While eating lunch in the hospital atrium, the retired doctor who narrates this story notices a boy in a wheelchair looking at him. The elderly physician and the youngster begin a conversation. The fourteen-year-old boy is terminally ill with cancer. The doctor quickly determines that the lad only has time left for honesty. The boy lies, however, about his name. He calls himself Thomas Fogarty but his real name is Tony. "What will you do on your last day on earth?" the moribund boy asks the narrator.

The doctor shares with Tony his own fantasy about dying. He envisions a former student who is now a great surgeon transporting him to an ancient forest. There he becomes part of the woods and keenly aware of the mystery of life. Soon his mind breaks with his body. Death is just "a painless transition."

Tony dies the next morning. He had dictated an unfinished letter to the doctor, and Tony's nurse delivers it to him. As a retired physician, the narrator has performed a valuable service by helping prepare the boy for death. As a writer, the narrator still hopes to save him. He has immortalized Tony by converting him into an enduring story.


Forget about facts. Sometimes they change. Other times they can be altered. Impression and revelation are what matter most in stories by Richard Selzer. "Atrium: October 2001" effectively demonstrates how a writer can create an enduring reality.

Disease and suffering have transformed both the boy and the doctor in this story. Tony possesses an unnatural wisdom and grace for a boy his age. Illness has bestowed these gifts upon him. The doctor is exceptionally kind and comforting. His exposure to illness throughout the years has helped him develop these worthy attributes. "Atrium: October 2001" is in many ways as much a story about the narrator as it is about the dying boy. Who then is "rescued" in this story--the boy or the doctor? There are apparently many reasons why the doctor-narrator eats lunch in the Atrium but mostly he relishes being in the presence of the ill there: "It is with the sick that I feel a sense of belonging. The sick are my kind" (245).

In "An Explication" at the conclusion of the story, Selzer describes the relationship between the two main characters. "Tony is no more and no less than the square root of the doctor." He also writes "it takes no great leap of the imagination to conclude that the doctor and the boy, Tony, are one and the same" (255). Even the false name that Tony chooses to call himself--Thomas Fogarty--establishes a connection with the author. Tom Fogarty is the 16-year-old protagonist of one of Selzer's most poignant stories, Tom and Lily (see this database). That story is noteworthy for its many autobiographical elements and its concern with love, loss, and youth. "Atrium: October 2001" reminds us how deeply a doctor-writer can care about people--imaginary or real characters, strangers or long-time patients.

Primary Source

The Whistlers' Room


Shoemaker & Hoard

Place Published

Washington, D.C.



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