Meet Debra
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    Photo by Emily Chow / North by Northwestern

    Richard Doll would burn in hell, Debra knew. He had to. After all, he was to blame for her constant harassment at work, and if God didn’t see fit to punish the man for that, then Debra would just have to find another God that would.

    Debra had grown up in those days when vending machines were lined with row after row of cigarettes. Kids would gather around the machine after school to pick out which ones they would smoke when they were old enough, and the girls would fight over the brightest and most colorful boxes.

    Once Debra finally started smoking, she smoked like a chimney. She smoked through high school, she smoked through nursing school, and she smoked on the job as a nurse at the local hospital. The next thing she knew, she was addicted to the stuff and Richard Doll declared that smoking caused lung cancer. Then the world went nuts.

    Doctors who had been proud supporters of Camel cigarettes (“More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!”) hurried to publicly distance themselves from cigarette ads, and hospitals encouraged their staff to cut down on smoking or, at least, keep it out of sight. Debra chose the latter and started popping two sticks of gum into her mouth, wiping a fragrance sample down the front of her uniform, and washing her fingertips to hide the telltale smell. It had been thirty years since Doll’s discovery, and Debra still carried gum and fragrance samples in her purse for that purpose.

    It wasn’t that she cared if people knew she smoked or even that she cared about the hospital’s credibility – she just didn’t care for the self-righteous snobs who came in ready to convert every smoker they came across.

    The mothers were the worst. In the moments before they smelled the remaining vestiges of cigarette smoke on her breath or on her fingertips, they would be friendly with their ready smiles and small talk. Are you married? Do you have any kids? Then when they registered the smell, their faces would go through a spectrum of confusion, surprise, and disgust like clockwork.

    It wasn’t that she cared if people knew she smoked or even that she cared about the hospital’s credibility – she just didn’t care for the self-righteous snobs who came in ready to convert every smoker they came across.

    It would have been funny if it had stopped there, but these mothers would go on to do one of two things. Most would simply look at her with pity in their eyes and try to continue the conversation. Every once in a while, however, the mothers were of a bolder variety, and they would tell her about the dangers of smoking and the horrors of lung cancer. Your lungs will turn black!

    It was always refreshing to receive a patient who, on recognizing Debra as a fellow smoker, asked for a last smoke before he was carted off to the operation room. The thought of being cut open was enough to send a surprising number of smoking men to a cigarette despite the doctor’s orders.

    Unfortunately, today was going to be a bad day. Debra knew it by the chill in her aging bones when she woke up this morning, and she had gone to work prepared with an extra box of cigarettes in her purse and a ready excuse to take a long lunch break.

    The morning passed by uneventfully, but Debra still took that long break she planned on and made an impressive dent in her second box of cigarettes. It was when she returned to work that she knew the hard part of the day had begun.

    The department was packed. Each of the six spaces on the prep and recovery sides were taken up by carts with patients; another two patients were sitting in wheelchairs waiting to be taken to their cars; and an old man was wandering around the room with the back of his gown open for the world to see his naked cheeks.

    Debra strode over to the old man and helped him to his cart while she discreetly tied his gown. As she took his blood pressure, she began to review the basics of the procedure to him, but he stared blankly at her. This must be the one whose wife got him addicted to smoking, Debra thought. Poor bastard. She ended the nice-nurse act and prepared him for the OR in silence.

    Moving on to the next bed, Debra came face-to-face with a woman not much older than herself. Her oval face showcased a slightly upturned nose and steel eyes.

    Debra suppressed a groan. She knew those eyes, and she did not have time for what they promised. Looking at that woman, Debra could practically hear her preaching on about how smoking is a sin against the body and that the sin of lust is at the root of this evil habit. At least that’s what the last woman did.

    She had had some trouble inserting the IV into the woman’s arm, and when she had finally succeeded, she had left a mess of tiny punctures in the crook of the woman’s elbow.

    That last woman had had those same steel eyes and a thick coat of arrogance to go with it. Debra recalled how she had let her nice-nurse façade slip a little after the half-an-hour long sermon. She had had some trouble inserting the IV into the woman’s arm, and when she had finally succeeded, she had left a mess of tiny punctures in the crook of the woman’s elbow. It couldn’t have been helped, she told her supervisor later. The woman had such tiny veins, you know.

    Now looking at this woman in front of her, Debra dreaded going through a similar episode. Besides, the nursing supervisor had warned her that any more indiscretions like the last one could end up becoming a problem for both Debra and the hospital. Debra decided it would be best to pull rank and pass off this would-be loony to the new nurse.

    Five minutes later, she was outside with a cigarette between her fingers. Watching the white tendrils of smoke as they disappeared into the air, her thoughts returned to Richard Doll. How different life would have been if he had put two and two together before she touched that first cigarette.

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