“Warning: There Could Be Some Side Effects” – short fiction

After he discovered and developed the polio vaccine, Dr. Jonas Salk was asked, during a televised interview, who owned the patent. He replied, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

You have to admire that. Here was a guy who was responsible for stopping a disease that killed who knows how many and left who knows how many more paralyzed. And he did it because it was the right thing to do.

Not for personal profit. Not for notoriety.

Dr. Salk was a saint.

And I’m sure that pharmaceutical company execs all over the world heard that story later on and shit their collective pants, the level of their incredulity was probably that high.

For the record, I am no Jonas Salk. Though I’ve been compared to him.

To be fair, I’m more comparable to a virus. Or better yet, cancer.

 

Speaking of which, the disease that almost did me in was Stage 2 melanoma.

It started out as a mole, like most cases of melanoma do.

The small, black/brown mole, shaped a little like the state of Alaska, made itself at home on the back of my shoulder, where it meets my neck. I first noticed it after I got out of the shower one day. All of a sudden, boom, there it was.

After trips to my primary physician and a dermatologist, it was decided that it’d be a good idea to get a biopsy done.

A biopsy. I’ll be honest, I was scared out of my mind when I got that done. I’ve gone skydiving, I’ve been in three car accidents, and I’ve been audited by the IRS. Believe me when I say that if you want to really get your blood pumping, go get something biopsied. You’ll experience a completely new level of terror. Just the very thought that you could have a terminal disease is enough to make you sweat. What’s kind of funny about a biopsy though is that the anticipation is the worst. It’s so bad that when the results are finally revealed, no matter what they are, you’re just relieved to know something definitive. That’s how I felt when I was told that I had Stage 2 melanoma anyway.

Soon after I got the news, I had to have blood work done. A couple weeks later my oncologist, Dr. Naveen, delivered some unexpected news about the results.

Sitting in his office, I remember saying, “Come again?”

“I said it seems that your body is fighting off the cancer.”

“Fighting it off? How do I have Stage 2 melanoma if I’m fighting it off? How’d it go from Stage 1 to 2?”

The doc shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure. But it isn’t getting worse.”

“How do you know?”

“The lab called me at home when they noticed some irregularities in your blood. Apparently, your body has been producing an unusually high number of large granular lymphocytes.” He paused, his eyes narrowed. “Do you know what those are?”

I shook my head.

“A large granular lymphocyte, or LGL, is a type of white blood cell that essentially defends your body from disease. Those cells are responsible for fighting the cancer in your body.”

Dr. Naveen went on and on for another 10 minutes, explaining what exactly was happening in my body. I’m not sure what he said because I zoned out – partially from shock, partially from elation, partially from relief – for most of it.

There were two points the doc made that did get my attention, however: 1) high levels of LGLs were a symptom of a rare form of leukemia but he added that I didn’t have leukemia and 2) he had sent my blood to a colleague of his at Johns Hopkins for further examination.

When he stopped talking, I said, “So, um, I’m. I’m gonna be okay?”

“Better than okay actually. She tested…”

“She?”

“My colleague at Johns Hopkins.”

“Oh, right.”

“On a hunch, she tested your blood against a number of different diseases. AIDS, HIV, other forms of cancer, Alzheimer’s, the flu even. Your blood fought off every single one of them.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, I’m not.”

“But how can this be? I’ve gotten sick before, I’ve had the flu, my grandfather had Alzheimer’s.”

Dr. Naveen sat back in his chair and shrugged. “I don’t know. My colleague’s guess is that the melanoma activated some part of your immune system that had never been used before.”

I sat there speechless.

“She would also like to do some more tests, if that’s okay with you.”

“Um, sure, yeah, whatever she wants.”

He picked up a pen and began scribbling on a notepad. “I’m going to give you her name and number so you can sort out the details.”

“’Details?’ I already said okay.”

“She’ll probably want to see you in person, get more blood…”

“Hold it.” I sat forward. “She wants me to be a lab rat?”

He frowned. “I wouldn’t put it like that. Your body could possibly hold the cure to every disease that’s plagued humanity.” He lowered his head a bit and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “You don’t think that’s worth exploring?” How to Make Your Patients Feel Like Complete Assholes 101 must be taught at every medical school because every doctor I’ve ever met is great at it.

“You have a point.” I paused. “Gimme the number, I’ll call her.” He handed me the slip of paper. Dr. Irene Jacoby, it said.

 

I saw Dr. Jacoby a number of times over the following months. She’d take my blood, check on my Alaska mole (which got much smaller and eventually disappeared), pretty standard stuff. She also told me that she’d been talking with some researchers at a pharmaceutical company called PopeInnisLeland – more commonly known as PIL.

The researchers at PIL wanted to try to synthesize certain properties of my blood in order to make a drug out of it. To do this, they needed a pint of my blood every two months to run more tests on. They even offered to pay me for it. $1000 per pint, that was the offer. The original offer.

Now, what I did next could seem a little less than, well, altruistic. But I figured that if my blood could quite possibly cure the human race of every disease, why shouldn’t I cash in? There are some who probably think that I had no right to cash in, that I should’ve given my blood away as freely as I was born with it. But I got to thinking. Do professional athletes, who have amazing physical skills that they were born with, play for free? Are geniuses expected to use their advanced intellects for nothing more than a pat on the back?

Fuck no!

Anyway, shortly after PIL made its original offer, I did what any American does when potential riches hang in the balance: I lawyered up.

My lawyer drew up a contract that stated, along with a lot of other legalese, that A) I’d be a full-time employee at PIL, B) my salary would be $10 million per year, C) I’d be paid that salary for life, and D) the drug would be sold to anyone – insured or not – for $10 (How’s that for altruism? I made it affordable. So there).

Granted, the fine print said that the contract was predicated on the condition that PIL could turn my million-dollar blood into an FDA-approved drug.

Fast forward about six years, after the drug was synthesized, tested, and approved by the FDA, when lymphovox – more commonly known as Panelix (I still think the name sucks, they just slapped “panacea” and “elixir” together. But given what it could do, they could’ve called it Shitsonex and it wouldn’t have mattered) – hit the shelves. Looking back, I should’ve asked for more money; I could’ve bought several houses with what I made but PIL could’ve bought several countries from the cash it raked in.

 

The media blitzkrieg that followed the drug’s release was like nothing I’d ever experienced in my life. I was on the cover of every major magazine in the world. I was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for chrissakes.

Then I was awarded a Nobel Prize, a surreal moment for sure. Granted, PIL and Dr. Jacoby each got one too but all the focus was on me. Like I had anything to do with it. Okay, Panelix was derived from my blood but it came at a steep price; as I said, I’m no Dr. Salk. But nobody paid attention to that.

At any rate, I turned into a celebrity. Everybody loved me, I was hounded for my autograph, it was crazy. I heard somewhere that a bunch of kooks started a religion based on how I lived. The mind reels.

As wild as all of that was, nobody, and I mean nobody, could’ve predicted what came next.

So a cure-all hits the human race and nobody is getting sick anymore. For a while, things are absolutely wonderful.

Everybody is in a good mood. Morale, on a global scale, is at an all-time high.

The fewest cases, ever, of suicide are reported.

In war-torn countries, the fighting tapers way off and completely stops in some cases.

Cities like New York and Philadelphia, where everybody seems generally pissed off all the time? People walking down the street are smiling and saying hello to each other.

It. Was. Amazing.

Then the wind blew and the cradle rocked.

 

Since nobody was getting sick anymore, the need for doctors plummeted. Like a lead balloon, as they say.

Although hospitals started laying people off left and right, emergency rooms still did decent business. After all, Panelix couldn’t stop people from cutting themselves or twisting their ankles. Cardiologists did okay too; Panelix couldn’t make people exercise or stop eating poorly. And plastic surgeons, well, nobody gave them shit about boob jobs and lipo not being “real medicine” anymore.

AIDS clinics though? Gone.

Oncologists? Out of business. I still wonder if Dr. Naveen regrets sending me to Dr. Jacoby.

Pharmaceutical companies also took a huge hit, quite a few folded completely. Hundreds of thousands of employees of the surviving companies were laid off. PIL came out on top of course, although they’re struggling now too. There are only so many drugs you can make when disease is eliminated. Companies that pulled in several billion dollars a year are lucky to make a few million now.

And the insurance companies, oh, the insurance companies. If there was one silver lining, it was that people who had been screwed over by insurance companies for years got to see Aetna, United Healthcare, and the rest of ‘em get a big ol’ helping of the desperation pie that their customers had been eating for years. The elimination of the phrase “pre-existing condition” made the whole thing seem that much sweeter.

Ironically, Panelix spawned an epidemic. Anybody in the healthcare industry who dealt with disease was suddenly out of work. Healthcare, one of the most recession-proof, financially secure fields in the world, was suddenly the most at-risk. Hell, enrollment at medical schools thinned out like there was no tomorrow. Never thought I’d see the day when parents urged their children to become anything but doctors.

The fall of the healthcare industry was the first domino. Then the economy tanked. Again.

 

In an economy that was already the second worst in history, the healthcare industry collapses and shreds the rest of it. It was officially worse than the Great Depression.

With billions out of work around the globe and those people just trying to figure out how to simply survive, who’s worrying about buying a new car? Or a 42” Sony flat screen? Or an iPhone? That beautiful thing called capitalism packed its bags and went bye-bye.

The only things people were worrying about were food, clothes, and shelter. And after a while, shelter was in short supply too.

A ton of people stopped being able to make house payments so foreclosures rained down worse than when the housing bubble popped in ‘08. Only this time, there were so many that some cops gave up on evictions after a while. Squatters’ rights became unwritten law.

Some people, who didn’t want to be forced out, took what money they had, bought motor homes, and lived on the road. Nomadic life was en vogue.

All this happens and everybody thought they’d hit bottom, that it was impossible that things could get worse. Then came the food shortage.

Since nobody was getting sick anymore, natural selection had been more or less eliminated; the herd wasn’t being thinned out. This led to overpopulation on a planet that was already grossly overpopulated.

Of course, this was a huge strain on resources. Namely food.

 

There were so many healthy people around the world that the farming industry just couldn’t keep up. And I truly thought the big food corporations would come up with a solution. My hopes were high. Those people had completely bastardized food, going so far as to make genetically modified organisms, yet they couldn’t solve the problem. Just too many mouths to feed.

Thus, gardening became everybody’s favorite hobby. People took to backyard and rooftop gardens like crazy but although people grew and harvested as much as they could, the winter always came and the growing always stopped. The nails were hammered into the coffin every time.

Some folks had greenhouses, sure, and people in warmer climates were still able to grow but there was an overwhelming demand and not enough supply so things still went sideways real quick. Some people got so desperate that they were barbecuing squirrels, rats, raccoons, anything they could get their hands on.

You’d think that people would’ve been rioting, flipping cars over in the streets, looting supermarkets for every last can of soup, going crazy. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, a general feeling of despondency settled over most of the world. People were just too emotionally – and physically in some cases – devastated to do much of anything. It became known as The Global Depression, which seemed like an understatement.

 

You don’t hear much talk about it but I’m sure that everyone is looking for someone to blame. On the days when things seem particularly bleak, which is all the time now really, people must want to point a finger at somebody. That’s how it works, right? When things go awry, people want, more than anything, to be able to look at someone and say, “This is all your fault.” The ol’ Laurel and Hardy routine. This is another nice mess you’ve gotten me into, Stanley.

If that’s what you’re looking for, blame me. It started with Panelix and that can be traced back to me. I’m Patient Zero; I’m the rock in the pond that caused the ripples. Throw me in and you’ve got shantytowns set up in abandoned shopping mall parking lots.

And soup kitchens that are on every block in every town.

And gunshots that ring out every 20 minutes as people hunt their next meal.

And the fact that cable television is now kaput.

And the thousands of people who now live like the Amish since, let’s face it, the Amish were just fine before, during, and after the shit hit the fan.

So go right ahead and direct your anger and frustration at me, I can take the heat. After all, I’ll be long dead before my PIL money – and the food I bought with it – runs out. Having said that, try not to be too hard on me. I mean, look at the bright side: at least you don’t have to worry about germs.

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One Response to “Warning: There Could Be Some Side Effects” – short fiction

  1. Watson says:

    Not bad. There are slight elements of your sarcastic wit that come through on this, but you may want to really build that character. You may consider a foil to contrast his greed and indifferent attitude or one that shows he is caring and conflicted about the choices he made, or both.
    Also, I was intrigued with the biopsy paragraph, but you may want to push the boundaries for the “terror.” What thoughts is the narrator having to propel the terror? As a cancer survivor, I can say that my mind was swimming in thoughts about my family and friends and how I was going to tell them and what their reactions would be, and whether I’d be able to do any of the things I wanted to do like get married, have kids or even just getting a dog. The narrator is facing his mortality so he’s got to be thinking some crazy stuff. I was worried about chemo and losing my hair and how I’d be able to date if I did survive. Yes, it was selfish, but these are real things that readers will relate to. You’ve got to put that out there for them to care about your narrator.
    Now on to what I love. The Salk quote and your narrator’s response is great. I may have changed the “To be fair . . .” quote to “To be fair, I may have doomed us all.” But I loved how that part was written. I think you’ve nailed the character’s reactions pretty well. I also liked the dialogue between the narrator and Dr. Naveen. I think you can get away with adding some setting descriptors in that section. I’m guessing his office smells like a doctor’s office would which is either leather from the bound books and chairs and rich mahogany from the furniture or cleaning chemicals and feet (most oncology offices require patients to put the lovely robe on and take off their shoes, which explains the foot smell). This also helps build the character into someone that notices material things, which would explain the greed later. I also like the “wind blew and cradle rocked” line. It showed some of that sarcasm and it conjures the image of the innocent “Rock-a-bye Baby” song which if you think about it is pretty tragic.
    Overall, this is a good short story. It made me think which is the point of fiction. The science part wasn’t over done, but the narrator could be slightly more developed. He’s not bad as is, but there are writing tricks that would enhance him. I’m pretty excited you wrote this. There is talent here.

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