Outside the operating theatre of a well-known government hospital at the center of town, two armed escorts stood guarding the room as two doctors bent over the open abdomen of the young son of the wealthy minister. The surgery was thought to be a simple, uncomplicated one, and was to last for about an hour, but then an hour passed, beads of nervous sweats covered the foreheads of the doctors, and when it became apparent that things were going askew was when distressed Dr. Salimah pulled from her hands gloves covered in blood and walked out of the theater. She washed both her hands quickly. The surgery was going to be a success, a senior colleague had assured her. He had said it was uncomplicated and with no risks. But few minutes in, just after she tore him with a scalpel, she had seen otherwise, the risks were elegant and numerous.
“I need you now!” she said barging into the empty office of her senior colleague.
“Oh no!” she exclaimed, as she found it empty. She went into the medical directors’ office, when she barged in he sat uprightly displaying discomfort at the sudden intrusion.
“Aren’t you supposed to be operating?” he asked.
“I need your help. Please, I do not have time.”
The old man frowned, he hadn’t planned for any of this today. If for anything, she should know he was retired, but he did not need to take a second look at her to know she was desperate and that it was a life and death situation. He went with her and on their way, she briefed him on the case.
“He is going to wake up any moment from now,” the student doctor said as they entered. He managed to hide well his panicking. Dr. Salimah watched intently as the medical director took over; his hands moved mechanically and meticulously. Even after watching him all this years, to her it remained a wonder. And in thirty minutes, the surgery was over and a success. Dr. Salimah could not thank him enough, and behind closed doors she gave him a kiss on the cheek but this time it was a kiss given to a father by the daughter. But soon after, things went acrid as he demanded to know what happened.
“Salimah, you don’t venture into things you can’t handle. Know all the risks before you get involved.”
“I really thought I could handle it.”
“After all these years and you still make assumptions… Salimah, it’s either you can or cannot! Call a spade, a spade especially when dealing with a person’s life.”
“No more excuses, it is better you stay away from the theater; just be a doctor my dear. Remember there is no best doctor; there are only good doctors.”
“But you know, I can do it. I handle my cases very well and I am sure that was why I was recommended to do this one. What happened there was that this case was not well defined. You know I am good, Dad. I am just like you.”
“I see the kind of cases you’re interested in. You like wealthy people who can fill your pocket and give you a name. Salimah, you are not a politician, and these wealthy people can destroy you with your own knife. Remember, a doctor doesn’t save lives because of name or fame and it’s always better to count the number of lives you’ve lost than those you have saved.”
“I don’t know why you think of me this way, I do all this for fame? I really want to help and it’s because I can.”
“You can leave my office now, and I never want to see you running in here, like a man whose house has been set on fire. Leave.”
Salimah stood, and at the door she said with a forced half-smile, “It will never repeat itself again, Dad.”
In response, the medical director peered at her from under his round glasses and when she shut door behind her, he slumped into his chair, pulled the glasses out of his tired eyes and began to rub them, at his age he could only give advice and as always, watch it go neglected.
Salimah exhaled deeply as she sat on her office chair. Agitated, she picked up her cellphone which was lying idly and her eyes shone as she read the message her fiancé sent.
Hello sal, I know you might be busy but I wanted to let you know that my flight landed safely at Mutamba airport 9; 00pm. That means I will be seeing you soon. I hope it is easy for you to tell that I can’t wait to see that lovely face of yours.
She checked the time and smiled. She also couldn’t wait to see him, especially to tell him what her father had just said to her. She fought the urge to call him. It had been a long two weeks without him, but it was finally over. She read the message again and when she managed to stop smiling, she called her senior colleague. It went to voice mail severally. The medical director would be more than upset if he knew that it was him who set her up to perform a surgery which hadn’t been approved of, and suddenly she felt very silly for believing that he was looking out for her by placing her to do a simple surgery for such wealthy people.
When Muzi’s first flight landed and his feet touched the ground, he wanted to call first the person that had been on his mind all the while, but he thought a text would suffice, so he sent Salimah a message. He really couldn’t wait to see her, and expected that the only two things that would delay their embrace was waiting to pick up his luggage from the carousel and the congested traffic he would face on his way to the hospital. Apart from these, he expected nothing else. But now that he was inside the terminal, it was a different ball game; there was a long- standing queue and words were going around that there were doing some screening. No one knew what it was for at first, till two people were asked to step aside. When they asked why, they were told they were suspected for having the Ebola virus. While one insisted that they were mistaken, the other was more concerned with what the virus was and how they were very sure he had it. At the end they were led away.
When Muzi saw what was going on, he grew a bit worried. If people who boarded the same flight as he had it, then how could he be so sure he was free of the virus. He had heard little of the recent outbreak, but by then he was already out of the country. If it happened earlier, he would have suspended his trip for the time being till the whole thing was over, if it would ever be over.
People in the queue were either avoiding to stand directly in front of the screen; while some allowed others to go before them. The panic was inevitable and Muzi thought that any more delay would make him sick. Nervously he had brought the back of his hand severally to his neck. He was warm not hot, or maybe he was hotter than normal. He couldn’t be sure. He continued this act until he found himself in front of the line. It was finally his turn. Now he would know for sure. Anxiously he stepped in front of the computer screen and waited. There were no hands coming to grab him; instead, the lady behind the desktop told him to proceed. As he crossed he let out an amount of air he hadn’t been aware he was holding back and, even as he walked away, a small part of him expected someone to yell after him to come back, if possible hit him to the ground and hurdle him away like a criminal, or like the virus itself. His last flight and he would finally be able to see her. He couldn’t wait to kiss away the tiredness off her eyelids, and make her laugh-subtle medicine for her stress!
He was eager, in every possible way. It wasn’t a connecting flight, so he planned to pay for his next flight before he boarded. Thankfully, it was a local flight so he had no worries of immigration delay.
Dr. Salimah checked her time. The nurses must have cleaned and dressed the young man. From the report on her system, his vitals were stable. Only God knew what would have happened to her if she had allowed things to escalate; no one would have questioned the student doctor. With the thought that things could still go wrong, she decided to check on the young man. But when she tried to walk into the room he was kept to recuperate in, the police guards wouldn’t let her in. According to them they had received orders to not let her go anywhere near him. Angrily, she went back into her office and dialed her senior colleague’s number and when she could only get to his voice mail, she checked in his office for him. The man was always grubby looking even though he wore the cleanest lab coat. It was something she couldn’t explain.
“Hello, Dr. Salimah. Do you mind I am seeing an important patient right now,” he said smiling. Dr. Salimah had learnt from her father that there were no important patients, but she understood what he meant.
“Please, I would like to see you when you are done. If you don’t mind I will be waiting at my office.”
“That’s alright, Dr. Salimah. I will be there.”
She closed the door quietly yet angrily. She overheard him thanking the minister of health for trusting him with his son. If it turned out any different she would be the one hanging on the cross, but now it was him taking all the credit. She wondered how someone could seem so nice and perfect with words and yet be the ugliest cunning thing alive. Resignedly, she went into her office and began going through several of her books. She suddenly remembered the recent news and thought how lucky they were that the Ebola outbreak had not spread to them but still with all that was going on it was the best time for her to refresh her knowledge and do some research on the course. ………………..
Muzi woke up with a start, he slept throughout the forty five minutes flight. A fellow passenger woke him up as they landed. On his feet he tried to get over his somnolence. His whole body ached and it grew worse when he got into the run down airport of his country. It always remained a big surprise to him each time he travelled and came back home. It was poorly air conditioned, and had no maintenance whatsoever; the floor tiles, cracked and dirt hid beneath them. When it rained a pool formed from the leaking roof, and some men in uniforms with a bucket and a mop tried their best to keep it dry. There was a long queue as screening was ongoing. Without much thought, Muzi stood in line behind a heavily built man who was speaking loudly on his phone. The call was long and it was hard for anyone not to listen on. On the call the he made loud, heavy threats, which propelled Muzi to move forward and soon he found himself in front of the screen. He just couldn’t wait to get home. Soon after he stood in front, a loud voice came from the speaker. He really couldn’t tell what it was they were saying. It sounded funny but soon he realized she was mentioning the number of another flight that had just landed and that all passengers from the other flights were asked to remain where they were till they were told otherwise. Before she could finish, he felt his hands being strapped behind him. They had found the first traveler with the virus! Two men led him away. They wore white overalls and gloves, caps on their head, and face mask. Muzi found himself down a long, narrow passage. When he kicked and tried to fight his way through, they said he was only being quarantined. He explained to them that he had been checked before and they were wrong but those words fell on deaf ears. They kept repeating the same thing
“You have a fever of 40 degrees sir, and you have to be isolated for further testing.” Before the men left, they drew blood from him. The room he was kept in wasn’t dark or strange, and if anything was wrong, it was the light which was too bright. He was grateful to be all alone, that they had not put him with others suspected of having the virus. Slowly, he closed his eyes as he didn’t want to think of anything bad happening to him. He believed they would soon take him out, but he wondered how long he would wait before they realized they had been mistaken. Stupid country, he thought.
He hoped Salimah was fine as he didn’t want her to be worried about him. He tried to keep the negative away. It seemed easy at first till he came to a realization that his body was trying to get rid of something. On his knees, he allowed himself to empty his bowels; he inhaled the foul smell of vomit as it seemed to have taken up the air in the room. He found himself struggling for air. Restless beads of sweat formed all around him even in the cold room. He pulled himself together and tried to stay still, but something was crawling on him: insects with tentacles. The same his mother complained of that made him think she had lost it. He fell asleep again.
Dr. Salimah waited but her senior colleague never came. Her phone buzzed on the table. She couldn’t describe or tell why she felt alarmed to see Muzi calling her. It wasn’t supposed to be a surprise but then it was.
“Hello, this is the medical help line calling. Are you in any way related to Muzi Talih?”
“We called because it seems you were the last person he was in contact with. We tried his mother but we couldn’t get to her.”
“She is late.”
“I am sorry about that.”
“Yes, what is it? Why did you call me?
“It’s about the health of Muzi. We wish to discuss with you in person, if you don’t mind.”
“Where?” she asked, and after the curt response, she drove to the airport. In a hurry, she approached the medical help desk frantically, and when she showed them her I.D confirming she was a doctor, they explained to her the full meaning of what was going on.
“Does he have any parents alive who should know about this?”
“Knowing his health status, he can’t be in contact with the citizens of this country.”
“He is also a citizen, he has rights!”
“We are aware, and that’s why we would be transferring him to a hospital which specializes in such cases.”
“I want to see him. Can I see him?”
“I am sorry but__”
“I am going to be his medical representative from now. I have the license to practise medicine in this country. I think he would need a doctor.” They could only stare at her.
She pulled on the overalls, gloves and masks, as they began to read to her to avoid all bodily fluids and contact. When she seemed ready they took her in, but before they cautioned her that she would be quarantined if she were later found to carry the virus. Salimah wasn’t really listening to protocols, all she wanted was to see Muzi. He was the only one who truly understood her. She found him lying in his vomit. She lifted him up, wiped him and carried him to the bed. All the while it had seemed to her like it was happening to someone else, one of her own patients and not her Muzi. She watched him as he slept, she wiped sweats from his fore head, and imagined them walking down the aisle. She saw herself in a pink gown. She wanted to wear pink because she was so sick of wearing white all the time. He had opposed the idea. Right now she didn’t care about that she would marry him in any hue. He wanted two girls, one with a Zimbabwean name like Rue, named after a pretty woman who had helped them out during their visit there some time ago, and the other who knows what she would be named, who knows if those will forever be imaginations as reality laughed mockingly. She stood from her seat which was by his side and went to the kit they had given her then she took out a syringe and a needle. She was going to do that test again; they could be wrong, it could be a false positive. They might have read the chart wrongly. When she was done, it was the most glaring positive she had ever seen in her life. How was it possible that it would be him that the whole country wanted to keep in isolation!? How come the virus chose him to disfigure? Now, no one would even consider how caring he was, how kind hearted and impetuous he was when it came to helping others, or how sexy he looked when he switched from Swahili to Igbo and then back with a non-accented English, none of them his own language. It was not possible that she was sitting here crying, giving up and acting like a widowed woman that had not even been married yet. She would defeat this virus and get her man back, she thought. No one, not even another specie of living thing, would be able to separate them. She entered the laboratory and with a frightened look, the protected nurses and doctors turned to stare at her. She asked for help because she needed it. She managed to get a few contacts and placed a call on the research laboratory. They agreed to help her out, and even before they came she began carrying out different test. She was going through several books that night and when it was early the next morning while everyone was still sleeping, she passed by a mirror and saw her reflection, eyes from crying and reading different colors and sizes of texts on books at a time. He would be awake by now, but she was afraid she might cry if she saw that his enthusiastic and loving spirit had been broken by this epidemic. She had seen it happen many times. How people changed when they were diagnosed of an incurable disease. It was as if darkness seeped into their window instead of light, and instead of seeing colored petals of a flower they saw brown paper-back withered leaves. They became unsure if they were happy or just had to be for sake of relatives and friends. She didn’t want to hear words from Muzi that he thought she wanted to hear. She wanted to know how he truly felt. As the morning came, her mind kept spiraling with different thoughts. She wished she could move him away from here. These people don’t really care-He was an experiment. But then what, being an experiment was better than being nothing, or not there, at least things could get better as an experiment.
When Muzi awoke the second time that night, he was almost certain that Salimah had been in his room, maybe it had been a dream, he thought. Suddenly it all started again: his bowel movements were incontrollable; sickly, he bent over a wall vomiting and stooling. He felt ashamed of himself and didn’t know why. If he slept another night here, then it was certain he had the virus and they were keeping him isolated; it also meant he was going to die and things had come to an end for him. He remembered his father’s words,
“death was a foreign thought to a healthy man, but it was a sick man’s only thought. For a sick man, one of the two unknowns of death had been solved. One unknown was when, and the other was how. For the sick man knew how and only wondered when but healthy people scarcely thought of death since they never knew how.”
He knew how. Dr. Salimah and the set of foreign doctors working in the research laboratory entered the room. Muzi was surprised when he first saw her, but his joy dulled when he saw she was avoiding his gaze. She must think I am pitiable. She can’t stand a sight of a man crumpled like a withering vegetable. She feels different about me. His thoughts grew heavy like that of a soldier on the battle ground. In his case, he was without the respect of a soldier; clownish; laughable; and without honor.
“How are you?” A male doctor asked peering at him.
“I am okay,” he replied, frightened at the sound of his own voice.
“We are here to help you. Tell us how you feel?”
Muzi explained to them how tired he felt, even though he received several fluids. He was uneasy, had frequent stools and grew very hot when he was indeed cold. His eyes throughout the discussion however remained on Dr. Salimah. The mere thought that she was here with him was soothing. He was reminded of how selfless she was when it came to her profession. Something her father hated, but would never acknowledge. When the doctors were done, Muzi waited a long time before Salimah came to see him. She had removed her face mask and replaced it with a smile.
“How are you, Muzi?” she said flippantly, like they had both woken up to a great morning.
“Much better now. You are here, it’s so good to see you.”
“You too darling. How was your trip? Did you have fun?”
“Yes but not enough for this,” he pointed to the cannula stuck on both his wrists.
“Don’t worry about it, you will be fine.”
“I know I’m only worried that you’re not getting any rest and you look like you have been crying.”
“No, that’s just my eyes,” Salimah answered.
“Yes, bold faced liar. Does your father know what you have gotten yourself into?” She laughed,
“My father thinks I am a depressed maniac, who is married to medicine.”
“Your father is hardly wrong.”
“I am going to hit you really hard, hope you can take it.” They both laughed, and then it grew suddenly quiet.
“It has come to my knowledge that I have the virus Ebola and that I would die since it’s incurable.”
“That’s not true, Muzi. Who said that?”
“The doctors you walked in with told me. They said you believe it can be cured and you have a hypothesis, but they tried it and it failed already. They are only trying to help.”
“Don’t listen to that, you’re not going to die. You know God, I asked him to keep you. I spoke with him this morning and I have a good feeling. You are going to survive. think like this.”
“Don’t worry, baby. Just look after yourself. You look worse than I do already.”
“I don’t care, Muzi. I just want you to believe that you’re going to survive, say it.”
“Say it, Muzi!”
“I am going to survive this.”
“And I hope you mean it because you will. Now I need to go. I will come and see you later.”
“Yes babe, I will survive.”
At the door she turned smiling, “Yes and you better believe it now and get that nasty sarcasm out of your tone.”
When she left, he managed a genuine smile. She was right. It would have been better for him not to be born, than for him to die in such a horrifying manner. When the evening was ripe, forming an orange hue across the sky, a group of doctors came to him talking about an experimental drug. It was not curative, but could prolong life span. The side-effects were uncertain, yet it was one of the best experimental drugs available. Muzi felt he had no choice in the matter. It was reasonable that he accepted the offer as an attempt to survive for that was what life was about. He was given an injection first, before he swallowed a huge tablet. The disgustingness of it made him wonder why he was not rolling on the floor and throwing up from the taste it left in his mouth. When he told them that he feared he would vomit the tablet, they explained to him that the injection was given to prevent him from vomiting. When the doctors left, Salimah came in. She sat by him as it grew dark quick. Unintentionally, they made a recollection of the wonderful time they spent together, including bits of their career, and her family which he considered his. He told her of all the plans he had made if they had re-united under a different circumstance.
“Anytime you are here, Salimah, I forget I am sick, and that things are somewhat different,” he said. She held his hands. To him, her touch was the best medicine she could ever have given him, and even though she tried amidst tears to assure him that it would get better, and things would return like they were before, it still felt to both of them like they were giving their final good byes. Being a person of the moment, never has Salimah been inquisitive about the future, but all of a sudden she wanted to skip to the end of it. At 3:15 a.m., early hour of a Thursday morning, two Ebola-caused deaths were recorded. Before this, it was 2.a.m and, on his narrow bed, Muzi perceived death like a stench of rotten egg filling his nostrils. He turned on his side to get away from it to not notice, but it kept spreading, filling his two lungs. The end had come. He knew it, and waited with his eyes closed. Salimah was by his side. She stroked his hair, and held his hand then looked him in the eye smiling, and they began running, like one on a marathon, and with everything they had, they had to finish this race. Their baton exchange seemed to be at the counter where they got a boarding pass for their luggage. They had managed to be the last two to get on the flight. When the announcement came, they were about to take off. Salimah was smiling widely,
“You were never going to make it here without me,” she said. He knew she was right. Before 3:15 a.m., Dr. Salimah had visited the restroom twice. And at 1.am., she went back to working in the now empty laboratory. Her eyes grew heavy. As she worked, she dozed off. She had a fever as she slept, and then she woke up vomiting, but it all felt surreal as she kept on. Soon her teeth clattered, and her eyes rolled in. She went to Muzi, hovering in his room. She grew impatient, but she knew she had to make him come. He was going to join her. A young nurse entered the room, exactly past 3 in the morning and found Dr. Salimah in a pool of her vomit and blood; after this, another Doctor confirmed Muzi’s death. That same day, her father called. It was then he found out that his daughter’s disappearance was to help an Ebola infected patient, not an emergency as she had vaguely stated. The receiver on the other end couldn’t tell him what happened, that he was late in calling now, he only listened as a worried father demanded that they kept his daughter away from harm insisting she was out of her wits. He also promised that he was on his way. Soon, the medical director sat nervously facing one of the doctors from the team. The doctor explained that it was solely his daughter’s decision as a medical practitioner to do what she had done, and also since her fiancée was involved, it was understandable. Salimah’s father had not been aware of the later part and suddenly his subdued affection somehow returned and he grew worried. He asked to see the young man but they had steeled him, of what really had happened both his daughter and son-in law to be had passed on, minutes apart. He broke down like a child, rubbing his eyes, as he tried to speak about his daughter. His words came out muffled, amidst loud sobs, and those that watched thought it was a movie scene. The young nurse who discovered Salimah fought the thought of her own father weeping for her death. Dr. Salimah’s and Muzi’s burial was simple and unceremonious; no one, not even relatives, were allowed to go near their bodies. They watched from a safe distance as the bodies went up in flames. Condolences were sent from all over the country, some bearing admiration, others from families who had been through a similar plight because of the outbreak. Everyone had something to say, and different remarks were passed around. But soon after that, things grew quiet. Everyone forgot, just so the living could go on living.