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A colorless fog grazed the empty streets; the city was lifeless, drained by an invisible vampire of all its color. No sound murmured from the gentle lap of the water in the harbor, all was still, frozen by the bleak dawn sky. I walked alone, guided by the fading streetlights, pacing from dash to dash letting the paint control my movements. Wrapped in my blue flannel quilt, all I could feel was its bulk surrounding me. Comforting me with its warmth, I pulled it closer for fear that I could lose this as well. I moved slowly, yet before I knew where I was I found myself across from the Holocaust memorial. Upon the wall in black steel lettering with red rust streaks stained on the tan concrete were Elie Wiesel’s famed words, “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
The sound of hurried feet tapping at every other brown linoleum step reverberated against the walls of the 6-story stairwell of Catherine’s apartment building, the rhythm interrupted only by the short three taps at every landing. Reaching the top of the 5th story, she pushed against the brushed chrome of the cream metal door with such demand that the door answered her as she ran down the hall with a loud thud against the wall. Keys! Fumbling through her jacket pocket she produced 4 key chains and 2 brass keys, one of which would allow her to gain access to her domicile. 6:39, one hour to get ready for the university hospital’s microbiology banquet, not to mention get there. Good thing the building was only five minutes away. It was sure to be a bore, but she was a speaker that evening so the necessity for her not to be late was unquestionable. Reaching room 539, she felt further stressed when she heard the familiar melodic notes of her phone. 3 rings later “HELLO!” There was a pause, and for one moment, she thought there was the possibility of having missed the call.
There was an intake of breath on the other line, and a direct steady soft voice asking, “Dr. Tanner? Dr. Catherine Tanner?…”
Answering with slight confusion and a slow “yes” she paused. “Who is this?”
“Dr. Tanner, this is Frank O’Hara. I’m a doctor for tropical disease research at John Hopkins. I need to ask you: have you spoken to your brother recently? And/or are you familiar with the nature of his research?”
The question caught her completely off guard, which slowed her movements as she sat down quietly on the bed. “I haven’t spoken to my brother since he got back home from Kiribati a month ago. As for his research, I know a good deal about that. Before he went to the islands we were co-developing new antibiotics and bacterial fugues that he would test on samples of tropical diseases he gathered there. He called me most everyday he was there with new information about the samples he had collected, and he often sent me the data. Yet, I really have had no contact with him since he got back, and I have no information as to the success of the antibiotics or the bacterial fugues he was testing …” Her voice trailed off, the banquet forgotten.
“Ah yes, well I, where do I begin? Your brother, as you know arrived back to his home in Baltimore nearly a month ago. Since that time he, and the members of his lab have fallen ill.” He paused and waited for a reaction that didn’t come, more for the reason that the pause, he thought, was long and drawn out was nothing more than a short breath. He was quite lost in his own stream of consciousness to truly take notice of her reaction anyway. This phone call had been troubling him since he realized only an hour before that he had to be the one to tell her. He continued, “They are now in quarantine, and we are trying to gather information as to the cause of their illness. It’s strange really, for when your brother arrived home there was no evidence of sickness, and he was vaccinated for all tropical diseases we know of, and we had him examined for anything as soon as he arrived at one of the larger islands. It’s quite mind boggling.”
Finally, pausing long enough for Catherine to take in this new information, her professional side took hold of her next question, “What symptoms have they expressed?”
“They all have been exhibiting flu-like symptoms, yet it is not a form of malaria. The possibility of Dengue fever has been thrown out as well. It is something we have never come in contact with before, yet it is clearly a bacterial infection and not a virus. Really, we are lost.”
“Are you sure the disease is contagious, that it is not something they came into contact with when working in the lab?”
“So far, we have no way of knowing.” Pausing and taking on a graver tone that Catherine had often used with her own patient’s families when alerting them to the serious state their loved one was in, Dr. O’Hara resumed. “Dr. Tanner, we know this disease, whatever it may be, is extremely severe, we, however, don’t know as of yet how contagious it is. We are not taking any risks: Though it may seem extreme, we have already begun to evacuate the city area around the hospital. Were this to escape into the surrounding community, it would be virtually unstoppable. We estimate those who have the disease, including your brother, do not have much time left. All of us here feel it is best if you would come as soon as you can. Also your assistance would be much appreciated.”
Taken aback by this sudden flood of unexpected information, Catherine reacted in much the same way she had seen many of her patients act. She fell into a mute zombie-like trance where a blank stare took over her facial muscles and in her head what felt to be a million thoughts and things to do flooded her senses with an over-burdening power all their own. She sat in silence for nearly a minute real time but what felt to be an eternity, finally roused from her removed state by the constant repetition of her name. “Oh, oh I’m sorry I don’t know what came over me. Yes, of course I will be there as soon as possible.”
Hanging up, Catherine looked around her at the sanctuary that was her room. Had the world looked the same way to all those many people she had given similar information? Her room, which was truly directly out of a Pottery Barn magazine had never felt so cold and not homey before. Strange, especially since the home feeling was a sensation Pottery Barn practically guaranteed would arise if you would only buy their product. The soft yellow walls that normally warmed the room particularly with the fading sunlight that streamed through the open white cloth curtains in the early evening felt hollow, more like a reflection of a home than anything with actual depth. Shaking herself into autopilot she quickly threw together a suitcase, bought a seat on a flight to BWI, contacted a taxi service to get her there, asked her neighbor to care for her plants and her fish, Ernie, and as a last thought called the banquet, which by now, had already begun.
At 4:00 am, she found herself stopped by the Baltimore police department as she tried to make her way to John Hopkins Hospital.
“Sorry, yer gonna’ hav ta turn ‘round, this area is quarantined,” said the Police officer, who exhibited the traditional slurred speech and dropped endings of a Baltimore native.
“Officer, my name is Dr. Catherine Turner. Dr. Frank O’Hara called me last night to ask for my assistance in this case. Please call the hospital to verify.”
The officer called from Catherine’s cell phone and after satisfying himself that she was who she said she was and that her reason for being there was accurate as well, he let her continue on her way. The time was nearly 5:00 am; it seemed as though it had taken her far too long to gain clearance, yet, just outside the hospital was Dr. Frank O’Hara, waiting for her with a bio-hazard suit to wear when inside the hospital.
With a weak smile, he asked her how her trip had been, and when handing her the suit followed it only with, “We’re not sure if its air borne; we have all our other patients in other wings of the hospital on a different ventilation system.”
Catherine nodded her acceptance and, after wading into the suit, ventured into the almost deserted hospital. It was strange to see a hospital like John Hopkins in its present state. Normally teaming with life and an uninterrupted air of importance and stress, she now saw an empty waiting room shocked at being so barren.
Striding toward the awaiting elevator, she and Dr. O’Hara made their way to the 11th floor where her brother, his lab workers, and those others who had experienced similar symptoms were placed. Heading directly for where her brother lay, she was glad to see him awake, yet the change that had befallen him as an effect of the disease was striking. Pale and thin, his lips were cracked, and there was a glassy quality to his eyes. His skin was covered in rashes and small red pustules some of which had burst, causing more inflation to the surrounding area. His legs and arms were swollen, as were his lymph nodes. Alltogether, he was quite a sight. He was attached to multiple machines one monitoring his heart, the other his breath; there were multiple tubes flowing into his various veins and parts of his body all trying to sustain him and make him more comfortable in the state he now found himself. He was by no means, as Catherine found out shortly after, as badly off as many of his colleagues, but he was certainly by no stretch of the imagination looking good.
Turning to face Catherine, he smiled saying, “Cathy, look it’s the machine that goes ‘PING’.” Quoting Monty Python had always been one of their favorite past times. This present quotation seemed almost to hold more meaning for her as it was from “The Meaning of Life.” A weak smile followed as he slowly lowered his head back to the pillows with a sigh.
Old times filled her mind: Christmas time when she and her brother would sit down with the rest of the family and be thrown into fits of laughter that made eating health-hazardous. Her brother had always been the one to begin those good jokes that no one could help but laugh. Yet, looking at her brother now with the empty brightness of the hospital’s florescent lights illuminating the cold pallor on his face, she did not recognize him. He was totally devoid of pigment. The only break in the continuous void of his colorless skin were the deep purple and brown circles under his eyes, that is excepting the red pustules that spanned his body from the disease. Lost in her own thoughts she failed to notice Dr. O’Hara and the nurse approaching her. One carried a shot of pain medication that would give her brother a rest from pain.
Aaron’s eyes were shut. Catherine was clutching at his hand when Dr. O’Hara placed his hand on her shoulder it startled her. He gently pressured her to let go, so that they might proceed to the lab. She looked over at the nurse who stood by Aaron’s IV with the empty needle of pain medication she had just administered.
Slowly rotating her body in order to follow Dr. O’Hara, Catherine felt every step she took. Each step became more deafening then the next. By the time they had made their way though the biohazard air lock, she was practically holding her ears from the noise.
Noticing Catherine’s slowed pace Dr. O’Hara turned back to her and upon seeing her own pallor his already long drawn face lengthen as an expression of absolute sympathy fixed itself. “Let’s go sit down”, he said as he led her to a nearby waiting room conveniently supplied with coffee, the ultimate healer for fatigue.
Sitting down and taking all the comfort the warm liquid could offer her, Catherine began to make some general observations about her comrade. He was not old, 40 maybe, if that, yet still a few years older then she was. He was tall and looked like he had been rather gangly when he was younger but now, he had filled out slightly giving him a lean athletic build that was by no means bad to look at.
Similar hazel eyes observed her from across the small light oak finished table in much the same fashion she had just done. He noticed the weariness she carried in her broad shoulders; she looked in need of shower and a nap. Her light brown hair cut at shoulder length looked limp, yet everything about her painted a picture of absolute fatigue, stress, yet still radiated strength.
She stared into her cup, not making any movements or sounds, and for sometime they sat in silence each waiting for the other to make the first move. Looking up just as her coffee had finished steaming, a great sigh escaped her as she brushed back a strand of hair that had become unlocked behind her ears. Giving herself a shake she propped herself up at her chin and looked at Dr. O’Hara blankly blinking repeatedly to try and wake herself up. He stared back with fatigue, yet ready to jump into action at a moments notice. “So what now?” her voice sounded strange, far too awake to really be hers.
Rousing from his own revery, Dr. O’Hara brought himself to a standing position. Towering over the table, he leaned against it to steady himself and asked her to follow him. Catherine got up and began walking toward a silver door that would lead them to another area of the hospital. As they approached one of the doors in the following corridor, Dr. O’Hara began to secure the helmet on his suit yet again; Catherine followed his example.
“This is our lab for disease control”, Dr. O’Hara said with a brisk professional tone, as they entered one of the many secure labs on the 11th floor of the Medical University Building, just west of the building in which her brother was being held. Several other scientists similarly attired in the powder blue bio-hazard suit she was herself sporting seemed busily at work. They were conducting tests and monitoring the bacteria she knew was afflicting her brother and his lab partners.
Dr. O’Hara walked on and motioned her to follow him. She followed him to a computer that was displaying the bacteria in molecular form and comparing that to strains of malaria and Dengue fever. She began to read over the data the computer was collecting, only half of it truly making sense, after all her specialty was not in diseases research, only in antibiotic development and bacterial fugues. Yet, as she had been familiar with her brother’s work, she knew the importance that any information he could have given her would provide in the search for a cure. Dr. O’Hara began to explain some of the data present on the screen, all of which after he had said his first 10 words oozed together into a semi-homogenous mass, with the same intonation and meaning as the next. Yet she gathered from his explanation the seriousness and unique power of the bacteria they were currently dealing with.
“…So as you can see we really are going about treating the bacteria the only way we can.” He continued, “We have taken samples from the lab Aaron was working in, and we have come to some conclusions as to probable causes for the disease.” Those words awoke her with such violence that she spun back to face him from staring at the large screen diagram of the molecule. A question formed on her face that was answered before the words could spill out of her exhausted frame. “We believe that several different types of the bacteria your brother collected while on his travels managed to become contaminated. This could have happened in any form or fashion. Yet we know that when your brother was testing some of the new medicines for tropical diseases he was developing, he, inadvertently, provided the means for the bacteria to mutate. The bacteria, when they came in contact with each other, managed somehow to share plasmids that flitted between them and caused them to gain the strengths of the other. When your brother and his partners administered the new test drug the bacteria mutated once again. They formed a resistance for the drug, as yet we do not know how to attack the bacteria effectively as all our means of antibiotics have proven ineffective. Of course by the time your brother and his lab partners began to show signs of the disease, it was quite clear that they needed serious medical attention. We have brought into observation all those who might have come into contact with your brother and his partners, however, it is only those who shared bodily fluids with them who are beginning to show signs of the disease.”
By the time Dr. O’Hara had fished his speech, his expression had turned grave. There was no mirth in his face, no life in his tone, all was empty, all was…gone. Catherine felt sick as well upon hearing such news. There was very little time left it seemed for her brother and his partners; there only seemed to be a possibility of time for those who had been secondarily infected. Even then, the odds were against them.
How could this have happened? Why did this happen? These were all the words that seemed to make sense. They were all the words she could make out in her head. The room was spinning nothing made sense anymore. It was too extraordinary; it was too surrreal, yet stranger things had happened.
Breathing hard she saw the sun’s light shining through the tinted glass of the hospital. It felt cold, all the warmth blocked by the thick panes that let in only emptiness. Confused, she sat up and was at once greeted by the skyline of Baltimore, and the harbor shimmering in the soft light of dusk. She looked around her. Dr. O’Hara was there holding a cool compact on her head.
“I, ah, I, um don’t really… what just happened?” Dazed, she shook off his friendly hand and looked quite candidly into his face searching for an answer that was masked behind concern.
A very calm sympathetic answer of “You passed out,” was all Dr. O’Hara provided as he bathed her temples with the cool cloth. Seeing her surprise he continued, “not for long but all the same, once you had woken up outside the lab, I had the nurse administer you some drugs to help you sleep.” Pausing and seeing the shocked expression in Catherine’s eyes he continued, “Don’t worry. It hasn’t been for long, maybe 4 hours. Do you feel better?”
“Yes, but you had no right to do that,” Catherine answered appalled.
Surprised and taken aback, “I asked you at the time if you wished to rest and would like some help. You said you did, and in any case, it helped you.”
His action upset Catherine greatly. She had not been able to help because she had been asleep. Anger welled up inside her; she was quite upset until the realization dawned on her that she perhaps might have done the same were she in his position. This thought cooled her sufficiently enough to ask him if there was any change in the condition of the patients.
A pause followed the hurried question. A long breath out and a bite of the lip all caused her to take a swift intake of breath, anxiously waiting on the sounds that would soon proceed from his mouth.
“We’ve lost 2 of your brothers lab partners already. One just after you had fallen asleep and the other not 10 minutes ago, that’s why I came to get you, time is short.”
Breathlessly, Catherine queried “Is there any development as far as a cure goes?” The answer was exactly what she had expected…No.
A slow sigh escaped her. Thanks to her short nap, her professional side once again began to take hold. Looking around her she grabbed the bio-hazard suit she had been provided with and quickly pulled it up around her. Helmet in hand she surprised Dr. O’Hara with a quick “Let’s go.”
Making their way back down the corridor and into the lab, Catherine quickly looked at blood samples from the two patients who had just died. The bacteria had taken over completely; in fact, the blood was so concentrated with bacteria it seemed likely that the veins had been completely blocked by the disease though somewhat implausible. With the idea in her mind, she asked if they had tried a complete blood transfusion for the patients. Surprised by her question, Dr. O’Hara replied that they hadn’t. Upon hearing that information Catherine soon explained her theory and her possible solution. Listening with an intensity that surprised her, Dr. O’Hara, as well as some of the other doctors in the lab, began to confer as to the likelihood of her suggestion being a success.
“At this point,” stated Dr. O’Hara, “anything is worth trying.”
Later as the hours began fast approaching midnight, Catherine waited by her brother’s side as he received the only possible solution yet suggested for the disease. As soon as much of his blood was clear, intense medication would be administered that they hoped would eradicate all remaining strains of the disease. If this didn’t work, it would be her last few hours with her brother.
Three hours later, as the medication began to drip though his IV, Catherine walked over to one of the patients who, like her brother, was also receiving a blood transfusion. He was also showing no signs of the bacteria being subdued.
By this time another two members of her brother’s lab had died, thus leaving only one other member along with her brother. This man had been with her brother on his expedition and was also receiving the blood transfusion. Life was drained out of him, although the intake of new blood made him appear flushed. However, there was no hiding that this man would soon, like his team members, also be dead. Returning to her brother’s side with silent tears streaming down her face, she saw Aaron as the same lifeless shell that had been his partner. There was no change; the blood did not seem to be working.
There was a creak at the door as Dr. O’Hara and some doctors from the lab, as well as members of the John Hopkins nursing team, entered, each running off to attend their patient. Dr. O’Hara walked over to where Catherine stood, bearing the charts that would indicate if Catherine’s idea had indeed been successful or not. A slight thread of hope spun in her mind only to be knitted away by her professional side. She already knew what was in the charts; she already knew what Dr. O’Hara would tell her; she already knew there was no hope.
Holding her brother’s hand as the last few moments of his life passed by, she remembered a few more lines from Monty Python that now seemed more pertinent then ever. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” and “Some things in life are bad \ They can really make you mad \ Other things just make you swear and curse \ When you’re chewing on life’s gristle \ Don’t grumble, give a whistle \ And this’ll help turn things out for the best ... \ And ... always look on the bright side of life.”
The pink grey light of fresh sunlight began to poke through the dark covering of grey clouds that had suffocated the early morning. I was alone, sitting on a park bench, watching the constant lap of the tide against the harbor wall, boats swaying back and forth in a gentle soothing rock. Nothing had changed; all was constant. It was I who had changed; it was my situation now that was different. Everyone’s dead … everyone is gone. I wonder how people who lived through the Holocaust dealt with the emptiness; they were survivors. The last of the infected died around four am this morning. Maybe it was a little later. I didn’t stay to watch her, one of the lab technician’s daughter, die, I don’t know the time of death. I left the hospital when there was no hope left. It’s strange how calm I feel, how at peace. I would think it should be different. Maybe because there’s nothing left to be done, the fight, the struggle, is over.
We still don’t know if the containment was effective. We think we quarantined everyone the infected came into contact with, possibly… They’re probably sanitizing the hospital now, if that is really possible, stark as it is already. How do your sanitize what is already sterile? How do you sanitize nothing? The research lab has been contained; all bacterial strains are being frozen. It’s all being packed up, day over, work done, go home to your family, back to normal. Everything’s fine right now, but nothing is finished.
"Amidst the ruins which surround us, we proclaim our passion to start over again,"
~ Elie Wiesel
© 2003 by the author
All rights reserved