The Amazon Rain Forest, Brazil
[I arrive blindfolded, so as not to reveal my “hosts’” location. Outsiders call them the Yanomami, “The Fierce People,” and it is unknown whether this supposedly warlike nature or the fact that their new village hangs suspended from the tallest trees was what allowed them to weather the crisis as well, if not better, than even the most industrialized nation. It is not clear whether Fernando Oliveira, the emaciated, drug-addicted white man “from the edge of the world,” is their guest, mascot, or prisoner.]
I was still a doctor, that’s what I told myself. Yes, I was rich, and getting richer all the time, but at least my success came from performing necessary medical procedures. I wasn’t just slicing and dicing little teenage noses or sewing Sudanese “pintos” onto sheboy pop divas. I was still a doctor, I was still helping people, and if it was so “immoral” to the self-righteous, hypocritical North, why did their citizens keep coming?
The package arrived from the airport an hour before the patient, packed in ice in a plastic picnic cooler. Hearts are extremely rare. Not like livers or skin tissue, and certainly not like kidneys, which, after the “presumed consent” law was passed, you could get from almost any hospital or morgue in the country.
Was it tested?
For what? In order to test for something, you have to know what you’re looking for. We didn’t know about Walking Plague then. We were concerned with conventional ailments—hepatitis or HIV/AIDS—and we didn’t even have time to test for those.
Why is that?
Because the flight had already taken so long. Organs can’t be kept on ice forever. We were already pushing our luck with this one.
Where had it come from?
China, most likely. My broker operated out of Macau. We trusted him. His record was solid. When he assured us that the package was “clean,” I took him at his word; I had to. He knew the risks involved, so did I, so did the patient. Herr Muller, in addition to his conventional heart ailments, was cursed with the extremely rare genetic defect of dextrocardia with situs in-versus. His organs lay in their exact opposite position; the liver was on the left side, the heart entryways on the right, and so on. You see the unique situation we were facing. We couldn’t have just transplanted a conventional heart and turned it backward. It just doesn’t work that way. We needed another fresh, healthy heart from a “donor” with exactly the same condition. Where else but China could we find that kind of luck?
It was luck?
[Smiles.] And “political expediency.” I told my broker what I needed, gave him the specifics, and sure enough, three weeks later I received an e-mail simply titled “We have a match.”
So you performed the operation.
I assisted, Doctor Silva performed the actual procedure. He was a prestigious heart surgeon who worked the top cases at the Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in São Paulo. Arrogant bastard, even for a cardiologist. It killed my ego to have to work with…under…that prick, treating me like I was a first-year resident. But what was I going to do…Herr Muller needed a new heart and my beach house needed a new herbal Jacuzzi.
Herr Muller never came out of the anesthesia. As he lay in the recovery room, barely minutes after closing, his symptoms began to appear. His temperature, pulse rate, oxygen saturation…I was worried, and it must have tickled my more “experienced colleague.” He told me that it was either a common reaction to the immunosuppressant medication, or the simple, expected complications of an overweight, unhealthy, sixty-seven-year-old man who’d just gone through one of the most traumatic procedures in modern medicine. I’m surprised he didn’t pat me on the head, the prick. He told me to go home, take a shower, get some sleep, maybe call a girl or two, relax. He’d stay and watch him and call me if there was any change.
[Oliveira purses his lips angrily and chews another wad of the mysterious leaves at his side.]
And what was I supposed to think? Maybe it was the drugs, the OKT 3. Or maybe I was just being a worrier. This was my first heart transplant. What did I know? Still…it bothered me so much that the last thing I wanted to do was sleep. So I did what any good doctor should do when his patient is suffering; I hit the town. I danced, I drank, I had salaciously indecent things done to me by who knows who or what. I wasn’t even sure it was my phone vibrating the first couple of times. It must have been at least an hour before I finally picked up. Graziela, my receptionist, was in a real state. She told me that Herr Muller had slipped into a coma an hour before. I was in my car before she could finish the sentence. It was a thirty-minute drive back to the clinic, and I cursed both Silva and myself every second of the way. So I did have reason to be concerned! So I was right! Ego, you could say; even though to be right meant dire consequences for me as well, I still relished tarnishing the invincible Silva’s reputation.
I arrived to find Graziela trying to comfort a hysterical Rosi, one of my nurses. The poor girl was inconsolable. I gave her a good one across the cheek—that calmed her down—and asked her what was going on. Why were there spots of blood on her uniform? Where was Doctor Silva? Why were some of the other patients out of their rooms, and what the hell was that goddamn banging noise? She told me that Herr Muller had flat-lined, suddenly, and unexpectedly. She explained that they had been trying to revive him when Herr Muller had opened his eyes and bitten Doctor Silva on the hand. The two of them struggled; Rosi tried to help but was almost bitten herself. She left Silva, ran from the room, and locked the door behind her.
I almost laughed. It was so ridiculous. Maybe Superman had slipped up, misdiagnosed him, if that was possible. Maybe he’d just risen from the bed, and, in a stupor, had tried to grab on to Doctor Silva to steady himself. There had to be a reasonable explanation…and yet, there was the blood on her uniform and the muffled noise from Herr Muller’s room. I went back to the car for my gun, more so to calm Graziela and Rosi than for myself.
You carried a gun?
I lived in Rio. What do you think I carried, my “pinto”? I went back to Herr Muller’s room, I knocked several times. I heard nothing. I whispered his and Silva’s names. No one responded. I noticed blood seeping out from under the door. I entered and found it covering the floor. Silva was lying in the far corner, Muller crouching over him with his fat, pale, hairy back to me. I can’t remember how I got his attention, whether I called his name, uttered a swear, or did anything at all but just stand there. Muller turned to me, bits of bloody meat falling from his open mouth. I saw that his steel sutures had been partially pried open and a thick, black, gelatinous fluid oozed through the incision. He got shakily to his feet, lumbering slowly toward me.
I raised my pistol, aiming at his new heart. It was a “Desert Eagle,” Israeli, large and showy, which is why I’d chosen it. I’d never fired it before, thank God. I wasn’t ready for the recoil. The round went wild, literally blowing his head off. Lucky, that’s all, this lucky fool standing there with a smoking gun, and a stream of warm urine running down my leg. Now it was my turn to get slapped, several times by Graziela, before I came to my senses and telephoned the police.
Were you arrested?
Are you crazy? These were my partners, how do you think I was able to get my homegrown organs. How do you think I was able to take care of this mess? They’re very good at that. They helped explain to my other patients that a homicidal maniac had broken into the clinic and killed both Herr Muller and Doctor Silva. They also made sure that none of the staff said anything to contradict that story.
What about the bodies?
They listed Silva as the victim of a probable “car jacking.” I don’t know where they put his body; maybe some ghetto side street in the City of God, a drug score gone bad just to give the story more credibility. I hope they just burned him, or buried him…deep.
Do you think he…
I don’t know. His brain was intact when he died. If he wasn’t in a body bag…if the ground was soft enough. How long would it have taken to dig out?
[He chews another leaf, offering me some. I decline.]
And Mister Muller?
No explanation, not to his widow, not to the Austrian embassy. Just another kidnapped tourist who’d been careless in a dangerous town. I don’t know if Frau Muller ever believed that story, or if she ever tried to investigate further. She probably never realized how damn lucky she was.
Why was she lucky?
Are you serious? What if he hadn’t reanimated in my clinic? What if he’d managed to make it all the way home?
Is that possible?
Of course it is! Think about it. Because the infection started in the heart, the virus had direct access to his circulatory system, so it probably reached his brain seconds after it was implanted. Now you take another organ, a liver or a kidney, or even a section of grafted skin. That’s going to take a lot longer, especially if the virus is only present in small amounts.
But the donor…
Doesn’t have to be fully reanimated. What if he’s just newly infected? The organ may not be completely saturated. It might only have an infinitesimal trace. You put that organ in another body, it might take days, weeks, before it eventually works its way out into the bloodstream. By that point the patient might be well on the way to recovery, happy and healthy and living a regular life.
But whoever is removing the organ…
…may not know what he’s dealing with. I didn’t. These were the very early stages, when nobody knew anything yet. Even if they did know, like elements in the Chinese army…you want to talk about immoral…Years before the outbreak they’d been making millions on organs from executed political prisoners. You think something like a little virus is going to make them stop sucking that golden tit?
You remove the heart not long after the victim’s died…maybe even while he’s still alive…they used to do that, you know, remove living organs to ensure their freshness…pack it in ice, put it on a plane for Rio…China used to be the largest exporter of human organs on the world market. Who knows how many infected corneas, infected pituitary glands…Mother of God, who knows how many infected kidneys they pumped into the global market. And that’s just the organs! You want to talk about the “donated” eggs from political prisoners, the sperm, the blood? You think immigration was the only way the infection swept the planet? Not all the initial outbreaks were Chinese nationals. Can you explain all those stories of people suddenly dying of unexplained causes, then reanimating without ever having been bitten? Why did so many outbreaks begin in hospitals? Illegal Chinese immigrants weren’t going to hospitals. Do you know how many thousands of people got illegal organ transplants in those early years leading up to the Great Panic? Even if 10 percent of them were infected, even 1 percent…
Do you have any proof of this theory?
No . . . but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen! When I think about how many transplants I performed, all those patients from Europe, the Arab world, even the self-righteous United States. Few of you Yankees asked where your new kidney or pancreas was coming from, be it a slum kid from the City of God or some unlucky student in a Chinese political prison. You didn’t know, you didn’t care. You just signed your traveler’s checks, went under the knife, then went home to Miami or New York or wherever.
Did you ever try to track these patients down, warn them?
No, I didn’t. I was trying to recover from a scandal, rebuild my reputation, my client base, my bank account. I wanted to forget what happened, not investigate it further. By the time I realized the danger, it was scratching at my front door.