Saturday, 17 November 2012

Goldheart, Chapter 1

One day, two years ago, Billiam Stacey had been walking through an airport scanner on his way to a holiday flight to Cairns with his parents. It was to be his first airplane trip ever. Even though Billiam was only fourteen years old then, he was still very conscientious about being helpful to strangers. If he saw someone in need of a seat on his bus, he would offer it to him or her. So too in the airport, he had taken off his shoes, belt, and emptied his pockets before walking through the metal detector to spare the inconvenience of having a staff member ask him to do so.

He had set the alarm off anyway. After acquiescing to walking through again he was met with the clarion for the second time. He remembered his cheeks burning as he looked over at his parents who had already made it through the impasse. The airport official used a hand-held metal detector to scan Billiam’s entire body. It started blipping at his chest.

‘Are you wearing a necklace?’

‘No.’

Motioning to Billiam’s parents. ‘Does he have a pacemaker?’

‘No.’

‘That is okay, it must be your kid’s shirt buttons, please go through and enjoy your flight.’

After that Billiam’s parents spent much of the three hours and fifteen minute flight from Melbourne discussing the incident. They had decided to let their local doctor examine him just in case, as it had been determined that Billiam’s shirt had plastic, not metallic buttons. Furthermore, upon their insistence, Billiam removed his shirt on the plane to prove that he was not wearing jewellery there and to put to rest the less probable, but quite hopeful, suggestion by his father of him having chest hair made of steel. Billiam’s chest, in fact, was quite hairless indeed.

The doctor, in turn had given Billiam a chest X-ray. The imaging had revealed speckles of metal, white opacities, in the otherwise muted grey of a healthy-sized heart. There had only been one way to confirm the metal fragments, or so the doctor had said, which was heart biopsy. This involved open-heart surgery to extract a piece of the metal for chemical analysis.

Their doctor, as it turned out, was wrong. Billiam’s parents, and he himself, were not accepting of open-heart surgery at the bare age of fourteen. The chest invasion could wait for when Billiam was in his sixties, like most people with heart conditions tended to do. Instead, they had sought advice from a good friend of theirs, Dr Meryl Shary, who specialised in radiology, but also had an extensive rock and metalloid collection in her backyard. For in her spare time she also happened to be a geologist. It was Dr Shary who had diagnosed Billiam with a heart of gold. There was simply no other pre-existing medical term for it.

She had used special saline injections to promote the metallic properties of whatever ore was fragmented in Billiam’s heart. By trial and error, she had used fifteen different injections with no effect on Billiam. It was on the sixteenth that he experienced profound breathlessness. The electrocardiogram screen fired rapid zigzags, showing his heart had become extremely agitated. Even without the technology, it was clear that something was wrong, as Billiam’s face had turned deeply blue.

There was no antidote to Dr Shary’s injection. Billiam would have to endure until the saline cleared from his body. His lungs were heaving as his stomach lurched up and down. He was gasping for air, but his heart would not allow him to do anything with it. Stars glinted before Billiam’s eyes and he thought he was going to die. His jaw started quivering, his teeth began chattering, and his febrile body commenced shaking uncontrollably. The star shine Billiam saw became brighter than the light of the room he was in until it overwhelmed him. He body went lax, and his mind promptly fell into a suspended state of nothingness, which Dr Shary later called a coma. Billiam’s parents were stupefied at the scene before them, their faces sickly white themselves and suddenly sticky with sweat. Dr Shary was puzzled by Billiam’s response, which she was not quite expecting.

Behind Billiams’ apparently lifeless eyelids, something quite magnificent was happening in his brain. His starry vision was washed over with the brilliant white light of his coma. The saturation then faded way to reveal that he had entered a dreamlike state.

He saw that he was now sitting at the beach with his primary school friends: Lonsdale, Janice, Rockshtahl and Babylon. He was watching the waves lap against the sand. The tide was slowly reaching his sitting place. The sky was a polluted sunset, streaked with purple and orange.

In slow motion, a nuclear bomb went off on the horizon. Fragments slowly flew through the air. They were suspended in the sky, silhouetted by the mushroom cloud. A gentle breeze picked up. Beach sand began dancing around Billiam and his young friends.

The fragments grew larger. They were coming closer. Billiam was stuck in place, just sitting there, unable to move. His mouth was mysteriously sealed shut. He could not warn the others of the incoming shrapnel. Their bodies were seemingly rendered immobile as well.

Gradually the breeze began gusting. The sand was now dancing in frenzy, landing on the childrens’ bare flesh. It was violent, but it did not worry them. It felt right. Soon fragments were floating past their heads. Billiam felt no fear. He was just watching. Observing. It took a few minutes for a shard to hit one of the children. Lonsdale lost a limb. No pain, no noise: just an arm from the shoulder down blown away by a comforting force.

A kaleidoscope of metal was passing them by. Sometimes hitting, mostly missing. It looked like the iTunes visualiser. Crumb-sized slivers breezed past Billiam’s eye line with millimetres to spare. A piece the size of an airplane wing gentle caressed his hair before slamming into the ground behind him. He didn’t see it land, but felt the spray of beach sand etch its way into his back.

Each passing fragment made Billiam feel more and more at peace as he began to feel them penetrating closer to his heart. The tide had begun to lap at his feet as the nuclear cloud enveloped he and his friends.

Billiam returned to the land of the non-comatose, his eyes still closed and his body weak. Dr Shary breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the tremors of the electrocardiogram lose their magnitude.

‘He will be okay.’

‘What? He looks dead to me.’

‘Yeah, his eyes are shut. That can’t bode well.’

‘No, look.’ And Dr Shary showed to Billiam’s parents how the earthquake-like markings on the electrocardiogram screen before them had given way to something more aesthetically pleasing- with healthy-sized peaks and troughs and a lovely amount of flat line as well. Just like how it looked on the hospital television shows. It meant his heart was back in shape.

All three looked over at Billiam resting on the bed. He was indeed resting, no longer in distress. His eyes were watching the darkness behind his eyelids, but his ears were hearing everything.

‘The saline I used suggests your boy has gold in his heart.’

‘Yes, he is a good boy.’

‘Yes he is no doubt, but I mean, I can tentatively say that your son has gold shards embedded in his heart.’

‘Oh.’ And after a pause. ‘Will he be okay?’

‘I will have to discuss it with my colleagues. Do you mind if I publish my findings? Your son is a most intriguing specimen.’

‘We will talk about it with our son when he comes to.’

‘Oh, please do.’

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

MRSA Begins

In a small pocket of a medical officer’s pharyngeal stratified squamous epithelia lived a bacterium named Staphaureus. His parents had named him so after the Greek words Staphylococcus Aureus, which meant golden grapes, for that is indeed how he was born and raised. They had grown up in the persecutory temperate climate of the Barossa Valley in South Australia, which was highly conducive to growing award winning wines, but made for harrowing living conditions for bacteria who simply wanted to live their lives in peace and humidity. 

Staphaureus’ parents and their colony had fled the harsh conditions of the golden grape vine they nested on, to seek luxurious refuge in a bottle of Chardonnay instead. The winery they called home had dubious hand sanitation and equipment sterilisation practices, as tends to be the case when overworked and understaffed in peak picking season, which resulted in their safe carriage not only into the bottle of Chardonnay, but ensured their survival in the treatment process as well. Treatment often spelt demise for hundreds of millions of bacteria, but it was a risk Staphaureus’ family had been willing to take to ensure their strain’s survival. It paid off.
From there they made their way into the bustling alcoholic bottle stores across the Eastern Seaboard, all owned by a large multinational corporation who had unique ownership of selling this particular wine brand. The company’s pressure to drive the wine into the highly lucrative sub-$20 price range was one of the factors that led to the overworkedness of the winery staff in the first place. It then so happened that a young-for-his-years medical officer, whose name has no bearing on this tale, purchased the bottle, because it had fancy branding and lettering and quite frankly, he couldn’t tell the difference between the subtleties of wine flavouring anyway. All he knew was that his date for the night would enjoy the look of the bottle and that it would successfully account for at least 5 minutes of robust wine conversation, which he knew his date would appreciate after thoroughly grooming her dating profile for topics of interest to make him seem more interesting than he really was.
The night had been terrific for the medical officer. He had wowed his date with brilliant small talk and winning smiles. Their eyes were coyly darting about throughout the night, mostly skittering from the wine to one another’s hands, but occasionally meeting one another’s gaze as if by random chance- and when they did it was always electrifying for the both of them. Even when the medical officer had choked on his wine, his date laughed it off with him. He had coughed and spluttered for a good three and a half minutes (a socially acceptable amount of time to be showing physical weakness on a date), and had even noticed speckles of blood on his napkin as he caught his coughs mid-flight. A debonair swig of his topical wine was enough to allay his spluttering after the more violent coughs had subsided.
This, of course, was a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Staphaureus family and their colony as they gripped tightly to the tannins that poured out of the Chardonnay bottle into the medical officer’s wine glass. They had said their prayers to their own miniature gods that adhered to no major human religion, then rode the golden rapids down the glass, through the oral cavity and into the pharynx, which had so recently been torn and shredded at a microscopic level from the medical officer’s coughs. These bloodied micro-tears that would appear nigh visible to the human eye were like deep ravines that Staphaureus’ family fell deeply into. It is here where the true story of Staphaureus begins, for this this moment in time was indeed like the first day of his life. The first day of his new life where he was free from persecution and cold climates. His new life was in opulent surroundings. Sweet and succulent lamina propria contained all the nutrients he and his family needed to never go hungry again. Even small elastic band fibres allowed for the occasional weighted exercise training to keep him looking trim and terrific.
This peace was unlike anything Staphaureus and his strain could have dreamed of. He dusted off his favourite coagulase coat, finally having a merry reason to dress so fashionably. He met beautiful dames, plumed with their ornate Protein A jewellery, and flirted hopefully and joyfully with them in a way that only freedom from oppression allows. He even coupled up with one particularly lovely bacterium, prompting Staphaureus to change his Facebook relationship status from 'single' to 'diplococcus', which was met with many thumbs ups and likes. Yes, life was grand.
There were occasionally red or white cell adorned police officers who tried to boss Staphaureus around, but his hard life meant it would take far more than that to intimidate him. It also helped that he held black belts in ancient haemolytic martial arts that were made for breaking down such organisms into simpering puddles of tears.
Yet, for the medical officer, the tale was far less joyous. Following his successful date, he had been plagued by an abrasive cough that had turned his throat to sandpaper and transformed his voice into a sonorous music box that would have been met with thunderous applause and astonished faces were he were to have crooned a Louis Armstrong song on the latest series of Australia's Got Talent. Unfortunately, this meant he could not go to work at his hospital, as infection control was paramount. Work meant money and more importantly, saving lives, both of which were imperative in helping him score highly on the biannual doctor's work and life satisfaction survey. This was a survey his hospital took seriously. So on his boss's orders he took his perfunctory dose of antibiotics.
Nestled in the quiet enclave of the medical officer's pharyngeal stratified squamous epithelium, Staphaureus' colony were enjoying yet another day of tranquillity. They were preparing for their evening meal, which was always heralded by the wondrous rumblings emitted from the medical officer's mastication and swallowing movements. Yet this time there was no nourishing mana from the saliva. Rather there loomed a hideous army, which had circled the town. Their uniforms read 'Penicillinase-Resistant Penicillin'. Their blank faces showed menacing eyes, but limited, if any, capacity of intellect. They were mind-controlled drones only hungry for violence.
'Let us be.' Cried one of the more saged bacterium of Staphaureus' strain. 'We have lived through enough. I know there must be a shred of peace within you. I beseech you to look within yourselves to find it. We have a right to live in peace. Now leave.'
'It speaks', came the drone of the millions of gaping mouths of the penicillin soldiers in unison. 'We know not what you are, nor where you come from, but our orders are clear. Soon you will be no more. This is not personal. We simply exist to kill you all.'
'Then we will not go down without a fight', cried the old bacterium. Yet, far from being intimidated, his staunch reply was met with an endless shimmering of bloodlust grins.
The massacre was swift. Staphaureus' strain was unprepared and ill-equipped for the tactics and might of the penicillin army. As quickly as the antibiotics had arrived, they had now long departed. All that remained from the wreckage were small, orderly host cells clearing up the bacterial debris into nearby lymphatic drains and sewers.
A lumbering macrophage picked up a loose coagulase coat from the ruins, slowly yet efficiently stowing it into its cytoplasm.
From the shadows a weak voice croaked, 'That is my coat. Move on ox.'
The macrophage lurched to a stop and looked around.
The voice was stronger now. 'drop my coat and I will not hurt you.'
The macrophage, not the brightest of cells, shrugged its non-existent shoulders and continued on its way. The coat was still envaginated inside of it.
There was a rush of wind. An uppercut. Heaving and panting. More punches. The macrophage finally looked down in surprise as its cellular membrane popped, releasing its mucilaginous cytoplasm. The coagulase cloak spilled out onto the lamina propria floor.
'Now, that wasn't so hard was it.' said the unknown voice.
A lone bacterium stepped out of the shadows, into a rare ray of light that must have somehow permeated all the way from the medical officer's nostrils into his cavernous oropharynx.
The bacterium wiped the cytoplasmic ooze off his coat and effortlessly equipped it.
'Looking sharp, Staphy,' he thought to himself, for the bacterium was none other than Staphaureus. He had somehow survived the penicillin brutality. His face was ashen as he surveyed the carnage around him. His whole strain had been wiped out. He was all that remained. The only one to have lived to tell of the atrocities committed on his colony and of their legendary journey that had taken them all the way from the hellish vines of the Barossa Valley, which seemed like so long ago.
Staphaureus stood atop the destruction as heroically as any bacterium could, which is quite hard to do so without the benefit of human limbs and bulging pectorals for posing purposes.
'You will pay for this, human host. I swear to it on the millions of memories of my beloved colony. I will avenge my innocent anaerobe compatriots who were murdered here this day. Before I was simply, Staphaureus, but I'm MR Staphaureus now. MRSA. Fear my name.'