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.

Let’s first live and then talk about injustice!

Blog #8: June 7, 2020

Year of the Rat, 2020! It is indeed an amazing and extraordinarily difficult year thus far. The traumatic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic with a death toll of 118,000 as of today (but who is counting anymore?), unemployment rate hitting 20% (a record high surpassing the great depression in 1932), and now the national riots.

Recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in our country have laid bare the realities of institutional racism. America is built on the principle of all people are equal, and deserve to be treated fairly and respectfully. The commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion in order to positively impact human rights and to reduce disparities are shared by most of us. We must reject injustice, violence and racism and strive to heal the division. It is powerful to see the protestors in all US major cities, calling out for justice and chanting, “Black lives matter!” And I would join the voice, “Hear, hear!”

I saw the image of a pool party in Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks over Memorial Day weekend and cringed in disgust with people not respecting social distancing and potency of the coronavirus.  Now, news has reported that some who attended the pool party have the coronavirus despite having temperature checked before getting admitted to the party.

Similar images of crowds are seen in all major cities in the US day after day, but now, the images are protesters marching, not the pleasure seekers, with or without facial masks, disrespecting social distancing. But are we not in the midst of a pandemic? Gathering without social distancing and not wearing facial masks are a real concern. It will have a negative impact on our fight against COVID-19. Resurgence due to mass gatherings of protestors are guaranteed to bring a second peak of COVID-19, and it will probably have even a worst peak with a death toll of another 118,000 people dead, all too soon.  All the good works we have done for the last two months by lockdowns caused a huge unemployment and economic depression, and these sacrifices will have no fruit in return.  This requires health care workers to sacrifice even more. We have not complained much thus far because of our commitment to take care of the sick.  

Both scenarios have people gathering without social distancing, but this time I see myself cringe for a different reason. I see the protestors take their chances and risking their own lives to come out to speak, for them it is a life and death situation. It’s either coronavirus or police brutality to lose one’s own life. And when I see the people coming together regardless of their own colors of skin, it is very powerful and moving. 

Then, I think about the what ifs. What if I was down on the street with my neck pushed down by a Caucasian policeman for almost 9 minutes when I am pleading for my dear life to breathe? What if I died instead of George Floyd? Will the nation become outraged for me? Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” The situation becomes another story. I would like the people to come out and say something to the world protesting, in spite of the pandemic. It makes the whole thing more personal. The voice of collective people saying, “This is not right, enough is enough” is comforting. 

But then there are the opportunists. The looting; why do these come together? It is absolutely wrong, no matter how one explains it.  

What about the negative impact on the protestors? Killing and injuring both sides; lives of police, firefighters, and the protestors. Both are unwelcomed downstream effects.  Is the anger the appropriate emotion to use at this time?

Emotions put aside, can we come together first in fighting a pandemic? Many people do not realize the actual effect of the virus, a silent and deadly killer of COVID-19, because they do not see the killer first hand. Some believe that the media and the government made it up. But I saw the impact on our morgue with piled-up bodies in a hospital.  The media cannot come and show what I have seen because they cannot come inside to reveal what’s really happening in the hospitals with COVID-19. 

The question really boils down to, “Is the first amendment more important than a pandemic now?”  My personal answer is both are equally important. But there should be a sequence. First, pandemic and then, the first amendment. Let’s first live and then talk about injustice!

Let’s not give the virus the upper hand to control the fate of our humanity. Let’s try to have the rest of 2020 without losing additional hundreds of thousands of lives by the virus.  

The injustice I see in this country is as familiar as a dear friend, and this does not occur only in racism, but also in gender discrimination. Crying out for justice among all races has a powerful effect, but when it comes to gender issues, more than half of the population suddenly becomes shy and quiet. As a female physician in this country, this deeply rooted gender discrimination is very evident. Yet, everyone hesitates to stand up and fight for they will soon belittle the women who spoke up for the equality in pay and opportunity, for instance. The unwelcome inequality and ignorant complacency seem to be with us, some consciously and some unconsciously. 

But whatever our differences are, can we first fight against a pandemic together? Anger leading to violence and looting is dangerous and deadly at this time. Even COVID-19 is showing injustice in racism, killing African Americans and Latinos disproportionately more than other races. There are understandably predominant populations of African Americans protesting. Spreading the virus during the protesting will have a negative impact on the African Americans who are already dying disproportionately.  Then, these people visit their elderly parents, unintentionally killing their own. 

God hates these things; violent people, haughtiness, lying, murdering, scheming, eagerness to do wrong, a false witness, stirring up discord, and proud people. (Proverbs 6:16-19)

Where is God in all these? I think God is crying now. God is saying, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4)