Microbe Mike

It was 2 am when I picked up the ringing phone. “We need you again,” said the voice on the other end. They needed me all the time.

I got up from my warm hospital bed, pulled on yesterdays’ scrubs (they weren’t too bad yet), and shuffled down the quarantined half of the hallway.

Across the plastic sheet that divides the healthy from the sick and/or exposed, I see doctors decked out in biohazard suits conferring with nurses in biohazard suits. Too scared to leave their plastic wrappers. The vestibule kitchens on their side are empty and their coffee makers dry and cold. Everyone’s face is completely obscured behind a domed helmet with reflective visors.

On my side? Coffee brewed and full pastry platters sat atop the counters. No masks on this side, so you could see the expressions on people’s faces. Fear, yes. Of course. There’s been fear on everyone’s face since the bio satellite crashed into the bay nine months ago (NASA was experimenting with some vicious little bugs in the vacuum of space where it was supposedly safe. Oops.). But people laugh too, even on this side of the plastic. Life goes on.

I turned the corner to INTAKE. New infection case. Through another sheet of plastic I see an elderly lady sitting alone on a bed. Her skin is greying and sloughing off. Only about half of the young and strong survive a biosat illness, so her chances aren’t good

But I wanted to make sure the first face she sees (that’s not covered by a reflective helmet visor) doesn’t look too worried. I make myself smile. I’m a baby-faced guy and I have found that I remind every old lady of her grandson.

“Well hi, Mrs. Potter!” I said cheerfully. She looked up, shocked. My face was probably the first she’d seen without a domed helmet.

“You’ll catch it!” she said.

“Oh don’t worry about me. I’m Microbe Mike and I can’t even catch a cold.” I started placing her IV. With my one pair of latex gloves, I was so much more dexterous than the healthy doctors and nurses with their two pairs covered by a third, thick rubber glove. No multiple missed needle jabs from me. Just normal, good nursing care.

“Is that so?” Mrs. Potter looked amazed.

“It’s so,” I said, and then asked her all the typical intake questions while taking her pulse—the old fashioned way with fingers and a stethoscope.

It was true, though. As near as Doctor Sousa and the quarantine team could figure, I was immune to all the biosat viruses. In the early days of the biosat infections, I caught three different diseases from our patients at the same time.

Dr. Sousa got me through by spending all day on only me. And it took all day to place my IV catheters with her thick, rubber gloves. It took all her attention to administer drugs in perfect synchrony to fight the viral symptoms and keep my vitals into safe ranges while my immune system fought the viruses. Sousa said she wanted me better so her other nurses didn’t think they could catch a break by dying.

But it was frightening. The pain was intense and I felt alone, despite Dr. Sousa’s constant ministrations. I kept telling her I only wanted to see someone’s eye again before I died. I could only see my own (very sick) face in her reflective visor. She told me there was no way in Hell she was removing even one piece of the suit. I told her that was fair.

Dr. Sousa was one of only a handful of health workers who was willing to cross the plastic. I had to respect that. But it wasn’t really fair. My IVs were sloppy. I was lying in my own filth. And I wasn’t the only one.  Before I’d gotten sick, I cared for a 9 year old boy safe behind my biohazard suit. His parents were forced behind the plastic by the new quarantine laws. I held his hand when he died, but I held it through three gloves made of various synthetic polymers.

So after I recovered, I went back into quarantine. Against Dr. Sousa’s orders, I took the gloves off. Against executive orders flown in by drone from Washington DC, I took the helmet off and cared for patients like I used to. There were dying people and I was a nurse. And that was that. But I never got sick.

And so Microbe Mike was born. The CDC took samples of my blood to try and create a biosat vaccine serum.  Pretty cool. Not exactly a superhero story. It was mostly hand-holding , catheter replacing, and pulse taking. But I felt like I was making a difference on this side of the plastic.

After finishing up with Mrs. Potter, I reported to suited-up Sousa. When she saw me through the plastic, she waved me over to one of the speakers installed between the healthy half and the quarantined half of the hallway. Even on the other side of the plastic she’s wearing a full biohazard suit. Oh well. Nobody’s perfect.

“Mrs. Potter will likely die in the next 72 hours,” she said.

All sunshine, that one. Actually, Dr. Sousa’s first name is Solana, which means ‘sunny.’ I told her at one point during my fevered illness that her name should have been Lluviosa or Nublada (rainy or cloudy). She said both ‘names’ were inaccurate translations, she found neither verisimilitude nor levity in either, and my various fevers were obviously affecting my cognitive functioning.

“She could pull through,” I said. “She seems very spry.”

Sousa shook her head. “Her case is advanced and she’s over 90 years old. It’s wise to focus our efforts elsewhere…while still providing the highest level of comfort, of course.” She’d added that last bit in haste. She must have seen my face.

After my brief and depressing conference with Sousa, I headed back down the INTAKE hall toward the cafeteria to get a bite for breakfast. I didn’t take the normal route there because I didn’t want to walk past poor Mrs. Potter’s room again just yet. I needed something in my belly first.

On my roundabout way down to breakfast, I passed one of the supply closets. I wouldn’t normally notice except the door was open and a patient was lying in a bed inside attached to monitors and an IV. Strange. And stranger still, the door was draped in an extra plastic curtain and a spritzer automatically emitted a fine chlorine mist down the curtain.

I pushed back the plastic and stepped into the room. A young teenage girl, maybe fourteen or fifteen, lay in the bed. She was asleep and murmuring fretfully. I put my hand on her forehead and she quieted. She was burning up.

Something primal from my brainstem screamed at me and I wanted out of the room. To show my lizard brain who was boss, I stayed a few more minutes, checking vitals—they weren’t good. I gave her hand a squeeze, but I got no response. My amygdala was still flipping out. I hadn’t let it beat me immediately, I guess. That was enough right? So I left.

I sanitized with a chlorine wipe. I didn’t usually go for the big chemical guns; it was soap and hot water for me. Maybe some hand sanitizer if I was in a rush. But something felt wrong in that poor kid’s room. I changed scrubs and washed again. Only then did I go grab a bacon, egg, and cheese biscuit from the quarantine dining room.

After breakfast, I headed back to Sousa.

“Why didn’t you call me about the girl in the supply closet?” I ask. I try to ask with some nonchalance.

“Did you go in there? Why did you go into that part of the building?”

“Um, the food court was near it?”

“There are more direct routes to the food court from you quarters. Why did you take that route?”

“Um, anyway I did. And I went in there. Why didn’t you tell me we had another case?”

“Mike, her case is different.” Sousa looked uncomfortable. “It’s not viral. You’re immune to all the viruses, but it seems there were accidental bacteria aboard the biosat too.”

“Accidental bacteria?”

“Yes. Staph and such. They can hitch rides into space and survive there. After a while only the strongest, most stress-tolerant bacteria are left. And Mike, you cannot be immune to a bacterial infection.”

“Right. You can keep catching strep throat over and over.”

Sousa nodded and took my arm in her rubber-gloved hands. She ushered me down a hallway past the girl in the closet and into a single-occupancy, unisex bathroom. Only it was set up like the teenager’s room, complete with a hospital bed and beeping machines.  She prepped me. PICC line IV, antibiotics in the port, all the monitors.

“We’re going to get on top of this,” she said, giving me post-exposure prophylactic drugs. Probably broad-spectrum antimicrobials. I would be hydrated, refreshed, and downright poisonous to germs by the time the bacteria start hitting my cells. An inhospitable environment.

“It would have been good to know about that girl, you know?” I said. “A ‘Heads-up Mike, you should probably stay out of this room’ would have been helpful.”

“Would you have stayed out?” Sousa asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I know. You would have ended up here as soon as you found her. Because you’re stupid. Here.” She injected something into my IV catheter. “You’ll need your sleep.” And the world went dark.

The next time I opened my eyes, I felt horrible. Everything hurt at a deep, cellular level. And I was indescribably tired. I watched Solana scribbling sloppy notes on my chart with her big gloved hands. She was always in the biosat patient rooms in person. Suited up, yes, but still there.

“How am I doing?” I asked. My question startled her from her scribbling. She looked concerned and it took her a long moment to regain her normal impassive look.

“You could pull through,” she said. “You seem very spry.”

I remembered our conversation about Mrs. Potter.

“Is that you being funny?”

She looked down at her hands and hesitated. She slowly pulled off one of her big rubber gloves. Then, decisively, she removed both pairs of latex gloves and laid them on the sink by my bed.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

She said nothing, but took my hand. Her touch felt warm and the warmth spread through my body, easing the cellular ache. It felt like sunshine.







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