Hospitals, if they can be said to have a character, would have developed it based on the people they saved. Mount Sinai was a hospital who would have been said to have been a guardian of the poor, the weak, and the dispossessed. Mount Sinai’s walls of fine marble were covered in soot and ash, a testament to one of her primary tasks of destroying the dead and dying.
But it was not always so.
Her bright and sparkling corridors were once the exclusive province of the well to do. Founded at the turn of the last century, she was a product of her time. She was the hospital for the wealthy, the privileged, for those whose money could buy everything, even in a time when the bulk of the people had almost nothing.
She was the creation of the Victorian era and her origins had her foundations laid next to a grand cathedral in the center of New York City. Over time the two would eventually become a landmark, one of faith and one of healing in a time where there was too little of both. When they were finished building her, white walls contrasted the dark granite used to construct the church. They stood in opposition to each other, a testament to science, a reliquary of faith. The doctors in white and the pastors in black; each looking at the other shaking their head certain the other path was the path to damnation.
This was not to last.
Forty years and a generation of pastors and doctors later, the economy collapsed and both fell into disrepair. The ebb and flow of the times meant the church’s population would often grow directly in proportion to the quality of services available next door. The hospital was prepared against tough times and while its administrators minimized its services, she would push on during dark times.
Sinai did not close. She never did.
In a hundred and fifty years, Mount Sinai would never close her doors to anyone. Her lights might be dimmed and only the most dedicated would walk her halls, tend her sick, and bring solace to her wounded for the next two score of years.
Those unfortunates who found their way to her were in a bad way and though she did not have much, she tended them. Her doctors and nurses plied their craft with dedication, her janitors were equally focused. The two buildings would light the way for their part of the city. It would be cleaner, more beautiful, the people more generous and would maintain their quality of life as if protected against the vicissitudes of a cruel universe. They could not know there were other forces at work.
Mount Sinai’s strong walls had survived two World Wars, and a variety of smaller ones. Locked in the heart of the inner city, she was once a hospital only for the rich, who desired care but did not want to travel away from their opulent lifestyles. So while she started life as a refuge for the wealthy, she eventually became, as she aged and as the city grew into adulthood, a caretaker and bastion of those now too poor to have other choices. Somehow Mount Sinai always managed to have what she needed to survive. She drove her doctors and her administrators toward greater levels of capability. Her community loved her, they did whatever was necessary for the hospital to survive, somehow they knew, her survival would be theirs.
Their doctors and research facilities grew stronger and she grew larger, expanding into the local neighborhood providing clinics, healthcare and a personal touch slowly eroded by the march of corporate healthcare. Only the church stayed the same after a century, its bell towers, still crossed the skylines, well lit after a century.
When Mount Sinai was nearly a hundred years old, forty years ago, she was considered historical and the city realized her value as a symbol of hope in a decaying age. They rebuilt her walls, expanded her, reinforced her, and protected her. Her surgeons, doctors, scientists became legends in their own right, as if her desire to protect had seeped into the air, the water, their food, their love of life transformed into an art, a passion for lifesaving. When the Great Wasting was first discovered, it was found by those doctors who worked at Mount Sinai, ever vigilant for threats against her city.
The Great Wasting challenged Mount Sinai and her legion of practitioners. It challenged their belief systems (it wasn’t possible), it challenged their skills (we can’t stop it), it challenged their very nature of what good care was (we can’t keep up with it), but they did not stop.
At Mount Sinai, stopping wasn’t ever considered. One hundred and fifty years of tradition broke for no disease. They believed it was only a matter of time. The champion of that cause two years ago was Dr. Chaucer.
The head physician, Carolyn Chaucer, MD sat back from her terminal took off her reading glasses and pinched her forehead trying to relieve a headache. A headache likely caused by trying to uphold the standards and principles of the great institution even while she danced on the head of a pin to maintain a hospital during martial law.
For the first time in one hundred and fifty two years, the doors of Mount Sinai were closed to the public.
Soldiers guarded her doorway and a DMZ stood between the world and the hospital. The church next door was also included within the DMZ, having been taken over by the military as a staging area.
Dr. Chaucer had served this hospital for nearly thirty years now and was in her early sixties. She was a good sixty. She was fit. She could still Zumba with the best of them. Working in hospital had given her a great respect for the frailty of the human condition, so she made every effort to maintain both her body and her mind. She was still a beautiful woman, but her recent cares had added years to her eyes.
Just her eyes. Men still sought her favors, until they looked into her eyes. She had seen too much. Most fled checking their watches, remembered meetings they were late to, made stammering statements to excuse themselves from her imposing psychic presence.
The corner office, her only concession to her position’s status looked out at the church next door. She had never set foot inside of it. Not for a lack of curiosity, but for a lack of faith. Growing up religious, she had no truck with it after adulthood. Even though this particular church shared a fence and was considered to be one of the most beautiful of its kind, she would have nothing to do with it, out of principle. But there was nothing preventing her from admiring its lines. As her eye slid down the building, her mind crossed the fence back into her own backyard.
Fatigue coursed through her bones as she considered the three hundred patients she had in and on the grounds in varying states of disrepair. The hospice regions on the edge of the hospital grounds were the saddest part of the hospital to her. These patients never entered the hospital proper and their caretakers were restricted as well. Clean facilities established on the grounds meant staff could move only between particular regions unless they were equipped with the proper military biosuit. She had been wearing hers for days and had been relieved to take it off, have it cleaned, take a bath and for a moment allow the air to touch her skin. Considering the horror of her job, she felt naked without it. She put it back on before she sat down to finish her paperwork.
Flicking through the close circuit data-stream, she looked at the various hospice regions surrounding the hospital. There was nothing to be done for these people consigned to this area except to keep them clean and dry and hope for the best. The disease was painful, the never-ending moans and cries as the disease ravaged their bodies, consuming their nerve endings, left most begging for death. Many nurses would secretly comply as the screams reached a terrifying crescendo, night after night.
For most, relief never came. Painkiller supplies ran out after the first year. Most would die within a three week window after being admitted.
A few lasted longer, maybe ten percent. And a curious few might last a few months. But there were two classes who would remain in hospital care and be moved into isolation units for study; those who didn’t die, but did not get better. This disease was a deadly one. Either you lived or you died. End of story.
These two exceptions were the reasons she was still practicing medicine.
Ninety percent of the people infected with the Wasting died. They were eaten from within or from without by the symptoms of what appeared to be flesh-eating disease. Most died so quickly, they never made it to the hospital. If the disease was internal, most never knew what killed them. Autopsies show internal organs completely consumed by the disease. Early sufferers died this way. As the disease continued, later sufferers started showing external injuries as flesh melted away, almost over-night.
Within a week to fifteen days, the patients on average died. This fast dying group was only twenty percent of the sufferers. Most would be members of the middle group, who died much slower but died just the same. They might suffer for a month or more. This accounted for the next fifty percent of sufferers. The last twenty percent were worthy of study. If you stayed sick but did not die, did not progress in symptoms, you were watched closely.
Then there was a new class of patients. There was excitement when people noticed a few patients were showing signs of improvement. But every third person who did survive was still not clear. They stopped showing signs of the disease. But they were still highly infectious. These were now her patients and her problem.
As she signed the crematory notations for last night’s shift, she could hear the furnaces being started as their solar charges and cremation chambers reached their threshold temperatures.
She normally stood vigil as they disposed of the bodies, but after the first thousand, it became almost unbearable, by the second, she wept inwardly, by the ten thousandth, she could no longer weep, her heart hardened by the horror of watching them die, consumed by a disease she knew but could no longer understand.
She watched from her desk over the CCD. She did not need to. It was her self-imposed penance.
Today was the anniversary of the discovery of the Sinai bacterium and today, she wanted to sit in her chair and forget. Forget Patient Zero. Forget the panic. Forget the riots. Forget the military. Forget martial law. Forget her husband and her children who died so early on. Forget the tens of thousands she herself personally euthanized to spare them their terrible fate.
She just wanted to forget.
Her secretary came into her office, out of breath. “Excuse me, doctor. There is a man downstairs at the main gate asking for you.”
“Did you ask him what he wanted?”
He asked me to give you something to you. It was a card in a beautiful hand written script written in Latin. Nex has adeo vestri urbs. EGO adeo praecipio vos Sit hic. “Death has come to your city. I come to warn you He is here.”
Her face paled as she sealed her suit at the neck, grabbed her white coat and ran past her secretary into her airlock.
She primped and checked her appearance as she rode the elevator to the first floor. It had been a while since she had cared what she looked like.
She slowed herself as she entered the main security region. She could see his blue-black face even from this distance. He was wearing his trademark ornate shades of gold and a dark grey suit.
“Let him through, Captain.”
“I’m sorry ma’am but he is displaying signature irregularities indicating he may be sick.”
“I am authorizing his passage, Captain. I will take full responsibility.”
“Yes, ma’am. Let him through.”
His face was solemn, but his mouth had the hint of a smile. “Your eyes speak to me, Doctor Chaucer. They are filled with your suffering. You are now old enough to understand.”
Her eyes and face harden. She slaps him. He does not resist.
A few seconds later he hugs her. She does not resist.
They walk away toward the elevator, silently, closely but not touching. Everyone returns to looking busy, their questions internalized until the elevator closes.
It was within these walls, did Ben Szandros find himself; so very close to death from every side and yet in this moment, more alive than any other time in his short life.
The walls of Mount Sinai shudder.
House of Oak: Red Star, White Sun © Thaddeus Howze 2012, All Rights Reserved
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