I wrote Personal Baggage because I enjoy the escape that reading gives me--to sit down with a book and be transported into a more exciting situation than the one in which I live and to read about characters who are very different from the people I know.
I wanted to paint pictures with words, to introduce unusual characters and behind-the-scene events that intrigued me, and to pull readers into the exciting world of nursing. I had a wealth of material, gathered over a long period of time, so when I retired and one of my children gave me Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, and my sister introduced me to David Starnes, and he offered to help me, and my husband bought a beautiful computer desk and a Hewlett-Packard machine for me, I ran out of excuses for not trying, at least, to work on a manuscript.
As a child, I was taken with Cherry Ames and her adventures in different nursing situations. My ambition had always been to become a nurse and, although marriage and starting a family took me off course, when I needed to make money, I chose to work toward an associate degree in nursing at a nearby community college.
I was a registered nurse for thirty years: working as a floor nurse, as an emergency room nurse, in obstetrics, in home health, in critical care, and in Oncology. I found that the same basic skills were required wherever I worked, but I added new skills and new friends each time I changed settings.
Personal Baggage: A Tale of Marriage, Medicine, and Murder (ISBN 1461156440) by Margaret McMillion shares the story of a dedicated nurse who, while employed at a big city hospital, uncovers a dangerous game of abuse and profiteering made possible by a broken health care system.
When Penny Pewitt decides to take on a second nursing job at a large hospital, she hopes to secure extra income for her family. Instead, she discovers exploding changes in health care and resulting illegal practices that endanger not only patients, but also anyone threatening to expose the system. Meanwhile, Penny’s relationship with her husband,Johnny, is disintegrating. She blames him for her unhappiness while his time is consumed with the pursuit of other interests. As Penny encounters patients, colleagues, family members, and medical duplicity, she gains the confidence and maturity needed to see things in a new light. In an effort to defuse Penny’s growing obsession with hospital intrigue, Johnny arranges a visit to her great-grandparents’ hometown. As past meets present with shocking results, the trip comes to mean much more than he intends.
“I was inspired to write by my life experiences and my delight at becoming immersed in stories by great authors,” McMillion says. “Set against a background of Medicare fraud, this is an exciting story about one nurse's adventures in her profession.”
Summer sunlight sent a golden glow through the outstretched wings of a hawk floating on currents of air above Dixiana, Mississippi on an afternoon in the year 1991. Without warning, the flier plunged straight at a house cat lying on the roof of a small red car. Springing up from her nap, the long-haired calico hissed and slashed as the powerful predator swept past.
From a weed patch in the center of the driveway circle, a woman rushed to rescue her pet. Comforting the animal, she stumbled past a bed of yellow zinnias and sank into a Pawleys Island hammock beneath the protecting arms of a live oak tree, whose leafy canopy danced softly on a honeysuckle breeze. The kitty kneaded Penelope Augusta Nichols Pewitt’s stomach and purred while the hawk circled slowly overhead. two strands converged in the middle forming a Y. Disrupting the shimmering letter, Penny placed her daughter’s cat on the ground as a small mutt with the high bellowing.
“I think you scared it, Callie.”
At the sound of Penny’s alto voice, the fluffy feline looked up. Under usual circumstances, a small droplet of moisture rested at one corner of the animal’s mouth, but happiness accelerated her salivation rate and she had drooled from both corners until the bark of a beagle joined them to announce that their neighbor was waving from her front yard.
Like her father and grandmother before her, the older woman lived in the temple style house in which she was born: Oakden, with tall ceilings and three layers of bricks between the walls of rooms unaltered for generations. If the truth were known, she had preserved her heritage by permitting thousands of strangers to walk through her home and gawk at her family’s possessions.
Misty Vanlandingham shaded her eyes. “I need to ask you something,” she called.
Penny climbed out of the hammock, sauntered down her driveway, and crossed Oakwood Street, where heat waves rose from the pavement into air thick with the watermelon fragrance of freshly mown grass.
Misty spoke in a tone Jackie Kennedy might have used in a comment about the Rose Garden, while her glistening face bore witness to the temperature in massive Oakden on one of the stickiest summer days Mississippi had dished out. “A brand-new pair of black lace undies disappeared from my laundry basket and I think your dog might be the culprit.”
Long past the puppy stage, Penny’s dog Zac seized any opportunity to swipe the neighbors’ papers. He dug up flower beds with joyous barking and pilfered trophies from all over town: a cell phone which rang incessantly, several hats from a baseball cap to a bonnet, and innumerable shoes from the porch of their Japanese friends. In fact, until his masculinity was removed, he had distributed his DNA all over town.
Penny attempted to imagine her neighbor in black lace undies. “I’m sorry. I really try to keep him out of your yard.”
Misty acknowledged the apology with a wave of her hand, collected mail from her box, and smiled at Penny. “How are things with you?”
Avoiding a direct reply, Penny shifted her gaze to the mailbox. “Did you see in the paper that the county has sold River Park Hospital to the corporation that built Jacksonville Medical Center?”
“No, but I know many hospitals are struggling because Medicare and insurance companies have cut back reimbursements.”
Penny faced her neighbor. “I’m changing jobs: I am going to work full-time at the Jacksonville hospital.” She paused, afraid her friend would disapprove. Jacksonville Medical Center, a new 300-bed hospital, was 75 miles northeast of the town of Dixiana. Penny would begin her new job the next morning.
Misty nodded and Penny continued. “Three twelve-hour night shifts or thirty-six hours a week will qualify me for full-time benefits, and I can still work day shift in Dixiana every other Saturday and Sunday on the Baylor Plan, which pays time and a half for each hour of weekend work.”
Misty widened her eyes and smiled. “That hospital in Jacksonville is larger and more progressive than ours. You’re wise to make a change before the situation here grows any worse. It’s a long commute, though. Be careful driving home in the mornings!”
More than a profession for Penny Pewitt, RN, nursing was her avocation yet something was missing. Neither nursing, with its multiplicity of demands, nor the animals her children, Tom, Dick, and Harriet, had abandoned to her care filled the emptiness they had left behind.
Tears stung Penny’s eyes. Her steps in deciding had been littered with second thoughts, but Misty agreed with her. Recently named Dixiana’s Citizen of the Year, Misty managed the Garden Club and organized pilgrimage house tours for the entire town. God knew Misty understood business!
Her decision validated, Penny looked both ways before stepping into the street. A shiny black car was slowly approaching from the left, allowing her ample time to cross, but after she had taken a few steps, the vehicle accelerated, its motor roaring as it surged forward. Startled, Penny raced for her front yard, jumped the curb, and reached grass only a few steps ahead of the speeding compact, which scraped against the concrete curbing before swerving back into its proper lane.
Unnerved, Penny felt every heartbeat like someone was kicking her in the chest again and again. Had the driver tried to run her down? It was lucky that both she and Zac had escaped injury! She sprinted over her lawn while Zac scampered ahead of her. His short hair was mostly white, but in places the white faded to a brownish tan, making him appear perpetually dirty. She collected her yard gloves and kneeling pad and coaxed him into his pen. Reaching far back into his little house, she discovered several dog biscuits, a chewed-up bone, and a large pair of black-lace panties. Zac met Penny’s glare with silent adoration.
Entering the house from the garage, Penny undressed in the laundry room and tossed her muddy yard clothes into the washer. Yesterday’s rain had made the weeding job messy. She envisioned her immaculate, stylishly-dressed mother. As a child and even later, Penny had thought that when she grew up, she would live in heels like her mother, a minister’s wife who wore gloves more often than Michael Jackson.
The jangling phone called her into the kitchen, where she snatched up the receiver and plopped into a chair. She braced her elbows on the table. “Hello?”
“Penny, something bad has happened here!”
The urgent sound of her sister Faye’s voice sent Penny’s blood racing.
“Reva phoned from Westview to tell me Dad knocked her down and yelled at her, that he’d call the police if she didn’t leave, but she said she would stay until I got there, if I came quickly.”
“Oh great!” Penny stood up, barely able to listen to what might come next. Her mother’s mental status had declined at an alarming rate since coronary by-pass surgery two months ago, and her father, a retired Presbyterian minister, was unable to manage his home. Reva Ryder was their most recent housekeeper.
Faye continued, “I drove out there as fast as I could. Reva said she had taken issue with something Dad was doing to Mom, and when she interfered he told her to get out. Then he pushed her and she fell.”
After a pause Penny’s voice quavered, “So...what happened next?”
“Well, I assured Reva that we know she did her best and that she’s a wonderful person and I apologized for Dad’s acting like that.”
“And then Daddy asked her to forgive him?”
“Are you kidding? No, he was very agitated, even after Reva said she’d never be back and left, he still looked really mean. So I have just now come back to my office.”
Penny pictured Faye’s office in the Charleston Chamber of Commerce building, the soft folds of her sister’s skirt swinging as she paced. “Faye, did you leave them alone?”
“Well...Mom was in bed and Dad seemed calm. I’ve got to find another housekeeper! I have a couple of leads but I need somebody who can start tomorrow.”
Penny had assumed that when the need arose she would be the one who would take care of her parents in the same way in which her mother had cared for her grandparents, but it had turned out that she and her husband, Johnny, a high school coach and history teacher, depended on the income from her job at Dixiana’s River Park Hospital where she had worked for nineteen years.
Penny, torn between obligations at work and her parents’ needs, walked barefoot through her kitchen, across the den, and down the hall to the bathroom. She was standing in the shower running hot water on her head when Faye called again. Grabbing a towel, she scurried to the telephone beside her bed while water dripped onto her rug.
“Things are looking up! I asked two ladies from the church to carry Mom and Dad their lunch and check on them tomorrow and the next day, then I can cover the weekend, and I have the phone number for a young widow who wants to work while her kids are in school. Let’s hope she’ll start on Monday.”
Later that afternoon, Penny was slicing Roma tomatoes with a steak knife when Johnny arrived. Her husband crowded their small kitchen like a boulder, exuding an earthy odor of dirt and grass.
His deep voice filled the quiet house. “Sorry I’m late. What have you been up to?”
Penny wanted to keep supper conversation away from her new job. “I made tuna salad.”
“Sounds good. Just give me a minute.”
While Johnny shaved, showered, and dressed for an Investment Club meeting, Penny, who was worried about passing Jacksonville Hospital’s qualification tests for RNs, worked on a practice sheet of drug calculations at the kitchen table. For some reason, math was harder for her than it used to be, and it had been a while since she had grappled with problems like these because manufacturers packaged most drugs in individual portions. The hospital pharmacists dispensed the others already measured, and nurses only double checked the doses.
When Johnny came to the table his face was crimson; sunburn had erased his freckles. He patted down his damp, sandy-grey hair, pulled out a chair, and sat in front of his plate, pressing a finger against the wireframe nosepiece of his eye glasses. “Thanks for waiting supper. Peter Puckett came by the field to show off his trophy wife, and then I had to finish mowing.”
“Did you finish?” Penny asked, not listening to his reply. Johnny knew Mr. Puckett, the hospital’s administrator, better than she did. Her husband could say something chummy to anybody, and he knew everybody because he volunteered for everything; he volunteered out of sheer habit! He was a serial do-gooder who could chop down all the telephone poles in town and still qualify for citizen of the year.
One could say there was nothing wrong with taking an interest in people, but Johnny, a Dixiana native, not only wanted to know their names and who their relatives were, but also he wanted to help them. He said he must repay the debt he owed his stepfather, a gentle man who had been his “Pop” since Johnny was ten years old. Before they married, Johnny had told Penny about his father’s illness, the agonizing six weeks before leukemia killed him, and the lost little boy he became at the age of seven.
“And hickory dickory dock,” Johnny said.
Penny looked at him.
“You’re not listening. Why did you ask me if you didn’t want to know? You don’t give a flip about what I do.”
Penny felt hollow in her abdomen. What he said was partly true.
Getting up from the table, Johnny stood at the refrigerator with his glass of iced tea. He looked like he was puzzled about something, and the solution was written on the linoleum. “I thought you liked sports when I married you.” He glanced at Penny with an amused smile. “We went to the football games and you came to all my baseball and basketball games. You know?”
“But we were dating then. I loved you, not sports.”
Johnny settled into his chair and stared at her with alligator eyes, his mouth a tight seam. He started to speak, but Penny needed to make her point before she forgot what it was.
“You came to my choral performances, and I didn’t know music made your head ache—not until we went to Handel’s Messiah and you threw up in the church!”
Not blinking, Johnny said, “I guess I should have figured it out when you didn’t come to our boys’ games...”
Penny interrupted. “But when the boys played you were always there and I was at work or washing or cleaning. I guess you remember that none of our children helped around the house.”
She closed her eyes, lowered her head, and pinched her nose. Almost inevitably, she recalled an evening when she had compiled lists of age-appropriate chores and presented one to each child at supper. The children complained and Johnny said the lists were a bad idea. She suffered again the desperation of that rock-bottom moment when he didn’t support her, and she walked out of the house, got into her car, and drove all the way to Louisiana. Finally, she turned around at an EXXON station and returned home.
To a certain extent, Penny had enjoyed her children more when they were young: so cuddly, cute, and so eager to learn. As they grew older and after she became a nurse, their needs multiplied in the dark. Penny had once believed that if she tried hard enough she could be a perfect mother; Dr. Spock’s falling-apart paperback was her Bible. But as time passed, she became a survivor, struggling with one day’s catastrophes only to face new obstacles the next. She remembered working eight-hour night shifts, ten on and four off, and dragging herself out of bed before the children arrived home from school. After supper and baths, when they were tucked in, she sometimes cried as she folded laundry before returning to the hospital to work again.
Johnny restored the subject. “Anyway, we’ve got that field the best it’s ever been. Man, it’s going to be fun to play on! Big Time!”
Penny ran cold fingers through her faded-blond hair, inhaled, gripped the edge of the table, and shifted in her chair. Her bare toe touched his shoe, and she jerked her foot back as though it had been burned. She felt so upset she couldn’t sit while Johnny explained the hot stock tip he planned to present to his club. She marveled at the way he kept his emotions under control and wondered whether he masked them or never even experienced them in the first place. Johnny’s disinterest in her was stunning. She felt a twinge of pressure on her bottom lip and made herself stop biting it. No wonder her lipstick never stayed on.
She doubted that her husband would notice the tears standing in her eyes when he told her goodbye: Johnny was gifted with not noticing. Too busy to need her, he didn’t see her, not really. Her life was unraveling, and she was grasping at the threads; all the good times were over.
Surely, one might agree that when a relationship fell apart there should be a sign to show that something life-changing had happened—not like this: just keeping on keeping on. Even lovemaking, which her mother described as “your privilege to do something for your husband,” had become just another chore before Penny could sleep.
After cleaning up the kitchen, Penny fed Callie and Zac and retired to her room. She needed rest to be at her best the next day, but her thoughts returned to the week during which she had agonized over whether to apply for the job in Jacksonville. She had asked Johnny’s opinion, since he always had one, and the ability to see through a problem to the choices and to calculate the consequences. Fittingly enough, he had pointed out the extra driving time involved and the increased cost of operating her Chevette and then he said, “It’s your call, of course, but do you think it is wise to change jobs when you’re fifty-three years old?”
Penny’s uncertainties swarmed in. She must have been crazy to think she could work in Jacksonville! It took all her energy just to make it from one day to the next, and yet she was vegetating in Dixiana. At the big hospital, she would learn to manage Swan lines and assist with pacemaker insertions and she could take part in new procedures she had only read about. She wanted to work in a larger hospital, and she had already accepted the job!
She was ready to move on, done with doing what everyone expected of her. She had attended a small church college and selected the Bible as her major which failed to prepare her for the working world. The realization that she had to work outside their home came upon her like a locomotive: a tiny speck in the distance which became larger and larger until, with a deafening roar when Harriet was only four, Penny had left her crying at day-care and returned to college.
Although starting work with an Associate Degree in nursing bore no resemblance to the experiences of her childhood literary heroine, Cherry Ames, Penny stuck with it because there was no other choice: they had no money for music lessons, no money for braces, no money for clothes. On Johnny’s salary, their family of five had met the requirements for reduced prices on school lunches.
Besides, tomorrow would be a new beginning when people would not know her. She would be smart and careful and kind, and wash her hands before and after every patient contact. Yes! This was her opportunity to become a better nurse.
Determined to make a good first impression, Penny selected her outfit carefully: black slacks, a silky gray blouse, and her new Bass flats. With her clothes laid out and the room tidied, she propped up in bed and scribbled a letter describing Zac’s panty theft to her parents. They enjoyed receiving mail, and Penny made her story entertaining.
She turned off the lamp and lay down, trying to focus on the side effects of commonly-used drugs, but her thoughts were muddled by little black cars zooming back and forth as she drifted toward sleep.
On that August evening, Penny had no idea that she would soon be swept into a realm of greed, intrigue, and, ultimately, murder.
About the Author
Margaret McMillion, a retired nurse, was born in Conyers, Georgia and spent her youth in Charlotte, North Carolina and Natchez, Mississippi. McMillion earned a bachelor’s degree from Rhodes College and an associate’s degree in nursing from Columbia State Community College. In addition to her career, she is a wife, mother, grandmother, and lifelong writer.
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