Seeding Hope Among the Ashes
Chapter 14: A Speedy Recovery and Other Advances
"What the hell are you doing here?" a familiar voice called out. "I thought the treatment took four to six days?"
Betty turned to consider Doug as he exited his vehicle. He had a companion, an older bald gentleman who apparently came along to help refill their supplies of food and water.
"Normally it does." Betty stepped away from the feeble Malcolm who was dressing. Bret stood in the open pit in front of the clinic, scrubbing off the infectious fluids coating his skin. The others were already finished. "Since I was treating two people, I decided to take a risk. Tom informed us that filtering the blood may reduce the severity of the plague symptoms. He tried it once, but no one else did for fear it might kill the patients." Betty waved her arm, indicating Bret and Malcolm. "However, as you can tell, it has tremendous results."
"Wait, you experimented on us?" Doug asked, stepping closer though maintaining his distance. The man with him, though, remained by the car. "Isn't that a little ... unethical? I mean, what would happen if you'd been wrong?"
Betty turned her hands palms up, cocking her head. "Then they'd both have died. As I said, it was a risk, but it was based on sound scientific principles. I discussed it at some length with Tom and David back home, and they based it on what they and Monique discovered in the field. Everyone was convinced it would work, but ... it was untested. Unfortunately, if my decision was a mistake, we could never develop a community here, as no one would trust our treatment again. If that happened, I would take you to Chicago with me. If you still trusted me, that is."
Still naked, his gaunt visage even more drawn due to his recent illness, Bret joined the conversation. "It worked, though. Even suffering through several additional plagues, it was difficult, but easier than my first time."
"It's true," Betty continued, proud of what she'd demonstrated and eager to brag. "Although it's impossible to filter a virus, the transfer vector is large enough to be caught. The vector cell is what allows the virus to infiltrate the cells via water absorption. By removing them from the plasma, it prevents the virus from infecting as many cells. Over time, we've refined our techniques as circumstances forced us to adapt. As a result, we can now deliver the plasma more efficiently and in lower doses. By using less, with fewer vector cells, we limit the severity of the plague our patients suffer. That provides a safety cushion. Tom tried filtering the plasma once. I filtered it twice more for Malcolm and three times for Bret who already survived one plague."
Malcolm teetered so he could contribute. "Oddly, even though she filtered the plasma less to protect me, Bret recovered quicker than I did." He paused as his unsteady legs wobbled under him a bit. Regaining his footing he continued. "Bret sailed through a full day ahead of me."
Doug waved his hands, trying to get them to slow down as he processed this information. "You're saying that by filtering the blood, you can eliminate the plagues from the treatment?"
"No, not at all," Betty replied, as Bret returned to scrubbing the last of his exposed skin. "The virus is in the plasma and thus the body will react, but by reducing the amount that's absorbed, we reduce its severity. Essentially, we're making the treatment more of an inoculation rather than a full infection. We provide just enough of the plagues to inoculate the body. Our volunteers still get sick, but they recover more quickly."
"Hold on. If filtering did all of that, then couldn't we have avoided both AIDS and Ebola by simply filtering the blood?"
Betty sighed, frustrated at explaining concepts she barely understood herself. The only prep she'd gotten was a brief radio transmission home before reaching Ohio. "Think of it this way, those diseases had time to build up their concentrations before they became serious. Here we're talking about something entirely different. The danger here isn't from the disease, but from the immune response. Ebola took weeks to build up enough to show symptoms, and AIDS took years. The Great Death shows symptoms in hours, and can kill you in days.
"By getting the filtered plasma into a patient quickly, the virus and its transfer mechanism is weak enough it won't make them as sick. And when it does gain enough strength, the immune system has already been conditioned by the plasma to respond quickly without overreacting. Is that any clearer?"
"Strangely enough, yeah. It is," Doug said, considering it.
Bret, finished scrubbing himself, stepped out of his hole and began spreading lotion on his dry skin worsened by cleansing himself with disinfectants. "It works too. Neither of us entered the problematic coma stage. We were both conscience the entire time. As a result, I recovered after two days while Malcolm only took three."
"They were not only conscious and responsive; they were talking the whole time," Betty continued. "They kept up a running commentary on how they were responding. There were no complications. I didn't have to save anyone. I didn't use the defibrillator or perform CPR once. That greatly reduces the risk of dying."
"So you made the process more effective for treating everyone?" Doug asked.
"Sadly, I don't think it will make any difference with those already infected. If someone is sick, depending on how long they've been ill, we still couldn't treat them. But for those who are healthy or who are newly exposed, the chances of survival are significantly improved."
Doug took off his ubiquitous baseball cap and wiped his brow. "Damn, if you take away the terrifying treatment, I'm even more eager to get treated."
The man with him stepped forward, speaking up for the first time. "While this sounds wonderful, just how contagious are you at this point? Am I safe where I am?"
Doug, realizing he hadn't made the necessary introductions, did so. "This is Tony. He showed up the day after you started treatment. He didn't have transportation, so he walked to our meeting place. It took him several days, camping out each night, preparing meals and restocking his supplies along the way. Tony, these are Bret, Malcolm and of course, Betty, our miracle healer."
"Don't worry." Betty waved them both forward. "We don't know whether they're any less contagious at this stage, but we've previously demonstrated that you're safe. In fact, you should be fine maintaining only a six to eight foot distance. After a patient has recovered, you're safe at only two to three feet. While we need to test how infectious they are during this new treatment, I suspect we can cut even those estimates back."
"Well, damn," Tony swore, moving closer to observe the survivors. "From what Doug told me, this should substantially speed up the recovery. If each treatment takes five full days and requires a couple weeks to recover, that limits how many you can treat. If we halve that time on both accounts, we can process a lot more people sooner."
"You're right on that account." Betty motioned for Doug to toss her some water. He smacked his head at his oversight and returned to the car for bottled water as she continued. "What's more, it's less of a strain on those performing the treatments. We've been terrified of sleeping, afraid we might not wake up when things go wrong. If we can rest more, it's not as stressful and taxing for us even as we treat more people." Doug returned and tossed a single bottle of water to the three waiting people. "Now our biggest limitation is getting the word out if we're unable to preannounce our arrival over the radio."
"Ah, that's where we ride to the rescue," Doug announced with a big smile. "I planned to search for usable solar panels to provide sustainable electricity. But given your communication problems, Tony and I decided to set up limited broadcasting instead. Tony has a background in electronics and radio transmissions. We visited the various stations around the city. By collecting the useable parts from each, we cobbled together a workable radio. Since it'll take more than a few solar panels' energy, you'll have to help us fill the broadcast center's backup generator with fuel. Once that's done, we can transmit a short message several times a day, which should easily reach as far as Chicago."
"Damn, that is good news," Betty answered, smiling as broadly as Doug. "That was my biggest worry: circumnavigating Chicago searching for enough survivors to treat. If we can alert the locals before I arrive, we can make faster progress before winter arrives."