Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Tales of the Dead Tropics -chapter 2

By the time I clocked in, there were four patients being examined in the cubicles and three more waiting in the triage room. The first lot of encephalitis patients had already passed through and been moved to an isolation ward.  However, I had been informed that several more Mossman miners were now showing symptoms and were currently being transported to the hospital. 

As I checked the status of available beds on the computer, Emma dumped records on the counter beside me with a heavy sigh.  "How much longer have we got on this shift?" 
"Let's see." I glanced deliberately at my watch.  "Our shift started half an hour ago so...only eleven and a half hours to go!"
She heaved another dramatic sigh as she reknotted her auburn hair. 
"Why? Got somewhere else to be?" I asked, amused.  Emma's chaotic love life had been the source of much vicarious entertainment for me over the years.  Blue eyes widening innocently, Emma leant forward with a cheeky grin.  I could feel another ear-burning anecdote approaching.

Dr Wilson hurried by and beckoned to us for assistance.  The ER doors opened and Dave and Bob, the paramedics, hurried in with one of the encephalitis patients. Big Dave had a rough bandage wrapped around his left arm while Bob had a wad clamped over a neck wound. As the wiry paramedic passed on the details of his patient to Dr Wilson, I got my first good look at the patient.  A man of about forty, strongly built, he was fighting his restraints, tossing his body to and fro as he moaned.  As he turned to face me, a shiver went down my spine.  If the eyes are the window to the soul, then this man had lost his soul. It felt like I was looking into a vacuum.  No sign of recognition, of emotion, or even a glimmer of humanity.  I had never seen such emptiness - at least not in a living person.

Without blinking, he continued to emit a low moan.  Emma patted his hand hesitantly.  "You will be fine, sir.  Just relax."   With a sudden twist of his body, he lunged across at her, teeth snapping violently together.  Emma jerked away with a startled gasp.  Groaning, he sank back on the gurney.  "Watch it." Dave glanced over. "This guy has already taken a chunk out of both me and Bob."
"I'm having trouble finding his pulse."  Dr Wilson mumbled, a frown of concentration on his wrinkled face.  He turned back as Bob completed his report.  "This patient presented with a high fever, severe headache and confusion.  He went into cardiac arrest half an hour ago.  We successfully revived him but he began displaying extreme aggression and irrationality.  As you can see, he managed to get a couple of bites in before we were able to physically restrain him.  Skin is cold and clammy, pupils fully dilated, temp is..." Bob hesitated. "low.  Sedation was unsuccessful."
Dr Wilson frowned. "Unsuccessful?"
The paramedic shrugged. "Two doses - no effect."
The doctor raised his brow but didn't comment on it further as he headed off with the patient to the isolation ward.  Emma and I watched in bemused silence as the patient continued to struggle down the corridor. 

"What do you make of that?"  Emma asked. 
I shrugged noncommittally, trying to ignore the uneasy feeling in my gut.  "Encephalitis has been known to make people aggressive."
She looked at me incredulously. "And did you see his eyes?!  And what about his skin - so grey and  slack, like it was suddenly too big for his bones.  Creepy!"
Looking sideways at her, my lips twitched.  "Is that your professional diagnosis?  Creepy?"
She flicked a rude gesture at me in response.

A yell jerked our heads around, to see more encephalitis patients being wheeled in, also struggling against their restraints.  Another bleeding paramedic called for assistance. Nurses and doctors hurried over.  I got a glimpse of blank eyes, bloodless skin and clawed hands as the trolleys passed by.  Emma raised her eyebrows at me as she hastened after them, promising further discussion over coffee later.

I shook myself and walked over to Dave as Bob was led into a nearby examination room.  "Come on, let's take a look at that arm."  Dave obediently allowed himself to be led into a room and sat thankfully on a bed.  
"Never seen anything like that before in my life." He muttered.
I glanced at him as I gathered my supplies.  "Really?  You know encephilitis can cause aggression and confusion."
Dave shook his head.  "This is something else.  This guy tried to eat me."
I laughed as I sat down beside him.  "Come on, Dave.  Never heard of a virus turning people into cannibals!"
The big man shrugged.  " Yeah, well, I'm the one who had to watch this guy chewing on the piece of flesh he tore from my arm.  He was drooling and chomping and watching me the whole time like I was a giant piece of meat dangling just out of was freaky."
I shuddered.  "Quit it, Dave.  That's gross."  I pulled away the bandage and whistled.  The patient had managed to tear a seriously thick chunk out of Dave's arm. "You are going to need some serious stitches, my friend."
"Yeah, I kinda figured that."
We sat in silence for several minutes as I cleaned the wound.  Dave clearly had something on his mind as he kept clearing his throat and opening his mouth to speak, then shutting it.  Finally, I sighed in exasperation and met his blue eyes firmly.  "Just spit it out, for goodness sakes."
Dave straightened his shoulders decisively.  "Lori, that guy was dead."
"Yes, I heard you say he had a cardiac arrest and you revived him.  What about it?"
He looked a little embarassed.  "The thing is we didn't succeed in bringing him back.  We'd given up.  Then he just opened his eyes and attacked us."
"Okay." I frowned. " Odd, but spontaneous revival has happened before."
Dave met my eyes. "I saw the heart monitor.  Even when we were struggling to strap him down, the monitor remained flatlined."
I blinked.  "Well, it had to be broken."
"Yeah.  That's what I thought.  Until I talked to the other guys over the cb and found that the same thing had happened to them.  What are the odds that all the monitors in all the ambulances were broken?"


When I left Dave, I was feeling a little worried.  He had started to run a mild temperature.  Bites are notoriously full of bacteria.  After giving him  a dose of antibiotics, I made him promise to go home and rest.  He assured me that he would head out after checking on Bob.

As I made my way down the hall, I ran into Emma.  She was bouncy with wide eyed excitement.  "Those miners are completely insane, I'm afraid!  It took six of us to get them into in the isolation beds.  A couple of the nurses even got bitten, nothing serious, mind you. Now we've all got to wear protective gear around the patients."  She chattered on eagerly as an avid audience of nurses grew around her. "We can't even sedate them; nothing seems to work.  Poor things seem to be mad with the pain."
"What's the treatment plan?" A nearby nurse asked.
Emma shrugged.  "Standard procedures but it will take a while to see if it is working.  In the meantime all we can do is try to make them comfortable."
"Anyway, I have to get back." She looked over at me.  " Meet you at lunch, Lori?"
" You bet. You know how I love cafeteria food. Highlight of my day."
Laughing, Emma wagged her finger at me.  "Still living on the edge, I see."

I returned to the office and took a quick look at the board.  Several people had presented with symptoms of possible encephalitis but that always happened when an alert went out.  People started seeing serious symptoms in the common cold. 

The sound of a rough cough startled me.  I was surprised to see Bob leaning against the doorway and alarmed to see how unwell he looked.  I hurried over and pressed my hand to his forehead.  It was burning hot.  His eyes seemed bleary as he tried to focus on me.
"Hey Lori, I think maybe that bugger gave me some nasty infection..."
"That, or you're on the grog again."  I took his arm firmly and led him back inside.  He lay down gratefully on the bed.  "How long have you been running this fever?"
"About half an hour, I suppose.  And I've got a hell of a headache."  He groaned. "I've been trying to find someone to give me some damned pills so I can go home to bed."
I sniffed derisively even as my thoughts raced through the possibilities.  Could this be encephalitis?  Could it even develop this quickly?   "You're not going anywhere, mister, at least not until you've been seen by another doctor."
Bob moaned in protest. "What did I do to deserve that?!"
I poked him lightly. "If you can still make jokes, there's hope for you yet."

I left him dozing while I hunted down a doctor.  Dr Bennett stood at the nurse's counter filling in a form, and with a little persuasion, agreed to examine Bob.   As I went to follow her, she shooed me away.  "The triage nurse could do with some help.  The waiting room is filling up with neurotic parents and hypochondriacs who are convinced that they've got this encephalitis bug."   I gritted my teeth and left her to it.  Truth be, there was a backlog of sniffling, groaning patients in the waiting room now, and I knew that Bob was in good, if irritating, hands.  I'd always found Dr Bennett with her Margaret Thatcher hair and condescending attitude a pain but I couldn't fault her expertise.

After sending home two patients with the cold and referring  another patient who actually could have the virus, I noticed a sudden flurry of activity as nurses and doctors rushed past my door.
"Excuse me." I murmured to the young girl I was with and hurried out.  In the hallway, there seemed to be struggle going on.  I heard a groan that sent a chill down my back.  The young girl peered around me.  "What's going on?"
I glanced down at her.  " I don't know.  Probably nothing but I am going to check it out.  Stay here."
She nodded obediently and backed up. 

I had a lump in the pit of my stomach as I heard that drawn out moan again.  It couldn't be.  As I neared, I saw that the staff had someone pinned on the floor outside Bob's room.  Dr Bennett stood near by, her perfect hair mussed, face flushed and deep scratches on her cheeks.  She glanced up at me and acknowledged silently what I had dreaded: it was Bob struggling on the floor under two men and two women.

"What happened?" I rushed forward to help them.  Dr Bennett grabbed my arm and pulled me back.  "Sudden aggression, disorientation...he tried to attack me and then a nurse."   

I opened my mouth to respond when there was a scream of pain from one of orderlies.  "The son of a bitch bit me!"  He leapt up clutching his neck and I saw Bob looking up at me.  But it wasn't Bob.  Gone was the sardonic, wiry man I had worked with for years and in his place was ...blankness.  With the pasty skin and the dead eyes,  I knew without doubt that he had been infected by the same virus that had ravaged the miners. 

Bob's empty eyes shifted to the woman holding his left arm.
"Don't let him bite you!" I called out. " He - he might be infectious!"
The woman squealed and released her hold, scrambling back.  The remaining two men struggled to hold Bob down as he grunted and writhed and snapped viciously at them. "Hey, I can't hang on much longer!"  One of the men pinning down Bob cried out.  "Jab him with something, will you?!" 

Dr Bennett grabbed an injection off a nearby trolley and pumped the full syringe into his thigh.   "He should be out in a couple of minutes." She said with satisfaction.  I knelt beside her, pinning down Bob's convulsing legs.  "Dr Bennett, if this is the same virus as the encephelitis patients, sedation probably won't work."
"Where the hell is security?!" Dr Bennett yelled before turning to me in irritation.  "Well, we can't very well sit on him indefinitely, can we? Go find security, will you?  He needs to be properly restrained before he hurts someone else or himself." 

I ignored the flare of anger and edged around Bob cautiously.  As I passed the injured orderly, I paused to tell him to disinfect the wound and get checked out immediately by a doctor.  If this was the virus, it had taken less than two hours from the time of the bite for the infection to reach Bob's brain.  That was impossibly fast.  Maybe Joe was right about the threat of an epidemic, after all.  I suddenly wished I could talk to him. I feared a doctor would treat such a suggestion with ridicule.  After all, maybe Bob had been exposed on an earlier job.

I hurried on.  For some reason, there was not a single security guard on the floor.  I decided to head upstairs to the isolation ward.  Chances were the guards had been called in to deal with more outbreaks of aggression. 

There was no one at the outside nurses' station, odd in itself.  Nibbling on my lip tentatively, I pushed the doors open.  The silence that greeted me was unnerving at first, but the sound I finally heard chilled me to the bone.  I didn't know what I was listening to at first but as it got closer, I suddenly realised what it was.


Panicked, desperate screaming getting closer and closer. 

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