This story is dedicated to Sarah Freeman. Thanks for the idea and the name :)
The shuttle was very crowded, as usual. I had parked my car and hopped aboard the shuttle that would take me from the designated parking lot to work a few minutes ago, and mentally transitioned to work-mode. The shuttle pulled up to the curb, and a stream of people flowed from the doors into the building complex.
I walked purposefully through the hallways, focusing on the sound my white lab-coat made in an effort to avoid being sucked back in time to when I walked the hallways of this very hospital not to get to work, but to visit my best friend. I had come a long way from the starry eyed college girl I had been when Batten Disease finally claimed him, and I was now working in a research lab hidden in the bowels of the large hospital complex. Although I was not so into the science field when I started college, losing my best friend changed me. For the better, I hoped.
As I reached the lab, I took a deep breath, clearing my mind from the past. I had to focus on the present and the future now. I swiped my badge and pushed the door open.
“Good morning!” I called out as I entered the lab.
A few people looked up, and some waved or nodded. I walked straight to the little break-room tucked into the back of the lab. It was a square room mostly filled by the two tables and four chairs in it, although it also had a refrigerator and a counter containing various break-room necessities. A set of wraparound lockers left barely enough space to squeeze by to move around the room.
I made my way over to the locker assigned to me, trading my bag for my goggles which I placed on my forehead, carefully working the straps around my ponytail. I didn’t have to wear the goggles yet because each lab station had plexiglass windows around it to prevent one experiment running into another, so there was little chance of getting splashed.
When I arrived at my station, my lab partner, Sarah, was already there, masked and goggled.
“Good morning,” she greeted me. “Ready to save the world?”
“From you?” I responded, teasing. Sarah’s greeting was always the same. She acted as if each thing we figured out, whether it worked or didn’t, was one step closer to saving the world. Her enthusiasm helped me not give up hope, even when it felt like we had been working on the same problem for months with no results. My response varied, but that day it was a reference to Sarah’s dedication. She was so into her work I often teased her about becoming a mad scientist.
She shook her head with a grin and pointed to my goggles. “Let’s get started.”
Our job was mostly to observe and record, but we were allowed to add a few things here and there. Our first set of petri dishes had influenza in them. Sarah pulled two pipettes from the drawer and handed one to me. We each took a tiny bit of the solution to put on a slide. After staining the two slides, we placed the pipettes in the can for the used ones. I carefully pressed a cover on one slide, picked it up, and set it carefully in the microscope.
It looked like the flu. Like an orange with blue stalks growing out of it. Whatever had been added yesterday had no effect, as of yet. I recorded my observations on the chart that went with those samples. Sarah looked at it and nodded.
“Mine’s the same.” She told me as she recorded her data.
I covered the petri dishes and replaced them and their charts on the shelf, while Sarah cleaned up and re-sterilized our workspace. I labeled each slide with the date and spec number and added them to the growing collections next to each petri dish. I had no idea what happened to those slides once we were done with them. Maybe they were disposed of. Maybe they were properly sealed, sterilized, and sent to show students. Maybe there was a huge vault filled with all the old slides waiting to be dealt with.
I washed my hands and replaced my gloves on my way back to the work station. As I approached, I could see that Sarah was waiting for me with our supervisor, Dr. Mark Medina. He was rubbing his hands together in excitement, and Sarah was bouncing slightly, as if trying to hide it. Her eyes gleamed, though, so I knew she was excited and not nervous. I wasn’t sure if I should be excited or anxious.
“Zarita,” Sarah called, gesturing for me to come faster. I quickened my pace.
When I was standing in front of them, Dr. Medina smiled. “So,” he began, “do you remember what you said to me at your interview?”
Uh-oh. “Uh… Nice to meet you?” This kind of question always made me feel like a school child who was about to get in trouble. In this sort of situation I found it best to give an accurate wrong answer to lighten the mood before being informed of whatever I had done.
Dr. Medina chuckled. “Well, I’m sure you said that too, but I’m referring to the story you told me about why you chose this field.”
I nodded. “Jake.”
He nodded, “Well, we have a new project that our lab has been asked to work on, and I thought, since you and Sarah are very capable, if you wanted, the two of you could be reassigned solely to this new task.” He took a breath. “We’re looking for either new treatment or a cure for Batten Disease.”
Even though I could see it coming, when I heard the words ‘Batten Disease’ my breath caught in my throat. This was the reason I was in the field at all, and the fact that I might be able to help find a cure was practically a dream come true. Then again, it was an almost insurmountable task. There were a few treatments for symptoms of some forms of Batten Disease already, but they didn’t help for as long as we were hoping for.
“Well?” Sarah nudged me. “Do we accept?”
“I guess so. Yes.” I shook my head in disbelief. “When do we start?”
“Wonderful!” Dr. Medina clapped his hands together. “Follow me.”
He led us through a door in the back of the lab down a hallway and into a smaller workroom. “We’re putting you in an isolation workroom because you’re going to have to really focus. Also, this work is currently top secret at the request of the patient who volunteered samples. Starting tomorrow, you will come here. There will be the proper gowns and gloves and stuff waiting in this cabinet.” He pointed to a cabinet that ran along the wall opposite the lab bench. “And the standard equipment should be there too. If there’s anything else you need, let me know and I’ll get it for you as soon as possible. You can look around today, but we won’t have the samples ready until tomorrow.”
Sarah and I had never been in this part of the lab before, and Dr. Medina knew that.
“Get acquainted with the layout of the room and don’t worry, we put the names of the people in each lab up so no one gets lost. Your names will be up by tomorrow.”
And they were. When I arrived at work the next day, Sarah was already in our new lab. As I was walking in, she was removing the now sterile parts of the microscope from the autoclave and putting them back onto the body of the microscope. As I started gowning up, Sarah turned to smile at me.
“Good morning! Ready to save the world?”
“I’ve been ready for years.” I returned with a grin.
We didn’t make much progress the first day, but we settled into a rhythm. I won’t lie and say I never got frustrated or bored over the months we worked at it, but overall, Sarah and I knew that our research would bear fruit someday.
It was almost two years until the day came. Sarah and I were talking over our lunches, trying to come up with something else to try.
“Wait…” Sarah said, “What if we could splice the DNA back together to code for well-behaved lysosomes?”
“They do have some gene therapies already,” I pointed out. “We could build off of those?”
“But then they have to be on immunosuppressants so their immune systems don’t attack the donor’s cells. That’s not so great for kids and this is primarily found in children.”
We thought for a bit, eating silently. Suddenly, Sarah choked on her spaghetti. I got her a cup of water, and when she could speak, she was practically jumping again.
“Zarita, remember when they made that vaccine with the messenger RNA technology? The one for covid?”
“What if we tried something like that. We could go a bit further and see if we could convince the DNA to be altered to make better lysosomes when it goes through mitosis!”
At that point I got swept up in Sarah’s enthusiasm. Her idea could work. And it did, although it took a lot more time to get there, Batten Disease eventually got itself a survival rate. It wasn’t a very high one, but more and more patients were cured. Of course, somehow, it got out that I was the one who came up with the solution. Sarah tried to convince me to take the credit.
“Come on,” she told me, “Zarita is a way more memorable name.”
“Who cares? This is your work and it should have your name on it. Besides, my name is out there anyway.”
I visited Jake’s grave that year on the anniversary of his death with a large bouquet of flowers. I found it fascinating that in our bustling city, the cemetery was the most scenic place. There were trees planted along the paths, and flowers standing by many of the graves. Evidence that people cared.
“We did it, Jake,” I whispered as I gently placed the flowers on his stone. “They have hope now, and some can survive longer even than you did.”
Tears pricked my eye as the impossible wish that we could somehow bring Jake back to save him rose in my mind again. I pushed the thought away, reminding myself that we had had more time than we thought we might. Plus, I knew he would have appreciated that his story is what inspired me and, eventually, what inspired Sarah, the genius behind the cure.