Bed 39, by Shawn Maureen McKelvie. CreateSpace. 220 pages. Trade paperback $15.00. Available online from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Mix features of paranormal fiction with medical history and you get “Bed 39,” where the spirits of the deceased hang out and the story of the hospice movement is revealed. It’s a strange combination, perhaps “unique” is a better descriptor. Somehow it works. At once romantic, upbeat, and weird, Ms. McKelvie’s novel has spiritual grace and a gritty cast of mostly believable characters.
The bed itself, housed when we first enter the author’s world in a decaying St. Louis hospital, is a kind of way-station for the terminally ill. It’s a place with special powers.
Our main narrating character is Tomas Kaminski, a young man whose boyhood in St. Louis (Dogtown neighborhood) is quickly sketched before we find out about the terminal cancer that brings him, as a young man, to Bed 39. He is its first inhabitant. It is a special bed donated by the hospice campaigner Dr. Cicely Saunders, a courageous British woman about whom readers learn much more.
Bed 39 has special properties. It’s a place where spirits hover and may be heard and seen by those recent Bed 39 residents transitioning to the hereafter. Tomas has such a visitor, the spirit of a man named David Tasma who tells him about Cicely Saunders, the woman whose outrage about the suffering and mistreatment of terminal patients led her to do something about it. The first thing she does is obtain the education and credentials she needs to energize the hospice movement.
While there is a good deal of solemnity and sadness in the narrative, there is also much joy and instances of deep, unconditional love.
The stories of those who have passed through the Bed 39 experience are often heart-warming stories of strong family bonds. Tomas’s Polish-Irish family history is delightfully presented, as is his late near-romance with a woman named Mia who becomes a nurse at the hospital. Their corporeal relationship is cut short by Tomas’ death, but their ethereal, eternal togetherness is assured.
Weaving in and out of those tales is information about the development of the compassionate care concept and the hospice movement. Readers learn about the special people who were founders or major promotors of this movement. Ms. McKelvie’s authorial mission, in part, is to advocate support for further enhancement of hospice care, even to the point of creating hospices for pets. The author understands that caring for the terminally ill is a true specialty that calls for well-trained medical professionals who can help patients and their families cope with death’s inevitability and ease the journey.
My favorite character in the book is Nurse Libby, whose career of three decades gets detailed attention. Though there are some rough edges in her manner, she is still an exemplary figure whose dedication knows no bounds. She is a problem solver, an astute manager of her subordinates, and a woman whose sometimes brusque manner reveals a heart of gold. She leads by example. . . .