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REFLECTIONS OF A MICROBIOLOGIST
The worst part about exhaustion is that what you need most -- rest -- is the very thing that remains elusive. Yes, I slept six straight hours once the serum was being manufactured within Memorial's labs, but that time of blissful unconsciousness seemed more a tease than a refresher. I needed many hours more.
I probably wouldn't find them until I returned home to Alabama. For now, I hauled myself into a sitting position and tried to work the kinks out of my body from having slept on the very unaccommodating cot within my temporary office. I hoped Dr. Meredith was still sleeping.
A brunette head, frosted with gray, peeked around the door. "Dr. Kaufman?"
I nodded. "I'm back among the living for now, Mildred. What's our status?" She was the head nurse on the floor. She, too, looked like she needed hours of rest.
"The serum has been given to everyone on the floor with the virus." Her gaze tilted downward. "There's been two more deaths."
I looked up quickly, hoping they were no one I knew, especially.... "Who?"
"The old gentleman who came in just last night. And Mrs. Simmons in bed eight."
I knew Mrs. Simmons a little. She had a large family, all clamoring to see her, and none able.
"What about the others? Are they showing improvement?"
"Yes, most of them have." Her smile was tired but very expressive.
I struggled to my feet. "Good. What about the staff?"
"They'll be given injections with the next batch." She sighed. "Most are dead on their feet." Then she hesitated. "Many have asked if they can stop using precautions. I said the word had to come from you."
"Thank you. I'll check on it, make certain the serum is definitely working before we start letting outsiders in." I tried a smile. "It's your turn for rest now. I'll take over."
"Thanks, Doctor." She turned away.
I hurried through a shower and a change of clothes. I talked to everyone in the lab who continued to test those that had been given the serum. I woke Dr. Meredith just long enough to consult with him. Then I marched down to Isolation Ward 6.
"Dr. Kaufman," Nurse Youngston greeted me outside the clear glass window. She pulled down her mask and took off her sterile gloves.
I hadn't progressed enough along the hall to actually see into the glass. "How is Mr. Hutchinson?"
"Better. He's awake now, but very weak. He's very concerned about the other one. I forget his name."
I sighed, trying to rein in my anger, surprised it was still there, even after sleep. In fact, the lack of enough sleep seemed to have shortened my temper. "He's still there?" I asked.
"Yes. He hasn't woken up or moved. Hutchinson is very concerned, wanting us to move him to the other bed. But I told him we couldn't do anything without your authority. I told him you were resting."
"Thank you, Cynthia. I've given permission to dispense with the sterile precautions for patients who are improving. The lab will have another batch of serum available in a few minutes. Staff members are now the priority. Once you've had your injection, please bring another one into Hutchinson's room."
"Yes, Doctor." She turned away.
I entered the cubicle.
Indeed, he was still there. No mask, no sterile clothing, no precautions of any kind. My anger built as I recalled our earlier argument. Except we were both so exhausted there wasn't much fire in either of our words.
"Damn you," I cursed at him, trying to keep my voice from breaking with fatigue and sheer emotion, "we don't know with 100% certainty that the serum will work. And we don't know how fast it'll work. What's more, the priority is for those who are already infected. We may not be able to manufacture enough in time to vaccinate everyone who needs to be. Go in there unprotected and you'll get it, too. You want him to recover only to risk losing you?"
He looked me right in the eye with that incredible intensity that only he possessed. "The serum has to work. Because if it doesn't, Hutch is dead. And if he's dead...," he gulped, "I don't give a damn about what happens to me. But what I do know," he pointed toward the doorway to the cubicle, "is that he's barely alive right now and he needs me to keep him that way long enough to give the serum a chance. He needs human warmth -- not sterile gloves." He jerked away and entered the cubicle.
I watched him through the window, thinking I should call security and have him thrown out. How dare he defy my authority when it was so critical for us all to work together. How dare he be so damned arrogant as to think he was invincible against the very thing that was killing his partner. I watched as he settled on the edge of the bed, wrapped Hutch's hand in his, began talking to him. Even from a distance, I could see the alarm on Hutchinson's face, see him take in the fact that Starsky wasn't using any precautions against infection and trying to decipher what that meant. But Starsky was leaning closer -- reassuring him, I could tell -- his mouth moving non-stop.
Now Starsky was on his knees beside the bed, his head cradled in his arms on top of the covers, deeply asleep. Surely, when he woke up, he would have muscle cramps that would be far more severe than my own. It would serve him right.
But I couldn't take my anger toward Starsky out on my patient. I felt my tired muscles form a smile as I moved closer to the bed. The oxygen tent had been removed, replaced by a tube in each nostril. "You're looking much better this morning." How easy it was to be kind to him. He was handsome in an adorable way, such a little boy. So tired and vulnerable now. He pulled at my heartstrings... the maternal ones, as well as others....
His eyes had been on that dark head lying next to him, and his gaze now switched to look up at me. He was unmistakably better, those deep blue eyes glowing with the brightness of life. He closed them to gather the strength to talk, then said in a strained voice, "I feel like I can hardly move."
"Your body is exhausted from fighting the virus," I told him. "You need rest, rest, and more rest." I felt my smile broaden, for it thrilled me to say it. "But you're going to be all right."
"You're not wearing a mask," he noted.
I shook my head. "We've waived the sterility requirement for rooms with patients who have turned the corner and are no longer contagious."
His gaze moved from my face back down to the still form beside the bed. "He found Callendar in time." It wasn't a question, and his soft voice glowed with pride and something I couldn't define.
"Yes," I said.
Hutchinson nodded toward the empty bed in the room. "Can't we put him over there?" He looked up at me, the plea in his eyes as well as his voice. "Make him more comfortable?"
The hospital administrator in me felt my authority was being tested once again. I kept my voice gentle, but I firmly said, "New cases are still arriving in an ongoing stream. We've got to keep all empty beds clean and available." I didn't bother mentioning that recent deaths the past few days had eased the problem. Rules were rules.
Now his eyes were back on the dark figure. "He has to sleep a certain way or he gets kinks in his neck."
Serves him right, I wanted to say. "He had no business being here." If Hutch wanted to discuss his rebellious partner, then there wouldn't be any holding me back. "He may still very well get the virus, because he was in here without protective clothing while you were still contagious."
I shouldn't have said that, for now he was worried. But his voice was also hopeful. "Haven't you given him a shot?"
"An injection is on the way. But the virus still might attack his system before the serum can work. He may still get sick."
Softly Hutch pleaded, "And then he can have the bed?"
I wasn't sure if he was serious or joking, but the question made me realize how harsh I was being. Yes, it was hospital regulations that someone who wasn't admitted couldn't use any of the beds. But it was also true that we all -- everyone in the city -- owed our lives to this man. We owed them to Callendar, too -- and Mrs. Yeager -- but Starsky was the one who had gone out, motivated by the potential death of someone he loved, and cut the path that lead to Callendar.
Cynthia Youngston entered the room with a syringe in hand. "Here's the serum you asked for."
I took it from her and moved around the bed. "It's for him," I nodded at Starsky. "Help me with his pants."
We both bent next to him. Feeling an unprofessional vengeance, I reached underneath for the snap to his ridiculously tight jeans. When it was undone, Cynthia pulled at the waistband until a buttock was partially exposed.
"I can't believe he's sleeping through this," she whispered with a chuckle.
I could. In fact, I wished I was doing what he was doing now -- experiencing blissful unconsciousness. I rammed the needle in a little more firmly than necessary and pushed the plunger.
He stirred a little, his expression contorting into puzzlement, though his eyes remained closed. A trembling hand reached for his hair, and I looked up to see Hutch whisper, "It's all right." His voice was so weak there's no way Starsky could have heard him, even on a subconscious level.
I took the needle away and Cynthia tugged his pants up. Then I stood and tossed the syringe into the waste basket. "He's immunized now," I told Hutch. "But as I said, he may already be infected. If so, it's hard to say how sick he'll get before the serum wins out over the virus."
He was looking at me oddly. I knew part of it was sheer weakness; but, a bit guiltily, I realized the other part was he detected my anger and didn't understand the reason for it.
He took a deep breath, as though gathering strength. "Aren't you going to re-fasten his jeans?"
I looked down at Starsky again. Even with his pants pulled back up, having the snap undone allowed one to see the crevice separating his buttocks. Was Hutch worried about his modesty? Perhaps so. Still I defended my action... or lack of such. "He can breathe better this way. At least he'll be a little more comfortable."
Hutch grabbed Starsky by the arm and tugged feebly at it.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Help me get him onto the bed," he said. "If he can't sleep in the empty one, at least he can sleep in here. He needs to stretch out."
There was no way Hutch had the strength to pull him up from the floor, and there was no way I was going to allow two patients in one bed. But Starsky solved our problem, for he began to stir. We both froze while his face moved into all sorts of funny contortions. And then he groaned as his arms and shoulders shifted. Then his eyes opened.
I decided to be cordial. "Welcome back to the world of the living."
He looked down at the bed he'd been sleeping against, as though confused. And then he looked up at me with the same expression. And then he looked at Hutch.
His face broke into a smile, tender and full of... everything. "Hutch?" He reached for him, shifting to sit with his full weight on the bed, leaning so far forward that he was practically lying on top of Hutch. "You're...," he swallowed thickly, "all right?" He looked at me for confirmation.
I nodded. "He's going to be fine."
"Ah, man." He settled both hands on the sides of Hutch's face.
Hutch gave him a weak smile. "You did it, partner. We made it."
Starsky's smile got bigger; for a moment I thought it even might break. "Ah, man." He bent and leaned his forehead against Hutch's.
That closeness made me uncomfortable. Starsky had to have been sleeping at least as long as I had, and I was sure his breath must be pasty and strong. And he had a good day's growth of beard. Neither of those things could have possibly felt very comforting to Hutch.
Hutch wasn't saying anything about it, but I could tell he was tiring fast. He realized it, too. "Go home now," he said when Starsky pulled back, his eyes all soft and glowing. Like an angel's. "Get some real sleep. That's all I'm going to be doing for a while, anyway."
Starsky just sat there beaming at Hutch, as though he couldn't take in enough of him.
I stepped forward. "You can't go home yet. We need to take a blood test to see if you've been infected." Firmly, I added, "Since you allowed yourself to be exposed to the virus."
Starsky held out his arm while pulling up the sleeve. "Go ahead."
"They gave you a shot of serum," Hutch told him, as though in reassurance. He couldn't keep his eyes from closing.
That puzzled Starsky until he looked down at himself and then tugged the snap closed on his jeans. He looked at me slyly. "Guess that means we know each other intimately now."
He had a certain charm, I had to admit. But I didn't want it to sway me. I nodded to his sleeping partner and whispered, "Come on, down to the lab."
He turned to tuck the covers more firmly around Hutch. And then he obeyed.
* * *
The blood test came up negative, so I let Starsky go home. While Hutch slept deeply, we moved him into a private room, since it was no longer necessary for him to be in isolation. We needed that cubicle for cases that were still coming in. But the deaths had stopped.
Starsky returned in the middle of the following morning, looking much better. I had also gotten more sleep during the night, and I was starting to feel human again. Hutch was showing marked improvement every time he woke up. Because the nursing staff had been so over-worked during the peak of the crisis, the floor had a shortage of help. Therefore, family members pitched in to help with feeding, bathing, and bed pans. Starsky did all of that for Hutch, with a cheerfulness and flair that I grudgingly wished all medical personnel possessed.
He didn't ignore me, either. He often told me I was "beautiful". I knew it had nothing to do with being attractive. It was because I had helped save Hutch. I thought it odd that here was a man sworn to protect the public; yet, in the entire crisis he never once mentioned fear about what the virus could do to the city. He was only concerned about what it could do to his partner. It was that singular fear that drove him so.
And perhaps that was where my anger stemmed from. I took a liking to Hutchinson from the instant we met, and I know the feeling was mutual. But I could not compete with Starsky's affection. It had a single-mindedness that I couldn't hope to achieve. A protectiveness that said, "Yes you can flirt with him, but it's me he's coming back to." Starsky even reiterated his claim when Hutch was released and they drove me to the airport. Hutch teased and flirted about how he was now 100%, and Starsky stood back and waited while we indulged in a little goodbye kiss. I know that as soon as I started toward my plane I was a fading memory.
The worst of it is that I had nothing to take back with me. At the very least, I would have liked to have the freedom to fantasize about that big Nordic blond during cold lonely nights. But my mind wasn't even allowed that; for whenever I thought of Hutch, there was always Starsky crowding the picture. And he would always be there. So I released Hutch, even from my most private fantasies.
Both Dr. Meredith and I have won acclaim for being involved in what has been known as the Los Angeles Plague. But when reflecting upon it, I always think of another pair who won more than any honors that could ever be bestowed. They won back their lives. And their love.
Someday, I wonder if I might find that, too.