Dr. Marie Heaton
Marie is dedicated to her career as an anesthesiologist. After growing up in Texas, she moved to Seattle. When Oxygen begins, it has been three years since she last visited her father, with whom she shares a relationship that is best characterized as “tolerant.” Marie is closer to her sister, Lori, but it has been more than two years since she last saw her or her children. But Marie is not cold. At home she takes phone calls from her adolescent niece. At work she offers her patients a great deal of compassion. Ultimately, Marie’s work is her life, so when Jolene Jenson dies on her watch, it destroys her entire life. She has nothing to do outside of work, so she continues to practice as the investigation begins. She now second-guesses her interactions with patients, and she can no longer treat children at all. It seems that everything for which Marie has carefully planned and diligently worked is falling apart. Now she is forced to reconsider the decisions she made and rearrange her priorities.
In Seattle, Marie’s closest relationship is with Dr. Joe Hillary. Joe is Marie’s colleague, friend, and ex-lover. It has been years since they were intimate, so it seems that Joe is first and foremost her friend. However, as Marie’s troubles at the hospital escalate, her relationship with Joe begins to take on romantic overtones. He begins to take her out on dates, and one night she asks him to sleep next to her so she can make it through the night. Joe even comes to help Marie in Houston, which requires him phoning every Heaton residence listed in Houston’s phone book. Joe gets along with Marie’s father, and he takes her out afterward so they can talk. After she explains to him that she had an abortion, she and Joe make love for the first time in years.
Although Marie has not gotten along with her father since he found out about her abortion, Joe and Marie’s father get along very well. Marie’s father explains to Joe that he feels bad because it seems like Marie does not have enough love in her life; her father reflects that he may be to blame for it. Marie takes this news as a “secondhand” apology, but does not know what will happen next. When she returns to her father after spending the night with Joe, her father seems to have accepted that he will need help now that he is losing his eyesight. He also explains that Joe is interesting but not necessarily likable. Joe seems to say a lot more than he actually says, he notes, and he points out that one thing he learned as a medievalist is to make inferences based on what is not said. Marie takes this advice to heart and discovers how to clear her name at the hospital. However, she also discovers that Joe is an addict and that he is responsible for Jolene’s death.
When the novel ends, Marie has taken on a new job that allows her to reach a balance in her personal and professional life. She works at a teaching hospital that allows her to take three months of every year off so that she can volunteer abroad. She is once again able to treat children and has reclaimed the confidence with which she guides patients through their surgeries. Finally, Marie’s father is going to move to Seattle so they can be closer to each other.
Dr. Joe Hillary
At first, Dr. Joe Hillary seems like a romantic interest for Marie, but his role expands over the course of Oxygen . He is Marie’s colleague at First Lutheran, and he often relieves her so she can take a break during surgery. He is adventurous, spontaneous, and has a good sense of humor. In addition to his practice, Joe is an amateur pilot and an avid...
(The entire section is 1,000 words.)