CHAPTER 1: Hart Island March 31, 2020 It was a drizzly and cold rainy day. Samantha was sent to Hart Island for observation during the forensic pathology rotation in her third year of residency. She was dragging her feet as she was asked to report to Hart Island a day early before her rotation started on April 1. She had never been to Hart Island. She was already regretting her decision to be a pathologist, and in residency training during the pandemic with COVID-19. With her luck, her autopsy rotation in April is when the death rate is expected to have a surge. She had several choices for her autopsy rotation, and she chose the Long Island Hospital associated with the coroner’s office because her friends in residency said it was the least busy morgue and it would be easier than going to any of the other New York City morgues where the death rates were at least 10 times higher. This estimate was during the non-pandemic time. If she had a choice to switch her rotation schedule now, she would jump on it in a heartbeat, but the schedule was done in June of 2019 for the entire year. No one in her class would switch their autopsy rotation with her during the pandemic. Who would have guessed last year that in April 2020 there would be a surge in death rates due to a pandemic in the US? The boat ride was only three miles, crossing under the Pelham Bay Park Bridge and the City Island Bridge, but it felt an eternity. The boat she took had only five other people, and the captain. They all appeared to be physically fit, rough looking men. She felt out of place. The boat was open without any roof to avoid dreadful rain, so she stood the entire time holding on to her parka hood over her head. Her hands were getting so numb with cold even though she had gloves on. It was dreadful to even think to sit on the cold and wet iron seats in the boat. She had no idea who these men were in the boat with her. They were watching her uncomfortably, likely wondering why an attractive young female was going to Potter’s field, a burial site. That was the same question Samantha had in her mind as she rode in a run-down old peeling-green colored boat with rough looking guys who are probably going there to dig burial sites. Why did she have to go there when she signed up to attend the Long Island Hospital coroner’s office? What would she learn about autopsy there? Would she have a decent and safe place to stay? Where would she stay; in a decrepit old prison? Would she be able to meet her attending doctor from Long Island Hospital? Who in their right mind would ask a pathology resident to join them at Hart Island for training? In fact, no one should do autopsies on the dead due to COVID-19. Why a week there? Why did they summon her a day earlier? No one in her residency could help prepare her or answer her questions because no one had ever gone to Hart Island for an autopsy rotation. The assignment was given to her a day before by her hospital in the Bronx, New York, her home hospital. Let’s just hope that it will be just one week, she thought. The fog grew more dense as they approached Hart Island. The men around her became more and more apprehensive as they were approaching the port, but they seemed to know what to do. The ropes were pulled to tie the boat. They were moving rapidly as the captain carefully parked the boat. Samantha felt her chest getting tense as one of the men extended his hairy hand to her so she could jump onto land. She took it. The boat was bobbing as she took a faithful jump at least three feet away to land. She grunted as she safely landed on the grass. Thank God she only had a lightweight duffle bag. A disappointment settled in as no one was around the port to greet her. It appeared to be an empty grass field for miles with eerie sound of wind blowing. Most of the shoreline was black rocky cliffs. No one else was there and no other boats were parked around the island. It was not a tourist destination by any means. She could make out some faint building structures in the midst of the fog. Everything looked dark and gloomy. Sad feelings arose from the entire island, as if all those buried bodies were crying. It was matching the history of Hart Island, 45 acres, a mile-long island which took bodies of people with no known next of kin since 1869. Back in that time, the people with tuberculosis were forced to live there as infection spread in New York City. The tuberculosis cases were rampant and afflicted one in seven Americans. The New York City government bought the island and built a few rehabilitation places for the people who were exiled from the city due to their diseases. This remote island was a perfect place to separate the diseased people for quarantine. No family or friends were allowed to visit. They faced lonely deaths and were buried there without funeral services. In fact, no one knew when they were dead. The diseased bodies from tuberculosis were buried on the northern tip of the island. In 1985, the AIDS epidemic drove the funeral homes to close their doors to those who died of the disease. The island buried the bodies stricken with AIDS, and most likely became the single largest burial ground in the country for people with AIDS. They were buried in the middle section of the island. Now, the island was being used to bury the COVID-19 infected corpses. The cemetery was now controlled by the Department of Corrections. The city began to hire contract workers, who along with the inmates buried the dead as more bodies piled in from the city in refrigerated trucks. The workers dug several large linear holes, 12 feet deep, for the COVID-19 inflicted dead bodies on the southern part of the island. The whole island had been used as a common public burial ground for more than 150 years, containing more than one million unclaimed bodies. Samantha was walking toward the faintly visible building structures without knowing exactly where she was going. Men from the boat were also walking toward the buildings. No one talked. No one asked her where she was going. The wind swept and the cold rain blew in all directions as she tried to catch up with the men. There was no point opening up the umbrella as the cold rain was painfully hitting her face, fogging up her glasses. There appeared nothing to ensure hot meals as she was approaching the crumbling buildings. She regretted not packing at least a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. In front of the building site, a signpost stood with the inscription: POTTER’S FIELD. RESTRICTED AREA. At this point, she could not tell whether she was entering into the prison or a cremation memorial service center. She was merely following men. She did not know the exact purpose of their trip to Hart Island, but surely, it was for a different purpose from hers. They all entered into the white painted door with another sign, RISTRICTED AREA. In front was a desk attended by a uniformed male guard or policeman; Samantha could not decipher. “Can I help you?” asked the guard. “We are from Gabby construction in the Bronx. I am John, he is Brad, that guy over there is Scott and that punk on this side is Ted.” All eyes went to the punk and some chuckled. “Ok. We were expecting you. You can go next door here and get yourself a hazmat suit. Change your clothes and you will be given a locker to put your belongings. Then someone there will tell you where to go.” Then the guard looked at Samantha momentarily hidden by bulky men. “What about you? What are you doing here?” the guard said. “Uhm, I am, I am here to, to meet Dr. Falkner?” Samantha said timidly. All the guys were still there, hanging around to see Samantha as they were curious to see what this girl was all about. “Oh, yeah, I heard about you. He is not here yet. You can sit there and wait for him.” The guard was pointing his finger at the chair at the end of his desk. Samantha moved toward the chair to sit, when Ted, the punk said, “Who is Dr. Fucker? What is she up to? Is she digging the graves with us?” “Hey guys, move and mind your own business,” the guard said, pointing to the next door where they should be going. Reluctantly, the guys started to move and opening the door, looking back at Samantha, obviously not satisfied to know why she was there. The door finally closed, and all the men went somewhere else where Samantha could not follow any longer. The room became uncomfortably quiet. The guard was staring at the computer monitor and avoided eye contact with Samantha. She wanted to ask a million questions but decided to be quiet for a while. A clock on the wall sounded louder as the room became eerily quiet. She looked at the guard hoping to find a friendly gesture or eye contact at least, but to no avail. He was just looking at his computer. “Do you know when Dr. Falkner is coming to meet me here?” she mustered some courage and asked. “He should be here soon. I thought he is coming with you. Next boat is due in about an hour or so.” “Do you know what I am supposed to do here?” “You tell me. Your guess is good as mine.” Samantha was hoping he would divulge more information, but it was hard to get anything out of him. She wanted to know so many things; did he ever meet Dr. Falkner? What is he like? Does he come here often? Did any pathology resident come here last month with Dr. Falkner? Where is she going to stay for a week? Is she able to commute back and forth from her apartment in the Bronx? Are there boats coming and going and if so, how frequently? When is her next meal? Was she supposed to dig burial sites as those construction guys? Are they staying on this island for a while or are they commuting back and forth? She regretted not asking all these inquiries before she came here. The instruction she received a day before just said that she was to report at the Bronx port to catch a boat at 10: 00 am and meet Dr. Falkner, a medical examiner on Hart Island. Room and Board were to be provided for a week. She realized there was no ticket to board the boat. She did not see those construction guys paying for the ticket either. She sat there twiddling her thumbs and regretting not bringing a book or journal article to read. The rain was hitting the window next to her very hard now. She was glad that she was not riding in the boat now. She could not see anything through the window. It should face toward the water and she could not make out anything. It would be the longest hour she would ever experience in waiting.”
— COVID-19: Gripping novel inspired by real events (The Unseen Doctor Book 1) by Sophia K. Apple
Samantha took her cell phone out from her purse and looked at it. It had no cell coverage, and no Wi-Fi. She immediately looked at the guard to ask if there was a Wi-Fi connection, but she refrained. She was not sure why she was refraining to ask the question. She got up from the chair and walked around the office to gather any information she could muster. But there were no signs, posted notes, advertisements of any sort, pictures of anyone, nor even graffiti on the walls. Just old peeling yellowish-white walls. As she was walking around, the guard looked at her briefly but did not say anything.
“How long have you been working here?” Samantha tried to make small talk.
“Are you staying here for a week?” the guard asked her without answering her question.
“Yes, do you know where I am supposed to stay?” she asked firmly.
“Not sure, but probably the prison. That’s the only building with any accommodation and food around here. It’s probably the safest place…unless you want to be with the dead bodies.”
What a pleasant thought—to be with the dead bodies. But come to think of it, the dead cannot hurt her. It is the living who can hurt her. It was also dreadful to think she might have to stay in a prison cell for a week with all the male criminals. She was now imagining the worst; iron bars, being locked inside a cell with only a toilet and a lousy bed with a thin wool brown blanket. All the inmates howling and making sounds to haunt her with their insatiable desires to have long overdue sex with a woman. Indeed, she was doomed. She thought about her parents. If they knew where she was now, they would say, “Forget about the residency and get out of there!” She was the only child from a long journey of infertility problems. They had her when her mother was 42, after many episodes of miscarriages, artificial inseminations, numerous attempts for ova preservations, and even embryo adoption surrogacy. Luckily and finally, Samantha was born on their final try. They were going through the adoption application process when her mother found out she was pregnant with triplets. The other two embryos didn’t make it past the first trimester.
Samantha was deep in her thoughts, contemplating to quit the residency, when the door opened and a tall man walked in, folding a black umbrella. He was drenched with rain, and water was dripping from his long, tan, London Fog raincoat. “It’s horrible out there!” the man said.
“Hello, there, Dr. Falkner,” the guard said.
“Is this the resident from the Bronx?” Dr. Falkner asked, looking at Samantha.
“I am Samantha Parker, the resident.” She extended her right hand to greet Dr. Falkner, still disappointed to be referred to as the resident.
“We don’t shake hands during the pandemic,” he said to her rather coldly. “Did you tell her where she is to reside?” Dr. Falkner asked the guard.
“I don’t know, Doc. You tell me. Is she staying at the prison?” the guard said.
“Well, it is a bit complicated. I thought the resident is a guy. We have a problem now.”
They were talking as if Samantha was not there. She went back to thinking how this whole thing was a big mistake. What could she do to get out of this quickly and get back to her apartment? They were speaking to each other in indistinct voices, and Samantha looked around to the window to avoid their eye contact.
“Well, it is what it is,” Dr. Falkner said, “Follow me, I will show you where you are settling in for a while. Your assignment is to help me in the morgue for a week.”
Samantha quickly put away her cell phone in her purse, picked up her duffle bag and umbrella, and followed Dr. Falkner.
The cold rain was now pouring, adding to her misery. She did not have enough time to cover her head with her hood or open her umbrella. Asphalt quickly dissipated, followed by a gravel road, and then mud as they walked. Samantha had to almost jog to keep up with the tall man as his long legs moved with ease at mere walking speed, his black umbrella bouncing by the wind. As she was walking, she saw a searing and grim scene. At least two large trenches had been dug. Inside were cheap coffins stacked at least three piles deep, and two coffins in length per trench. One trench was completely dug, and the other trench was half completed. A third of the completely dug trench had cheap coffins. Black, wet soil was running down into the trench, covering part of the tops of the coffins. Mud around the perimeter was at least knee high. About ten feet away were several run-down brick buildings, all painted in a faint reddish-orange color without many windows. She followed Dr. Falkner as he entered one of the unmarked buildings.
“This is where you are going to stay for a week. Over here is the morgue where you and I will work during the day, and over there is lodging for you. There is a shower, and a studio with a bed and a small kitchen. You will find some food in the refrigerator there. The building is connected to the prison,” Dr. Falkner said pointing to the places.
“Where are you staying?”
“I am not staying here. I will be commuting from Long Island. I will be coming with bodies in a boat everyday about this time. The problem is, I was staying here when I could not catch the boat back but since you are a girl, I cannot stay here.”
Samantha now understood why she was problematic for him. “What will we be doing in the morgue?”
“We will be doing a partial autopsy. Other than that, we will count, identify and tag the bodies. We will be documenting the names, the origin of the hospital the bodies came from, and cataloging the specifics of the dead, among other things. Your job is to help me. Like any other day, I came with a lot of bodies from New York City today and we have our work cut out for us. Get yourself together, change and come out. You will need to gear up to protect yourself. I will meet you here in five minutes.”
Samantha quickly went into the studio, which was attached to the morgue merely by one door. It looked rather gloomy with just bare essentials; a twin-size bed, a small desk, a rotary phone, not really a kitchen, but a two-coiled electric stove on a kitchen table, and a small refrigerator with a freezer on top. She did not have the time to open it to see what was inside there. She put her belongings on top of the bed. She saw that she had a lock from inside the door, which made her feel somewhat relieved. She quickly left to gear up.
Dr. Falkner was almost done putting on his space jumpsuit gown, attached by a tube sticking out toward the back, and a N95 mask, bonnet, face shield, shoe covers, and double gloves. He looked like a person who was about to walk on the moon.
“Hurry, get on with it now! The bodies are coming in,” he urged, looking at an unprepared Samantha.
She was frantically trying to figure out what to wear first. She had some experience putting on a surgical gown when she was a medical student in her surgery rotation, but not to the extent of what Dr. Falkner was wearing with all the additional personal protective equipment (PPE). She never had an opportunity to wear a space jumpsuit gown with a tube coming out of the back. During her training, she did many of the monkey see and monkey do procedures. Unfortunately, there wasn’t really time to explain things and give proper instructions in medical training. She was quickly observing how Dr. Falkner was geared up and tried to replicate it as quickly as possible.
“Does this morgue place have negative pressure?” Samantha asked hesitantly, and then immediately regretted asking the question since the building looked so old, and rather obvious it did not have a negative pressure facility.
“No, can’t you see it was built in the 1920s, maybe in the 1890s, who knows?” he shouted out to her, rather irritated at the question.
Luckily, the extent of anger from Dr. Falkner was somewhat muffled and barely audible due to the mask and face shield. In fact, his body language such as eye signals, creases of the eyebrows and smiles were not possible to see through the protective gear. Samantha was already sweating, and her glasses fogged up every time she took a breath.
She was barely putting on her gloves when suddenly a garage-like door opened from the opposite side of the morgue with a loud creaking sound, jolting her. She had no idea that there was another door to the morgue. Two men in black hazmat suits and facial masks came in with a dead body on a gurney. The body was wrapped in a white plastic bag tied with ropes around the neck, mid-body and the feet in order to carry it.
“Put it on the table here! And put the rest of them in the drawers as usual,” Dr. Falkner ordered them.
He was pointing to a typical morgue table made of stainless steel with a running water faucet at one end. Adjacent to the table were the usual tools for autopsy; several scalpels, a ruler, different types of scissors, formalin glass, plastic jar containers, forceps, a large stainless-steel bucket to weigh the organs, a scale, and an electric saw to open the skull. She also noted several aseptically prepared plastic bags containing long automatic, spring-loaded needles. They consisted of an inner needle connected to a trough, or shallow receptacle, covered by a sheath and attached to a spring-loaded mechanism normally used by interventional radiologists.
The two men grunted as they put the body on the morgue table. The body appeared heavy not just due to dead weight, but obesity. The plastic bag was stretched fully, barely covering the body with the zipper almost torn away. Dr. Falkner waited and looked to make sure Samantha was fully covered and protected with her gear.
“Are you ready?” he asked, “Open it!”
Samantha hesitated. She looked at Dr. Falkner to see if he was joking. He was not. She knew part of the job in her pathology residency training was to perform the autopsy. But this was not just an autopsy—it was a COVID-19 case. In fact, all of the bodies the men were bringing in and stacking up were all COVID-19 cases. Soon the room would be full of COVID-19 dead bodies. She couldn’t imagine that she would be opening all the bodies from the plastic bags and doing the things Dr. Falkner expected her to do. What did he say? Counting, identifying, tagging, documenting the names and the origin of the hospital and cataloging the specifics of the dead? Samantha was gifted in remembering and memorizing things, but she was not sure whether those were the only things Dr. Falkner said.
As she was trying to untie the ropes around the head of the dead body, the two men came back again with another body on a gurney behind Dr. Falkner. They were doing their own work without paying too much attention to the two doctors all suited up as if they were used to their routine jobs. They did not look like the construction workers Samantha traveled with on the boat, although it was very difficult to tell who was who, with masks covering most of their faces. The ropes and the plastic bag were soaking wet from the rain and it was difficult for her to untie the rope.
As she finally pulled the rope around the neck toward her, the head moved in her direction. She wanted to scream.
She had heard the horror stories from her friends who had done autopsy rotations before her, so she was somewhat prepared to face this. However, when she actually touched the dead body through the plastic bag, she was very tense, scared to death and horrified.
Dr. Falkner looked at Samantha and was disgusted. He took over and untied the ropes himself. Then he unzipped the plastic bag. The head of the dead was revealed. It was a morbidly obese Caucasian male. Big fat face, gray, thin unwashed curly hair all tangled up, eyes closed, mouth biting the cut-out ventilator tube and the thick, hardly recognizable neck due to fatty tissue all around.
As Dr. Falkner unzipped the bag all the way to the toes, Samantha recognized there were pink fluids under the shoulder and the side of the body where she was standing. The body was clothed in a hospital gown with spotty wet areas. She could not tell whether it was water from the rain or body fluid. A cut urinary catheter was attached to his penis. The right toe had a toe tag with his name, birth date and a medical record number.
“Now I want you to take the plastic bag out, but very carefully. Make sure the fluid does not get on you,” Dr. Falkner said to her. “On my count of three, you’ll need to pull the bag away. Got it?”
As soon as he said that, he was already moving the dead body toward him by grabbing the arm of the dead from Samantha’s side with the intravenous (IV) needle still stuck in the arm with blue tape, rotating and lifting the body as if he was hugging the body. Rigor mortis had already set in the body, and it was turning toward Dr. Falkner as he moved it. Samantha grabbed hold of the plastic bag and pulled it toward her, hoping not to spill the pink fluid collection on her jumpsuit.
Dr. Falkner grunted, “Now pull…pull!” but Samantha could not get a firm grip on the other side of the plastic zipper to pull the bag out.
“Oh, shit! I need a guy resident!” he was frustrated, putting the body back into the supine position. He stood there for a minute, then asked one of the men who was transporting the bodies to help. Samantha moved to one side, letting the other guy to come over and take her place.
“I am not going to do that Doc!” the man responded. “You guys are all geared up, and I’m just wearing this piece of shit—what do you call this? Hazmat suit? No way, José! You think an inmate like me has no value? I am not dying with the virus!”
Samantha was shocked to hear that those men were inmates. She knew Hart Island had a correctional facility, a prison, but she didn’t make the obvious connection that it was the inmates who were working to move the bodies and digging the mass graves on this island.
“All right, all right!” Dr. Falkner said. “Get back here! We are going to do this slowly. What was your name?”
“Yeah, Samantha, Sam. I am going to call you Sam. You are going to pull the bag out on my count of three. Ready?”
Samantha got closer to the body and this time she was grabbing the bag on two sides, one from the head and the other from the mid-body.
“Okay. One, two, three!”
She pulled the bag out, and the pink fluid spilled all over her arms and on Dr. Falkner’s abdomen and pelvic area.
“Shit!” he said letting the fluid drip all the way down to his foot. “Fucking fat people!” he added. The plastic bag was pulled only partially; a job halfway done.
“One more time, Sam. Ready? One, two, three!” Samantha managed to successfully pull the plastic bag all the way to the groin area, of course spilling some more of the pink fluid on the floor.
“Okay, good, the rest is easy,” he said, while he was putting the body back on the table. He walked around toward the feet of the body and pulled off the plastic bag.
“Don’t worry, the serosanguinous fluid won’t penetrate through your jumpsuit. It is air and liquid tight.”
Oh no, it is serosanguinous fluid, Samantha thought. It was most likely contagious then, as it would be filled with the COVID-19 virus. In fact, it could be in highly concentrated form.
“Wait a minute, Dr. Falkner. I am not ready to do this,” Samantha said.
There was a moment of silence after that. He looked at her intensely through his face shield and waited for her to say something more.
“I am not ready to do this. I know I am supposed to go to a morgue for autopsy rotation for a month but this is not what I expected,” Samantha said mustering up her courage. She was in fact very upset with the current situation. She did not sign up to be a physician, a pathologist when she had to put her life in danger by taking the risk of getting infected with COVID-19.
“You think I like this?” Dr. Falkner responded angrily. “Who the hell do you think you are? We are in this shit now, and even I have no choice. We have to bury these bodies as fast as we can before they become more infectious. God knows what would happen if the bodies get blown up with intestinal bacteria and aerosolize all over the world.” He paused for a few seconds, then continued, “You are doing a service to this world, and to New York City. Now, get back to work!” He was shouting by this point, and even startled some inmates.
Samantha wasn’t sure what she did afterward. They were very quietly doing the work. She cut open the hospital gown using scissors, and inscribed the weight, characteristics of the dead body, name, age, gender, and race onto a piece of paper Dr. Falkner provided. It was difficult to find the name of the hospital where the body came from. There was no time to pull the IV line from the dead man’s arm or intubation tube out of his mouth as they struggled to place the body into a coffin. The inmates had brought in a cheap, light colored wood coffin. One of the jobs for Samantha was to write the name of the dead in large letters using a magic marker on all sides and the top of the coffin.
“There are 22 more coming, Doc!” one of the inmates called out.
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It was one of the most exhausting days, Samantha thought. They had not eaten the whole time. It was hard to take a break and eat because the physical protective gear was difficult to get on and off. Also, all their gear must be so expensive to stock since everything is meant for a onetime use and then thrown away. Samantha had to be mindful of every step she took, like touching her face to scratch it. Eating felt foreign to her. The last meal she had was a dinner the night before, and she hardly had an appetite since she was worried about the unknowns in the day ahead of her. If only she had a good meal, she thought. She was almost fainting due to hunger, and her stomach made constant noises. She could also hear Dr. Falkner’s stomach growling across the table. The living have to eat to live, she thought.
They did not talk much throughout the day except for the commands he had to make for her to jot down the results. The inmates took the bodies in the caskets away after she wrote the names of the dead on the coffins. Around 4:00 pm, they both carefully removed their jumpsuits without touching any part of the body, especially their face. Samantha watched how Dr. Falkner undressed first, and then she did the exact same. It was rather hard to get the jumpsuit off of her because she was soaking wet with sweat. The airtight jumpsuit and N95 mask made her body sweat an embarrassing amount. She recognized how heavy everything was when she was finally free of the extra weight from the gear. They put all the used gear in the red biohazard garbage can. He washed his arms first, as there was only one clean sink in the morgue.
“You should have changed into scrubs,” he said, noting that Samantha was still wearing her street clothes. She did not even have time to change into scrubs before they started. Typical male doctors, she thought. They never tell the critical information to others. She didn’t even know where the scrubs were kept. She felt filthy in her own sweat and angry, which made her even more hot.
“You should take a shower first,” he said, probably noticing her sweat.
She did not hesitate. She went into the studio, locked the door behind her, took off her clothes and put them into the garbage basket in the kitchen. She did not want to even keep her clothes. She went into the shower without checking to see if there was even a towel to dry off with or soap available. She just wanted to get all the germs off. To her surprise, there was a big soap bar, shampoo, and several towels. It took a while to get the hot water, but she just stood there happy to be under the water spray, even if it was cold. She felt violated against her wish to be there. She began to cry while the hot water was hitting her face, and soon the crying led to sobbing. She could not control herself. She thought about all those people who died with the disease, and no one claiming the bodies for proper funerals. How futile life was…people were dying left and right regardless of their age, young and old alike, and she lamented for the futility in life and the miserable condition she was facing with such an unfriendly attending doctor.
Self-pity usually leads to a downhill spiral and lands in depression.
She was angry. She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to go back to her apartment. She felt trapped. She got out of the shower and couldn’t wait to confront the nasty doctor with all the questions she formulated in the shower. She wrapped herself with a big white towel and began digging through her duffle bag. She had packed lightly for five days; underwear, socks, some thin sweaters and a pair of jeans. She was putting her bra and underwear on when she remembered seeing some scrubs and a large dirty linen hamper in the bathroom. She went back into the bathroom and got the ugly green-colored scrubs. Of course, they were all large size, probably for Dr. Falkner. She wore the scrubs anyway because she did not want to contaminate any more of her own clothes and have to throw them out in the trash. She smelled like a man, thanks to the Irish Spring deodorant soap and cheap men’s dandruff shampoo. Samantha walked out, opening the door with such a force that it made a loud noise. She was ready to confront the doctor.
“I am taking a shower too!” he said, coming in without her permission before she could say anything to him.
She had her bras and underwear all spread out on the bed. She didn’t think that he would come in to take a shower. He didn’t care that she was staring at him, flabbergasted as he went into the bathroom and ran the shower water.
“Open the refrigerator and make some sandwiches! There is a rotisserie chicken and bread!” he shouted.
What a gut he had to command her to cook for him, Samantha thought.
But she was starving, so she did as he commanded. There was even a microwave oven she used to heat the chicken. She normally did not eat like this. Her parents brought her up like a princess, but there was no time to complain about the food. She found some paper dishes and bottled water. Dr. Falkner came out, dressed in new scrubs, and sat on the only chair at the table. Samantha grabbed her sandwich and sat on the bed, moving her duffle bag to the other side of the bed. They ate the dry sandwiches quietly.
“I have some wine; do you want some?” he asked.
“No, thank you.”
“Hey, I am sorry. I think the whole thing sucks too.” There was silence for a while.
He got up and found a wine bottle from the kitchen drawer. He poured red wine into a paper cup and sipped it.
“Hey, I am a bit worried about you staying here at night,” Dr. Falkner began. “The inmates will be locked in after 5:00 pm. The only people who are free to walk around after that are the prison wardens. I do not like the idea that you are here alone. They might have a key to this room. I don’t know.”
Oh great, Samantha thought.
“The last resident was a guy from a Brooklyn hospital, and he stayed for a week and nothing happened. You must input all the data of the dead into my laptop at night. You can even start writing the manuscript. The problem is there is only one boat going back to Long Island around 5:30 pm, and they don’t wait around for me. One time I missed the boat, and I slept here with the resident. Do you live on Long Island?” Dr. Falkner asked.
“No, I live in the Bronx,” Samantha replied.
“Yeah, that’s the problem. Do you want to go back to Long Island and catch the train to the Bronx?”
“Why do I have to stay here? I don’t understand.”
“Well, it is not a regular ferry that comes to this island. I have to arrange every trip here, and there is no boat that could come back and forth from the Bronx unless they pick up the contractor guys to help out with the digging. And that’s not every day.”
Samantha didn’t respond. She again felt trapped. What could she do?
“Where do those contractor guys stay?” she asked.
“Not sure. I think they go back, but much earlier than when we are done,” he said. “Hey, thanks for helping me, but there is one more thing I need to tell you. I need to do a partial autopsy and get some samples from the lungs, heart and other organs. I need a young subject, male and female, an infant, and a skinny person in their 40s. Today, I did not get any ideal subjects. I am doing research on the different types of people who die from COVID-19. You will be helping me to procure these samples. You can be a co-author of the study if you want. I need this to get a promotion this year.”
“Is that what you care about, a promotion?” Samantha was in shock. She noticed Dr. Falkner kept calling her “hey.” He probably forgot her name—co-author’s name.
“Yeah, a promotion. I have just this year to get promoted. I already burned eight years as an assistant professor but did not get enough papers published to get the promotion. Otherwise I will be kicked out from my academic place, and then who knows where I will end up getting a job. I want the Chief Deputy Coroner job in Long Island and need to publish so I can replace that bitch. I bought a house on Long Island and have an 18-month-old son and a wife to support, and I do not want to move to New York City for a new job. Can you imagine being in New York City now? I would kill me doing the medical examiner’s job.”
“I will stay here tonight. Why don’t you go? You will miss the 5:30 boat.” Samantha said, disgusted at him.
The Long Island Medical Examiner’s job would be easier than the New York City Medical Examiner’s job, and she could understand that he has a responsibility to support his family, but to jeopardize his life and hers to publish an academic article for his promotion? And eventually get a position he wants by pushing out some woman? He was rather selective in picking his sample subjects. Is he targeting an epidemiology study by doing that?
What a stupid idea, she thought. She didn’t want to see his sight even though he had beautiful, mesmerizing blue eyes, while he was eating his sandwich like a pig.
“Just give me your laptop and tell me what to do.” Samantha said irritably.
“Okay. I just want you to know there is no cell tower or Wi-Fi unless you go to the prison where the wardens stay. There is only one area you can go in the prison to get a connection, and I do not recommend you venture out there tonight. They have a cafeteria, but it’s a lousy one. If you have a cell phone, forget about calling. There is a phone here—you have to dial 9 first to call out. The prison wardens have to connect your call to the outside, and they might listen to your conversation, so be careful what you say.”
He packed his belongings quickly and instructed her to input all the data into his laptop computer. He already had many columns of data in his excel sheet, dating back from late February 2020. The numbers of the dead were steadily increasing by the day.
“Do you want me to call anyone for you once I get to Long Island? Your parents, a boyfriend?”
“No, they know where I am,” she lied.
“Well, you still have some same food left over, as you saw. There are some instant cup noodles in that kitchen drawer. I will get something else tomorrow. What do you want to eat?” Samantha could not think fast enough. The whole thing was so surreal and hard to digest, let alone decide what to eat the next day.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Okay, I will get something. Oh yeah, clean up here and make sure the garbage bags are all out there near the garage door tomorrow morning, including the scrubs,” he instructed, and left, closing all the doors tightly from the outside.
Samantha could not believe he actually just took off. “Bastard!” she said out loud. She looked around and saw that there were still a few bodies left in the morgue they had not finished with. The morgue was not refrigerated, and the bodies would decompose. Samantha went into the studio and locked the door behind her. She sat and stared at the empty paper dishes Dr. Falkner left on the table. She was not sure how she could fall asleep here, all alone in such a strange place. This was a nightmare! Who could imagine what she was going through?
She moved the kitchen table and the chair against the doorknob to block the entry way from outside. She couldn’t get over how insensitive Dr. Falkner was being, not knowing if the prison wardens had a key to the studio. This must have been his temporary place until he finished his autopsy research project. She figured all the items in here must be his own stuff that he brought in. Samantha untied and flipped over her large scrub pants to see the inscription, LONG ISLAND CORONER.
Of course, it is his!
She was eating his food, wearing his scrubs, using his towels and soaps. It creeped her out to be borrowing his stuff. This was classic. Medical professionals never tell residents the details they need to hear, even what to bring for survival. Wouldn’t it be helpful to tell residents what to expect, what we need, where it is, and what the accommodations would be?
She thought about the guard who she met earlier that day. He must have been a prison warden. He saw her and asked her where she was going to stay. He could probably find out where she is now. She wondered how many prisoners and wardens were on this island.
Samantha got up quickly and moved the kitchen table and chair away from the door. She had to secure the garage door and the entry door from inside of the morgue better. She went out of the studio and picked up some ropes to tie the garage door. There was a loop in the middle of the garage door, but the rope was not long, unable to attach to the side of the door where a piece of iron was sticking out. She connected a few ropes and tied them together to make one long rope. She secured the rope, securing the garage door to prevent it from being opened from the outside. She then moved the morgue table to the other door she and Dr. Falkner had entered through and pushed it against the doorknob.
It did not look too secure. Someone could easily push the door open from the outside. There wasn’t any way to lock it from the inside, so she opened the door again to see if there was a key lock from the outside. There wasn’t one, so she rearranged the morgue table again. Samantha looked around to see what else she could use to help secure the door shut.
There was not much except for the dead bodies, and there was no way she was going to move the bodies.
She could not believe she was actually amongst the dead. In fact, there were more dead bodies than alive ones on the island. She reminded herself that the dead could not hurt her, except what if the virus was seeping out of the bags and being emitted into the air?
She ran into the studio, locked the door, and pushed the chair and table against the door again. She was breathing hard. The green scrub pants were covering her sneakers and dragging along on the floor, so she changed her scrub pants again, and folded up the bottom to fit her leg length.
She sat on the bed and took out her cell phone, only to notice she had no cell coverage or Wi-Fi connection. She wanted to call Ed Liu, her boyfriend. He should arrive to the CDC in Atlanta by now. He was going there to join the folks in the infectious division to travel to Wuhan, China, to investigate the origin of the virus.
Samantha and Ed met in college at Cornell and maintained a relationship, even though they were diverging in their career paths. She went to medical school, and he joined the Army ROTC as they paid for his college tuition, then attended a PhD program in DC to be a scientist in bioweapons.
I will worry him sick tonight, she thought. They contacted each other regularly, especially when she was changing rotations.
Samantha scrolled through the contact list on her cell phone. She thought about using the rotary phone to contact her parents. They were traveling and having the time of their lives on a cruise celebrating their 50th anniversary.
They left a month ago for the Mediterranean, and the entire trip was about two months. Samantha had been anxious about their trip from the beginning, but her parents were adamant that they would be fine. When they left on the cruise in late February, the virus was not defined as a pandemic yet. It was on March 11th, 2020 when the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The cell coverage for them was spotty, and her parents usually called her when they landed somewhere while touring. Besides, she could not tell them where she is now as they would worry sick. It would be even harder for them to understand why she was here at Hart Island. They were not happy that she became a doctor, anyway.
Samantha wanted to talk to Dr. Wells, her resident director, to update him about what was going on, but there was no way to contact him as she did not have his direct phone number. This experience here on Hart Island was so upsetting. It was absolutely inappropriate to put any resident here, exposing them to the deadly virus for the sake of a stupid doctor, or whoever it is for a stupid research project. Samantha planned to report this abuse to her residency director the next day and go back to the Bronx by catching the boat with the contractor guys. She was fuming in anger the more she thought about her conditions. She was ready to attack Dr. Falkner and even take his medical license away for abusing the trainee. She would also contact the resident union representative in New York City to report this doctor.
After contemplating many tactics of revenge against Dr. Falkner, she looked at his laptop and input the data she wrote on the paper that day. She had nothing else to do that night. She looked into other files on the laptop and saw that he had begun the manuscript; explaining the methodology, an introduction regarding the COVID-19 infection, and his findings of how people died with it. She had to admit; it was a very interesting article that he was writing. It was methodical, and well written.
She couldn’t believe how he could write so well with full details but cannot communicate with her the same way.
In a separate file, he had his family photos. She saw what appeared to be his house, his wife and his son. His wife was beautiful, blonde, just like him. Samantha felt like she was intruding into his personal life, but the more she looked at the personal photos, the more interested she became about Dr. Falkner. Her anger subsided, and the desires to get him into trouble were dissolving.
She got hungry as the night deepened. A small window next to the kitchen was still dripping with the rain. She found the cup of instant noodles Dr. Falkner told her about and ate it. It was getting cold, so it was nice to eat something hot. Samantha wore her parka hood and wrapped her body inside the bed. She wondered if the sheets and blanket were clean and if Dr. Falkner or the previous resident had slept there, but she was too tired to change the sheets and she didn’t even know if there was a clean sheet for her to use.
She still smelled the Irish men’s soap but could not tell if it was coming from her or from his blanket.
Samantha fell asleep in an infant position with her parka overcoat and blanket warming her head and body. She dreamed about the heavy, dead body falling onto her in the middle of the night.
It startled her awake, so she got up and sat on the bed. The bedside light next to her was still on, illuminating the studio, so she turned it off. She looked at the window for a while, making sure no one was coming, then she went back to sleep.
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