"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LXXVIII)
The doctor entered his private office and greeted his female visitor with courteous reserve.
Dr. Moses Schoenfeld looked every part as the head of his hospital department. Nearing seventy years old, with a pointed, grayish goatee, abundant, similarly colored, wavy hair, and speaking English with a marked, foreign accent, he personified Hollywood’s idealized image—or caricature—of a German World War II scientist.
Which he was not.
Dr.Schoenfeld was an epidemiologist who had dedicated most of his life to hunt down the deadly viruses that periodically surfaced in different parts of the world, and who tried to determine their containment and, hopefully, their cures. As such, he had traveled extensively, risking his life on dozens of occasions, fighting to control different virological outbreaks before they managed to spread as deadly, universal pandemics.
The ebola virus had been his principal nemesis. As a young doctor, he had joined Belgian microbiologist Peter Piot in Zaire in 1976, shortly after the latter had discovered under a microscope the very large, tell-tale wormlike structure of the then unknown ebola virus in the blood of an infected nun.
He had followed the virus to Sudan in 1979, and starting in 1996 through 2016, fought it in Gabon, Uganda, the Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and even in small flare ups in Spain and Italy.
In 2016, Dr. Schoenfeld had been appointed head of the Infectious Diseases Department at the Children’s National Pediatric Center in Washington D.C. Since then, he had been preparing for the moment when a child infected with the ebola virus was brought to the hospital.
That moment had finally arrived.
“You are Mrs. Pietrantoni, the Governor of Puerto Rico’s wife,” he said in a high-pitched, friendly voice, more to himself than to her, leaning forward across his desk and shaking her hand.
“I am Dr. Schoenfeld, and I will be taking care of your son while he is fighting the ebola virus, if indeed he has it.”
The doctor began to look at several papers scattered over the surface of his desk.
“You are not certain if Francisco has the virus?” Nereida asked.
The doctor paused his search for a moment, and looked at her.
“Certain? No, we are not certain. We must wait for the results of the PRC test, which detects low levels of the virus in the blood of the infected host.”
“When will the results of the test be ready?” Nereida asked.
“Soon, soon,” Dr. Schoenfeld responded. “But the test increases in reliability with time. Before three days of the subject…your son, being exposed to ebola, it may not detect it. As I understand it, it may have been three days from this afternoon that your son Francisco was exposed to the virus. Therefore, my associate Dr. Chen will be taking a blood sample any moment soon. If it comes out negative, we may have to wait another couple of days to be certain that no infection occurred. Then we’ll know for sure.”
Nereida had arrived at Washington in a commercial flight around four in the afternoon. She had been picked up and driven directly to the hospital in a limo sent by the White House.
“The Governor? I believe you saw him briefly before being ushered here. He’s fine. In isolation, but fine. He’ll be kept separated from everyone else for the next three days, just in case, until we can administer the PRC test to him, but I would be very surprised if he was exposed to the virus. I just finished talking to him, and he’s anxiously awaiting to see you again.”
The doctor continued to rummage through the papers on his desk as he spoke to her.
“Thus far, I can tell you that the symptoms—if they are symptoms of the virus—that Francisco has exhibited are few and very mild. And since the Governor was wearing a hazmat suit, I would consider his risk of being exposed to the virus between nil and zero. He should be out of isolation in a matter of days.”
“And Francisco?” Nereida asked anxiously.
“He’s conscious,” Schoenfeld replied. “He was heavily sedated by his captors with some powerful anesthetic, but he’s conscious now. He has a fever of 101, and is complaining of a headache, but so far some of the other more severe symptoms of the virus have not manifested themselves.”
“Vomiting, bleeding, blurry vision, joint pain.”
Dr. Schoenfeld stopped searching his desk, and looked up at Nereida when she failed to ask him any follow up questions.
He saw that she was crying quietly, and walked around his desk, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“Please do not worry,” he said to her, which in his heavy accent sounded like “Pleeze do nut vorry”. “Your son is young and strong, and the infection has been caught before any extreme symptoms have manifested, so he has everything going for him, if indeed he is infected by the virus. But I must warn you, the next couple of weeks will be hard for him. For you. For everyone.”
* * *
Francisco had been transported from Andrews Air Force Base in a stretcher covered by a plastic oxygen tent, and driven to an isolated section of the hospital, where a medical team dressed—like the men in the ambulance—in orange biohazard suits, had been waiting for him and had subjected him to a battery of tests and probes.
Another team had boarded the AmbuAir jet where Francisco had been transported, and thoroughly disinfected the interior of the transport plane. Governor Pietrantoni and the pilot, Dennis Martinez, had been taken to separate, pressurized observation rooms, even though both had been wearing hazmat suits during the flight.
The copilot, Emanuel Alvarez, had been treated for the knife wound in his back, and also been placed in isolation.
Pietrantoni had slept throughout most of the day, waking up late in the afternoon. To his surprise, he had seen Nereida staring at him through a glass window, or maybe he had dreamed about it, because—before he could react—a nurse had stopped to talk to her, and quickly whisked her away.
The Governor was wearing a hospital gown, open at the back, even though he did not remember when he had changed into it. On a small table, next to his bed, was a cell phone.
After going to the bathroom, he pressed the red button tied to one of the rails of his bed, and two minutes later a nurse in a hazmat suit walked into the room.
“You’re awake,” the nurse, a female, said pleasantly. “How do you feel?”
“I’m phuine__” he began to say, realizing for the first time that his lip was swollen from a blow he had received during his fight in the plane with the terrorist. Some parts of his body also ached, feeling tender to the touch.
Unconsciously, he touched his lip with his hand, and felt some greasy substance on it.
“Some antiseptic cream for your cut lip,” the nurse informed him. “You were so tired, you didn’t notice when we applied it, while you were sleeping. Open your mouth, please.”
The nurse stuck a plastic digital thermometer into his mouth.
“My son__” he began to say, but the nurse held up a gloved hand to signal him not to speak. In the meantime, she wrapped a blood-pressure monitor around his arm.
“Your temperature is normal, and your blood pressure is 123 over 71. Congratulations, you have the body of a teenager,” she said as she withdrew the thermometer from his mouth.
“If only I would feel like one,” he responded with a rueful smile. “My son?”
“Dr. Chen and Dr. Schoenfeld are monitoring him closely,” she answered. “He is doing fine so far. Now, I will need to take a blood sample. Which arm do you prefer?” she asked as she took out a syringe.
“Either will be fine,” Pietrantoni answered. “Can I talk to him?”
The nurse tied a rubber strip around his left arm, then rubbed a small gauze with alcohol on the lower part of his forearm. “This might sting a bit. It’s for a__”
“A PRC test?” the Governor said.
The nurse paused briefly, and stared at Pietrantoni with newfound curiosity.
“You are very well informed,” she said. “A PRC test will eventually detect if you were infected with the ebola or not. But no, it’s too early for that test. We’ll start doing the PRC test in two or three days. This is just regular bloodwork.”
“When can I see my son?” he asked, as she found a vein, and drew out two small vials of his blood.
“Right now,” she answered, withdrawing the needle and placing a bandage on the puncture wound.
She walked to a curtained wall in the room, and pulled it aside.
On the other side of the window, Pietrantoni saw Francisco. To the Governor’s intense relief, he discovered that the boy was awake, lying on his bed. One of his arms was connected to an IV and several monitoring devices.
Francisco immediately noticed the movement in the contiguous room and, recognizing his father, tried to jump out of bed.
However, a nurse in a biological suit standing next to the boy convinced him to stay in his bed, and instead gave Francisco a cell phone. Raising the bed’s back, the nurse pointed in the direction of the boy’s father.
The cell phone on Pietrantoni’s night table began to buzz, and the Governor anxiously picked it up.
“Dad!” Francisco shouted before his father could answer. “Da-ad! I’m so glad to see you!”
Pietrantoni walked to the glass partition, and examined his son with a wide smile, leaning with one hand on the window.
“You’re safe now, Francisco,” he said to him, struggling between his feelings of happiness and concern, barely able to speak. “You’re with us. You’re safe now.”
“What is this hospital? Why am I here?” the boy asked his dad.
The Governor paused, uncertain about what to tell his son.
“You’re…you’re in a hospital,” he answered at last. “You have a virus that’s very contagious, and the people here…They’re going to cure you.”
Francisco digested the information for a moment, and then nodded resignedly.
“Do you have it too?” he asked.
“They don’t know yet,” Pietrantoni answered truthfully, trying not to cry. “How do you feel?”
“My head hurts…and I feel very tired,” he answered. “I also feel very cold sometimes, and very hot other times.”
Pietrantoni breathed deeply and nodded very slowly.
“I think Nour—the lady who brought the food to the room where they kept me locked up—I think she gave it to me.”
“Gave you what?”
“The virus. I think she gave it to me,” Francisco replied, biting his lower lip as his eyes welled up with tears. He wiped them away with his hands. “You would have felt very proud of me, dad. I escaped from the room where they held me, and ran into the forest behind the house…”
The Governor listened with growing admiration, as his son told him how he had pushed out his room’s air conditioning unit and jumped out from the second story of the terrorist compound, spending the night in a rainforest.
“I thought about you, and Alfredo, and Lucas,” he told his dad. “About how you would never have given up. And I didn’t give up. Even when they captured me again, I didn’t give up, dad. I wanted you to be proud of me.”
Unable to reply immediately, Pietrantoni closed his eyes, but could not stop his tears.
“You don’t know…You have no idea how proud I feel about you, Francisco. I have missed you so much.”
Suddenly, the outside curtains on the opposite side of the boy’s room were swept open, letting the waning light of the afternoon to filter in.
The boy looked in the direction of the activity, partially shielding his eyes to compensate for the unanticipated outside brightness.
Then, as his vision got used to the light, his expression changed to one of pure joy and delight after he recognized the woman standing behind the glass.
“Nereida!” he shouted happily, and this time not even the nurse could stop him from jumping off his bed.
The nurse hastily gripped the vertical stand holding the IV fluid and other medications being administered intravenously to Francisco, preventing it from tilting at the very last moment.
The boy moved to the glass partition and placed both of his hands opposite to where Nereida held hers.
“Nereida! Mom!” he hollered even more excitedly, still holding on to the phone. “You’re here! You’re here!”
“Francisco! Francisco!” Pietrantoni shouted into his cell phone, but when he got no response, he knocked on the glass of his window until the nurse looked his way.
He showed her his cell phone, and signaled to her to hang up, pointing repeatedly at Nereida.
The nurse understood, and taking Francisco’s phone, ended the call. Then, she showed the cell phone to Nereida, who nodded.
The latter began to show with her fingers the numbers of her cell phone, so that the boy could call her.
Pietrantoni slid down to the floor, resting his back on the solid part of his room’s wall.
Placing his hands on his face, he wept.
(Chapter LXXIX will be posted on Thursday, January 21)