in the snow ahead of me to keep me steady as I moved down.
“Help!” I called. But the gray mist and the thick snow on the branches of the trees absorbed my call.
“Help!” I again tried but my voice was captured around me.
Surely, John had started to look for me.
Rather than have the forest wrap her arms round me for the longest sleep — which I knew could happen — how gladly I would take on the moguls if only the woods would release me to New York and Bellevue I so loved.
I trudged on and down. Much later I noted water churned beneath slabs of crusted snow and ice in a stream to my right. There was no point in not following the brook. Lost, I could wind back and forth across the mountain without making headway.
As darkness was about to arrive, I stumbled onto a fire road covered with snow. I could cross and stay by the stream that passed under the road, or I could turn either left or right.
Why I took the road to the right, I was not sure. I was probably pulled that way because, after the trail bent right at the top of the mountain, it never came back. Somewhere to my right there must be people to help me.
“If you went left,” a fellow in a truck who later picked me up on a tertiary road said, “you could’ve walked three days in the national forest.”
“What happened to you?” John asked in front of the ski lodge, when I got back.
I started to tell him, but he cut me off. “Where the hell are my skis?”
My explanation seemed to make things worse. In the car, I felt I should apologize but it didn’t help.
I couldn’t ski safely over the moguls, so I walked into the trees rather than on the side of the trail because I was embarrassed, which was stupid.
We rode back to New York in silence. Like the silence in the woods.
Looking back, the thought keeps coming that if you’re going skiing with someone, make sure he’s a friend.