Chapter 4: The research

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.

Chapter 5: Panic

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. 

Courtesy of @nadi-lindsay instagram, pexels.com

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.

Courtesy Sam Willis, Instagram, pixels.com

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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