A child’s smile- by Juan M.S

Ben had the prettiest smile. He was the son of English farmers and he’d done all kinds of odd jobs until he ended up in Poland when he was twenty-one years old. Tomek was the son of an affluent Polish couple and he’d been born and raised in Poland, although he’d often vacationed with his parents around the whole world. They’d met at medical school at the University of Warsaw, where they attended to the same lectures. For Ben, just to be there was a great achievement, since he’d receive an education that he couldn’t possibly afford in his own country. For Tomek it was rather lack of clear objectives in his life and reluctance to resign to the comfort and security of his birthplace what had prompted him to choose a valuable degree at a prestigious university in his hometown. He didn’t actually know what to study so, for all he knew, he’d rather choose something that was worth the effort from the financial point of view. He’d learned to value money from his father’s thriftiness and had learned the worth of social status from hi mother’s decorum, so he thought medicine was the profession that best befitted him.

Although Tomek was two years younger than Ben, he looked at him condescendingly. At first he’d admired Ben’s easy ways and handsome face, but what drew him towards him was the knowledge that he struggled hard to be in the same place as him. After a couple of conversations with him, he’d learned that Ben worked the whole summer in England to be able to pay for his flat and food in Poland, although his parents helped him out whenever he was in dire straits. Back in England, he was sure to find a roof above his head and food on his dish, but their parents couldn’t do much more for him. Tomek would gladly have given Ben the money he needed to be on par with him, because he felt an affinity for him and didn’t like the formal barrier that existed between them. He was used to being in control of his life and not having any material hindrance when it came to realizing his goals, so he couldn’t accept that a friend of his had to deal with such a petty issue as money, but he couldn’t find a diplomatic way of giving him the funds he so much needed.

Ben had a candid way with people and he’d accepted Tomek’s friendship as someone would accept a precious gift. He wasn’t particularly fond of Tomek, but he tried to pay back his overt demonstrations of affection. He believed in the inherent good of every person and, although he didn’t admire his friend, he saw his good intentions and was grateful to him. He’d kindly turned down an offer for an overpaid job at Tomek father’s company because it simply demoralized him to earn unfairly more than others. He knew that the capitalistic system was intrinsically unfair, but he preferred to be its victim and not part of it. However, he understood that Tomek had tried to do him good according to his life view and therefore he appreciated it.

Tomek had the prettiest smile too, but it wasn’t used in a spontaneous way. He’d learned to use it accordingly to the situation and this gave it an artificial tone that took the luster out of it. He was as handsome as his friend, but he lacked his indomitable look, which was Ben’s most appealing feature. Although he envied his friend’s free spirit and strong character, he saw the danger in what to his view was a reckless behavior. He tried to advice his friend about social codes of conduct and he often lectured him on the most diplomatic ways to express his feelings. Ben listened gladly to every piece of well-intended advice, but he’d flare up with indignation whenever he heard something that went against his ideals. At those moments, Tomek would patiently stop the lecturing for the time being and wait for another propitious occasion to teach social manners to his friend.

In their second year of studies, they were having clinical practice at a hospital, and they followed a doctor while he diagnosed of the patients. There was a small boy who was bruised on his torso and arms and swollen on his face. The doctor took a meticulous look at the boy’s body and coldly gave his diagnosis: “The boy presents hematomas and bruises produced by blows and violent grabbing.” Everyone was upset by his words and the sight of the boy, but no one said anything, except for Ben. In a violent tone that was dissonant with the place and situation he was in, he asked the doctor: “So what are we going to do about it?” At first the doctor gave him the look he gave to bad students who didn’t pay attention and made obvious questions, but from Ben’s face he could see it wasn’t about medicine anymore. “What do you suggest, young man?” he asked impassively. He was tired of teaching students full of hormones and with short attention span, who only thought of sex and violent sports during his lectures. He could’ve explained the legal procedure he always followed in such a situation, but he’d been offended by Ben’s insolence and he decided to stick to his medical lecture and let him google the information he was requesting from him. So he said: “If you don’t know the procedure to follow, young man, I’d advice you to go back to first year.” Ben shouted in indignation: “I mean the parent who did this?! What’s the procedure for that?!” “That’s not our concern now,” said the doctor in a deliberately misleading way, making Ben believe that he didn’t care about the child. Ben didn’t have much time to think over the words he’d just heard. In a destructive impetuous, he jumped on the doctor and hit him on the face. His mind was full of scenes of a defenseless child being abused by his parent and a cynical doctor who would allow for it. However, after the blow, he recovered his senses and understood that he was out of place. He realized how grotesque his reaction had been and he was immediately ashamed. He didn’t have the courage to address the doctor after what he’d done, so he just saw him leave the room enraged. He never got a chance to apologize because the next day he was summoned to the dean’s office and he was informed that he’d been expelled from the university. The blow was so great that instead of following medicine at another university, he decided to change field of study. He opted for law because he realized that what Tomek’s words weren’t far away from the truth and that he lacked social awareness and some restrain to his hypersensitive sense of justice.

Tomek finished medical school and specialized in heart surgery, which made him amass great amounts of money, besides gaining people’s respect and the esteem of his colleagues. He was as rich as he’d always been, but now he felt his wealth was justified. After all, he provided the community with a service that few other people could perform. But with prestige came pride, which is unavoidable for someone whom life has never forced to humble himself. Although in the surgery room his heart was completely dedicated to a selfless cause: To save someone’s life, outside he was disdainful towards people on a lower position than his. His sense of aesthetics, which had been enhanced through years of good living and luxury, couldn’t stand the sight of poverty and his mind had needed to create a justification for this instinctive hatred: He rationalized poverty by saying that one’s destiny is in one’s own hands and that poverty was the reflection of laziness and carelessness. He was the best example of hard work that led to wealth and progress, and his old friend, who he was still in touch with, was a good example of a reckless temperament that hindered success. Ben had finished his studies as a lawyer and was practicing his profession in an office where he was another lawyer’s subaltern. Tomek couldn’t help thinking that had Ben been more temperate in his behavior, he could’ve done as well as he’d done. Instead, he was earning just a regular salary and he didn’t even have his own office.

However, it came the day in which life showed its fangs to Tomek. His prepotent handling of patients created an atmosphere propitious to lawsuits. He was an excellent surgeon, and this was the source of his problems. Had he been less aware of his capacity as a doctor, he would’ve allowed for the possibility of medical error and malpractice suits, but his pride dismissed this idea from his mind. And it happened one day. He hadn’t informed a patient’s family about all the risks of the operation; he’d performed that kind of surgery a hundred times on patients in much worse conditions, and he’d never failed. He told them that there was nothing to worry about and that there was no risk at all; they had the best possible surgeon. And it was true, but life wanted it otherwise. At Tomek’s peak of glory, life wanted to teach him some humility and against all odds, the patient died. It was a problem related to the anesthesia, to which the patient’s body hadn’t reacted as expected. The patient never came back from his comma and, in the end, he died. It was a normal case in heart surgery, but it was a shock to the patient’s family, who hours before had been totally sure their loved one would return to them soon. Their pain found an outlet as hatred towards the doctor who’d given them false hopes and, when they tried to talk to him, he wasn’t available. He didn’t give them any explanation because he didn’t think any was needed. It was a great blow to his ego and he didn’t want to talk about it. His impeccable record had been stained: That’s all he saw. His mind was so busy with the immediate tragedy to his career that he didn’t see the imminent danger of a lawsuit. He was devastated by his failure, so when a lawyer came to the hospital demanding a copy of the patient’s medical record, he lost control of himself. He grabbed the lawyer by the laps of his sumptuous suit and led him out of the building. Of course this action just aggravated the situation and in the following days Tomek received a summons to court. The director at the hospital had had no option but to suspend him until the trial was over, which was a blow that Tomek’s ego couldn’t take. He swore to the director that he’d never step again on that hospital. In his mental turmoil, he hated all lawyers and could only trust his old friend, even though he had no experience in medical malpractice cases. His friend advised him to consult other lawyers, who were more apt for the case, but Tomek couldn’t accept the idea of lowering himself to the act of putting his future and career on the hands of some pretentious scavenger, so he begged Ben to accept his case.

Ben informed himself about the particularities of a malpractice procedure and consulted other lawyers at his own cost. Day and night he dedicated himself to his friend’s case and in the end he convinced the patient’s family to concede him a meeting to try to settle the conflict out of court. His greatest problem ended up being his defendant and friend, who refused to talk to the family and preferred to be broke to apologize. Therefore Ben had to dissuade the family from a trial all by himself, appealing to their humanity and explaining to them that his client had done the best he could to save their loved one and he was devastated too because of the failure of the operation. Their lawyer was trying to talk them into a trial, which meant more money for him in fees, but Ben talked to their hearts and explained to them that their pain would just be exacerbated by a trial and that, besides, they’d destroy the person whom they had entrusted their loved one. In an unprofessional manner, he digressed about life’s intricacies and told them about the event that had made him change career. To the other lawyer’s outrage, he went on about his friendship with Tomek and his opinion of him as a person. He agreed with them that Tomek wasn’t sensitive or humble, but he assured them that he was the best possible chance to live they could’ve given their loved one and that they shouldn’t feel guilty of his death. When the other lawyer tried to object to his mumbo-jumbo, the wife ordered him to remain quiet and turned her face in deep attention to Ben’s words. Ben told them that their guilt wouldn’t go away by winning a trial against their doctor but it would just increase and the only thing they’d get was money stained by the tragedy of their loved one’s death. The woman then started to cry and agreed to any offer he’d make, provoking the other lawyer to leave the room in blind rage. Ben promised to talk his client into the fairest possible compensation to them, taking into account their financial state, but reminded them that his friend was just human and it had been a superior force which had delivered the verdict that had decided their loved one’s fate. They absorbed his words as a desert welcomes water and the meeting was adjourned till he convinced Tomek of a generous compensation. Tomek had the means to provide a hundred families with a generous compensation, so he accepted gladly, and he went on practicing his profession, partly due to his friend’s words of encouragement and his assurance that life can seem cruel or unfair sometimes, but that nothing is without purpose. Then he smiled at his friend, and Tomek, amazed at seeing the same hopeful smile on his friend’s face, took Ben’s words to heart and was filled with renew enthusiasm. He went on saving lives, but this time, he saved people and not only bodies.


I'm a writer born in Argentina, but currently living in Poland. I work as an English and French teacher, translator and copywriter.

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