Peter Baida’s A Nurse’s Story is not a book to read in between flights on your next business trip. No, this exquisite collection of nine short stories is a volume (Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi, 2001) to savor on a quiet night at home, or while you are on vacation. Each of the stories is a small drama, a richly painted portrait of everyday life that pulls you in so completely that you almost become part of the story. This book deserves your full attention.

Baida, who received the O. Henry Prize in 1999 for the title story, died before this collection was released to bookstores. He was diagnosed with cancer shortly after graduating from Harvard in the early 1970s. Baida underwent a brutal but ultimately successful regimen of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment to contain and eliminate the cancer. As a result of his treatment, he chose to change his vocation, and he enrolled in the MBA program at Wharton to prepare himself for a career in health care administration. After receiving his degree in 1979, Baida joined the development office at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York City, where he was to spend the next 20 years helping the hospital raise money for cancer research and treatment.

Happily, Baida found time to write, even as he juggled work, family and chronic illness. The hospital and the medical profession provided fertile ground for his stories. He was all too familiar with the inside of hospitals and the aspects of medical care that are rarely seen on prime-time television. As Baida traveled the hallways both as patient and employee, his finely developed ear picked up conversations, anecdotes and vignettes that leaven his writing.

His characters span a broad range, from the nurse in the title story to retired couples who meet regularly over corned beef at a Brooklyn deli, to a physician who found himself beginning his career in Germany in the 1930s. With only one exception, the characters Baida writes about don’t occupy corner offices; rather Baida takes us into the worlds of people whose lives are affected in profound ways by decisions made in those corner offices.

Each story in this collection is different, yet there is a conceptual thread that runs through the book. Baida had a deep appreciation for ethical dilemmas and how every decision we make has consequences, most of which we rarely consider before choosing a particular course of action. We learn that for an elderly gentlemen named Harry Moth of apartment 4-J, there are surprisingly poignant consequences following a life in the Mafia. Baida takes us into the hospital room and the very lives of a dying man and the daughter who cannot forgive him for things he had done years earlier, yet who cannot stand to see her father suffer as cancer eats away at him. The consequences for Harold Winter, a rising young star at a pharmaceutical company, are disastrous notwithstanding Winter’s determination to do the right thing when faced with a profound ethical conflict.

The book’s most moving tale is “The Doctor’s Story”, in which a young man considering going to medical school visits his grandfather in a nursing home and learns about his grandfather’s medical practice in Germany during the 1930s. The grandson ask his grandfather to tell him everything. “Everything. I want to understand”, he pleads. His grandfather’s response is eloquent in its simplicity, “And you think I understand?” The facts are familiar, yet Baida offers a fresh perspective on the horrors inflicted on the road to building a perfect society.

The last story, “The Reckoning,” provides the perfect coda to the collection. A university president is removed from his job for having “overreached”. He claims that he stole nothing, that everything was given to him by the Board of Trustees. More to the point, he argues, he “only took what he deserved”. When a colleague asks him, “You mean you were entitled?”, he responds, “I mean I earned it.” In an era when CEOs of major companies attempt to justify compensation plans that pay them tens of millions of dollars, this story provides an opportunity to stop and reconsider just what anyone earns and deserves.

Most readers will instantly recognize the people who grace the pages of this book. They are our neighbors, our friends, people we’ve met even if only briefly in the pages of the daily paper. We see them in the hospitals, on the streets, in the delis as we rush in to pick up our lunch. Every person has a story. The shame of our busy lives is that we don’t know more people’s stories.

Diane Cole, Baida’s wife, describes her late husband as a man with a passion for language and ideas. That comes through in this little collection. Happily, according to Cole, Baida left enough material to fill another book. Let’s hope that this book is just the first of a rich legacy left by this gifted writer.