The Lark
Published in

The Lark

The New

Your ignorance is curable — his disease wasn’t

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

We novice and amateur health care recruits started in the ward of the few who survived, spoon-feeding and doing leg lifts for them. We sponge-bathed and emptied water pots and listened through the night to the wheezes and gurgles their recovering lungs made. Some didn’t make it even from the advantage of the rehabilitation center.

With that experience we moved up through the wards of ‘through the worst’ — patients still battling the heavy clog of their immune response, still needing machine support and nourishment; ‘not out but stable’ — needing constant machine support and a watchful eye to regulate levels; ‘in the throes”’— with no guarantee of survival or even attendance from the scurrying crew; and ‘new’.

Within the first hour of my arrival in New Ward, the Medina (head medical officer. She had no right to call herself a doctor but she had the most training of us all) had a patient trussed and ready.

“Watch everything I do and repeat for yourself.”

She split veins, intubated, and inserted feeding tubes, calling out names of drugs.

“If this happens, then do this. If that … then that.”

Later that day I sobbed over my first solo case.

“I killed him!”

The Medina wrapped her arm around me in the still bubble around the dead man’s cot. The patient next to us screamed as the tube went in. Next to them, the sheets were being changed.

“You didn’t kill him, the disease did. Your ignorance is curable, his disease wasn’t.”

“I’m not cut out for this!” I wrung my hands.

“Cut that out.” She grasped my wrist. “You’ve got a pulse. You’re more cut out for this than he is.” She jerked her head at the corpse. “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”

The evac crew bundled the corpse out and a new patient in.

“Watch everything I do and repeat for yourself. You’ll listen better now that you have experience.”

We went through that four times before we sat together in the scrub room at the end of the shift. I can’t tell you how many days that shift lasted. The average was three.

My eyelids felt like they were gummed with the pervasive disease-slop. “Medina, you got your knowledge from Dr. Aberthob before he died.”

“Some. I study the books every chance I get.”

I had seen her late into the night, light casting a tiny island around her at her desk, stooped over a real paper book. Those had been a legacy of the late Dr. Aberthob who studied in the previous century and collected ancient medical texts.

“Why did he die and not you or me?”

“The disease was new. He figured out how to treat it some, but I didn’t have what it took to save him, or he had co-morbidities. He saved me and you so we have immunity.”

“But less knowledge.”

“You’re one of the best I have.” She pushed herself off the bench and offered me a hand up. “We’ll be calling you ‘medina’ soon …”

“I’d like to study the books.” I looked quickly into her eyes, asking permission and seeing pity.

We heard the Medina say, “You’re my best” many times a day. One nurse, Nelly, got jealous and snarky, but most of us were too tired to notice praise.

We fought the disease day and night. Our village was down to ten survivors, but people kept coming from every direction. They carried their loved ones on their backs, in stretchers, behind beasts of burden. They all had the disease. We couldn’t stop them mingling and passing it on.

Anyone who survived and grew strong enough worked at feeding, cleaning, burying, and a few at nursing and treating. Our registrar didn’t bother with the newly arrived but leaped on anyone exiting our center, eager to learn what knowledge and skill each one brought to our struggling effort.

One day a trained doctor survived and joined our team. He took some of the load off us by streamlining and training us, but the disease kept on. On the day he left we discovered some of our best people had gone with him.

“Setting up a center in the hills.” The Medina guessed and smiled. “Less work for us.”

Everyone who survived was precious. The Medina had a small son and an older cousin in the kitchen. I had a sister and her husband’s niece in the laundry. We didn’t visit each other. Even if we’d had time, we didn’t want to remind each other of our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, and children who didn’t make it past ‘in the throes’ or ‘not out but stable’.

I stood aside while the evac crew exchanged the living for the dead. Loud pops sounded from the main entrance.

“Fireworks?” I wondered.

That instant, a masked figure entered the ward and shot my dead patient in the head. “Nothing for you to do here. Move out!”

I glared at the muzzle and moved as it indicated, numb and bewildered. The sight matched nothing in my experience. In the halls, my colleagues and fellow villagers scurried in front of waving guns. They looked behind themselves and stumbled over each other’s feet.

We clustered in the main entrance. Nelly clutched onto my arm. Everyone made some sort of mourning noise.

The Medina paced in front of us, barking questions at the wall of masks and muzzles that blocked the front door.

“This is an outrage. How dare you shoot my patients? You Berbili are savages.”

The most colorfully dressed Berbili waved his hands. “Is that the lot? Get them over here. Stop that noise. There is nothing for you to do here anymore. You are going to cure my people now.”

“And if we refuse?” The Medina crossed her arms over her chest.

The Berbili brandished a small screen. The fact that he had one made us respect him. How did they sustain their communication in the chaos?

Across the screen, I saw the outline of our village behind a mass of similarly terrifying figures. Our precious survivors.

Shots sounded from the phone. The group convulsed as figures fell.

Nelly fainted beside me. A Berbili pointed his weapon at her.

The Medina stepped into the line of fire.

“No. She is the best I have. You need her.”

We all nodded and whimpered our ample agreement.

“You need us.” The Medina continued. “If we come, you bring us all.”

“You stupid Crossinah slaves,” the Berbili sneered. “Load them up.”

I caught the Medina’s worried gaze. In the back of the transport, survivors, and healers with nothing except the clothes on our backs, she talked us down from our fear and rage.

“Where there’s life” — she held her wrist, looking for her own pulse — “there’s hope.”

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Nicola MacCameron

Nicola MacCameron

Are you creative? Everything I touch turns to art. Visual art, written, aural, tactile, you name it, I love it! Author of Leoshine, Princess Oracle.