Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 26


Doctor Gundvun Torgeson was a direct descendant of Thostolf, a tenth century Icelandic Viking mentioned in the Njalssaga. Thostolf had been difficult. In his time, it was nothing against a man if he occasionally dispatched someone who was insufficiently courteous with a vertical stroke down the middle with a battle axe. Thostolf had done that, but he was also unpredictable. He was, for example, quite likely to go beserk at a wedding feast. In those circumstances, even the bride ran the risk of decapitation.

It was only a piece of whimsy which caused Dr. Torgeson to mount a replica of such a battle axe on the wall of his office. With even with the most obnoxious patients he hadn't really been tempted to take it down and use it to good effect. His instrument was the surgeon's scalpel, and only his detractors claimed that he used it as indiscriminately as Thostolf had his battle axe.

The doctor knew that there were jokes about him at Bollinger Hospital, many of them dating from the time he had set out to remove a woman's appendix and ended up by performing a hysterectomy. It was sometimes said,

"When Torgy goes in, you never know what organ is going to come out."

In fact, the hysterectomy had been prompted by the discovery of a malignant tumor, and, if Dr. Torgeson relied on intuition to a greater extent than other surgeons, he had also been right significantly more often than they.

The doctor's other medical eccentricities consisted in a distrust of both general anaesthetics and hospitals. He used a local anaesthetic whenever possible, and he also performed surgury in his office that would have frightened his colleagues. While he was liked personally, and had actually discovered some surgical techniques that were used widely, his deviations from standard practice still rendered him deeply suspect in the local medical community.

Dr. Torgeson's non-medical eccentricities included a love of ancient Greek literature, the practice of lifting much heavier weights at the YMCA than any other man of his sixty years of age, and a fascination with railway trains. He often went out into the prairie with his friend, Sturgis Caldwell, and, while the other watched birds, the doctor turned his binoculars on to the line of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy.

Dr. Torgeson had first met Howie Slattery at a meeting of the Literary Club at Sturgis' home. He liked brilliant young men, and was happy to have Howie in their midst. He had then come upon him in quite different circumstances, in the weight room of the YMCA. Howie, attempting to press a heavy weight too many times, had gotten himself trapped under the bar. He was just about to begin the difficult process of shucking the bar off to the side and wriggling out from under when the doctor rushed up and rescued him.

On this day, Howie had come to his office with Chuck Winton for a consultation. Dr. Torgeson and Dr. Winton had already had a number of discussions about Howie's stomach, and it was decided that the former should have a look at it.

Dr. Torgeson took note of Howie's claim that it 'felt like some foreign body in there.' He also noticed some small blue-black marks on Howie's thighs, and asked about them. Howie replied,

"Those are graphite marks. At the orphanage we used to stab each other with sharpened lead pencils."

"I hope it wasn't a Christian orphanage."

"No. It was run by the state of Texas."

"Could you have been stabbed in the stomach?"

"I suppose so. But I've never noticed any of those marks there."

Dr. Torgeson took up a magnifying glass and went over the whole area.

"There are many marks which could have resulted from puncture wounds. Did you stab each other with other things?"

"We had, more or less as community property, a set of brass knuckles with the ends of nails embedded in them. I can remember being hit with them quite a few times, probably in the stomach at least once."

Chuck exploded,

"Jesus, Howie! What sort of institution was this?"

"I imagine most boys' orphanages are like that."

Dr. Torgeson remarked,

"These sorts of things always remind me of the old days in Iceland, as depicted in the sagas. But, seriously, Howie, I think your problems may derive from something, perhaps the tip of a lead pencil, driven into your stomach and broken off. The shallow strikes show up in those blue marks, but a deep one might not. It might also have been driven in too deeply to work itself out. Such a thing could be the cause of a continuing low-grade infection. Highly unusual, but I did see such a thing once."

"Can you dig it out?"

"Well, this is only a possibility. And, anyway, I wouldn't know where to begin. There are so many scars. If need be, we could look under each one, but I'd like to find some quicker way."

Howie immediately felt much better. It was the first time in a long time that any diagnosis other than cancer had struck him as reasonable.

It was after Howie was dressed that Dr. Torgeson said,

"I'd like to see what those stabbing motions looked like, Howie. You could demonstrate on Chuck, perhaps using the eraser end of the pencil."

They all laughed, but Howie took up a pencil and approached Chuck. The latter looked rather alarmed, and assumed a defensive posture.

The situation suddenly took Howie back a good many years. As before, he was the smaller one, but he had in his hand a weapon with which he had been an acknowledged virtuoso.

It had been more or less by tacit agreement that they hadn't tried to put each other's eyes out. There had been some scores to the face, some by Howie, but he had always aimed for the cheeks or mouth. Now, against Chuck, he merely feinted high before driving the eraser-tip of the pencil three times against his thighs and once to his stomach. Chuck, making odd noises, could mount no credible defence. As Howie backed off, he said to Dr. Torgeson,

"We used to assume that the graphite tip would break off with the first hit. After that, there was only the splintered tip of the pencil."

"How did you adjust for that?"

"With harder strokes."

After a few more feints, Howie got in a strong upward thrust to Chuck's lower abdomen which caused the latter to turn away. Dr. Torgeson said with evident satisfaction,

"That last looked like the strongest blow with the most penetrative power. Something like that could account for your pain."

The surgery, which might have to be repeated until they found something, was the sort of thing Dr. Torgeson did routinely in his office. Howie wanted to proceed immediately, but was told,

"I'll have to get some new X-rays. They often don't show a small particle, one that must have been extensively coated. The ones you had before evidently didn't. But it's still worth the chance."

Howie was hardly thrilled at the idea of yet more X-rays, but he made no objection. He was then asked,

"Didn't you say that the pain changed in character after you intensified your exercise program?"

"I think so, but it's getting worse if anything."

"Is it becoming more localized?"

"It may be. I'm not sure."

"You might continue with it. If it does bcome localized, we may be able to save ourselves some time and trouble. In the meantime, I'll look at your X-rays and look up the literature on puncture wounds."

As they left in Howie's car, be said to Chuck,

"I hope I didn't hurt you with any of those stabs."

"I don't think so. It was your face that was terrifying. Your eyes light up, and you look like a primitive warrior about to run someone through. Is that how you were at the orphanage?"

"I suppose so."

"It's a wonder you didn't puncture a liver or kidney."

"I was very proud of the fact that one boy I stabbed was sick for three days."

"By gad, you were a little savage, weren't you?"

"Yes. I hope Barbara doesn't find out."

Then, suddenly, Howie remembered the main point.

"Do you think he's right?"

"He may well be. He's rather like a detective. He noticed those spots on your legs, which I hadn't. And, then, with our re-enactment, it became clear how likely a deep puncture wound must have been. He's really an extraordinarily good doctor."

"Yes. I already knew him from the literary club and the Y, and thought of him as a pleasant and intelligent eccentric. But I hadn't realized how much power of mind he can bring to bear on something that really matters."

"He's also an eccentric in medicine. Torgy has all sorts of unorthodox treatments."

"The other doctors don't like that, do they?"

"No, but he's pretty successful, and they can't say much. What's really got them now is that he's doing veterinary work on the side for free. The only two vets in town don't mind because they're overworked with farm animals, and they don't want to be bothered with dogs and cats. Doc Bradley thinks it's the ultimate indignity for a doctor to spay a cat, but all kinds of people, particularly children, take their pets to Torgy."

"Well, I know he's a widower and lives alone. He can't read Greek all the time, and he probably welcomes the diversion."

"He also says its good practice for surgery on humans. An operation on a much smaller animal is often more difficult. You should have seen Doc Bradley's face when Torgy suggested to him that he might find it instructive to do a few operations on hamsters."

Howie asked,

"Do you think he enjoys shocking those terribly proper people?"

"Quite possibly. It's hard to tell from looking at him, but I'm sure he has a sense of humor. He certainly had an odd look on his face when you were attacking me with the pencil."

"When you first spoke of exploratory surgury, I thought of going to some high-powered man in Chicago. But now I'm inclined to go to Dr. Torgeson. What would you do?"

"In your place, I'd go to Torgy."

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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