The boundaries which divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where one ends and where the other begins? — Edgar Allan Poe —
October 3rd (Friday)
After last night’s grim revelation and the hastily scribbled note, I went to work seeking answers. Both patients, the son and the daughter-in-law were still in critical but stable condition. They have yet to speak. The grandparents, however, were still having flu-like symptoms. I paged the medical resident to have him take a look and specifically highlighted the fact that they came back from Saudi Arabia.
All was well, so I thought. It was barely 10am in the morning when the local health authorities called. They were sending a team over and wanted details of every staff member that came into contact with the family of four from Saudi Arabia. I had a quick look around my staff, none of them were having flu-like symptoms, neither was I, maybe it was still at the incubation stage. Not leaving anything to chance I took my temperature and sent some blood workups to the lab.
The team was led by an old friend of mine, Dr Lionel Carter. We haven’t met in years ever since graduating from medical school. He appeared tired and gaunt, with two days’ worth of stubble on his chin. From the looks of it, he probably haven’t slept in days. He acknowledged my presence but signaled that he couldn’t talk right now, he had work to do. The authorities had us filling up questionnaires, basically regarding our health status and are we feeling sick or something. They were still using the same old SARS questionnaires from ten years ago. Doesn’t anybody read the news anymore?
My blood-work came back normal, well, we aren’t equipped to identify the virus yet, so this wasn’t exciting news. In fact, I think only the CDC and the WHO have the capabilities and the expertise to identify the problem but yet, they were still mum about it. News online were only reporting of flu in Saudi Arabia, everything was under control so it seems. Nobody was linking the situation to the NCoV outbreak a few months ago. Come on! Am I the only one noticing this? Are they hiding something there? Truth be told, if I could figure this out, surely those in power and with all the information would have done the same thing.
I was summoned to a hospital meeting during lunch hour, almost every departmental head and resident were there. The briefing was given by the Director (of the hospital). She said that we are not facing an epidemic yet, do not listen to rumours and do not spread fear. Typical government-speak if you are one of those conspiracy theorists. A look around the room showed that most of them didn’t even know what was going on, everyone was smiling and catching up on small talk. No one looked worried. Well, no one if you don’t know how to study one’s character. There was one thing that I had that no one did, I knew who Dr Lionel Carter was before he became a doctor.
He was my housemate when we were fourth-year medical students. The old housemate quit school to work for his dad, and we needed a replacement. Lionel could be summed up as the quiet, bookish type. Always following instructions, right down to the last letter. To him, medical school was a godsend, from the way we approach a patient and until we prescribed the necessary treatments, everything followed a flow or a sequence. It was not surprising that he took up a position with the health authorities, doing so, he would be one of those in charge of making policies, providing all other doctors with guidelines in their work.
But here, in the meeting room, he was sitting off to one side, right at the corner, away from the Director. I felt that he should have been the one giving the briefing. When the Director was talking, Lionel’s face slackened and his brows furrowed, it seems like he was at odds with himself. But what piqued my interest were his eyes, beneath those rimmed glasses that he wore, back when he was a medical student. They seemed to be darting about, in search of something, probably the exit, or was it for a place to hide?
Instead of leaving with the rest through the corridor when the meeting was over, I tracked him to the fire exit staircase located on the other side. He was lighting up a cigarette when I opened the escape door. He wasn’t a smoker back then. He tried to put it out but I gestured to him to follow me up the stairs, to the rooftop. I let him take a few puffs, using the silence to tempt him into opening up. I could see that his hands were trembling, he scratched at his stubble before he spoke.
An hour later, I gave him a firm handshake. There was nothing left to be said, our eyes met and I gave him a nod. He tried to smile as he sat in his car, he was leaving with his team. I’m still finding it hard to believe what I heard from him, even as I sit here writing this.
His job was to track down each and every passenger onboard the flight, the same flight that delivered the family of four to us. He was informed of the situation the day that Flight 4815 touched down on the tarmac, the initial passenger that attacked the rest was brought to the nearest hospital for treatment. WHO had contacted them to quarantine all the passengers but the orders came to late, they only had Patient Zero. Lucky for them, Patient Zero was of Arab descent and had no next-of-kin in the country. That saved them a lot of unnecessary red tape, but it didn’t save him, Patient Zero died that very night. Or so they thought, as the pathologist was preparing for the post-mortem, Patient Zero ‘woke’ up. Lionel couldn’t explain what happened, even the CDC and WHO were stumped. The disease it seems, preserves the victim’s motor functions and causing the limbs to behave erratically. He managed to injure a few of the orderlies and the pathologist through scratches and bites before one of the hospital’s security personnel stopped him.
Now, all those injured by Patient Zero are currently in critical condition, with the same presentation as both the patients (the son and daughter-in-law) we have here. They are being treated at the military hospital and plans are in place to transport the rest of them there, including the ones we have here at North Shore Memorial. I asked how many of them were there since only eight of them were bitten by Patient Zero on the flight. He shook his head, that was the figure on the flight four days ago and as of right now, there are 1,516 patients across the country. He feels that there are many more who haven’t seek treatment yet.
Lionel left me with just a few words as advice, “Prepare for the worst.”
I’m not sure whether this was the answer I was hoping for when I woke up this morning.