Patient Zero

by Andrea Doria

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction written by a non-doctor and non-lawyer even by a non-English speaker. Any glaring language, medical or judicial mistakes are mine. The story involves a physical relationship between two women. But you knew that, that's why you are here ;) Feel free to send me your thougts:

Chapter 1

Gulu district, Uganda, October 2000
Mo Bancroft was tired beyond anything she had ever experienced.

If somebody had put a pill on a table a foot away from her, and told her all she would have to do to feel normal again was to swallow it, she would be incapable of reaching out and grabbing it.

In the short span of two weeks she had watched 36 people die from hemorrhagic fever: The old, the young, the poor and the strong just bleeding to death in front of her eyes.

Going from being normal human beings reporting headaches, nausea and a general feeling of weakness to lifeless bags of liquid organs in often less than 10 days.

She had watched one fellow doctor and two devoted nurse's aids go from healers to patients to death. For two weeks she had not slept more than three hours at a time, she had eaten very little and could tell by the fit of her scrubs that she had lost at least ten pounds.

Miami, Florida, March 2006
Her clerk brought her the summons. Her old friend and mentor Chief Judge Ortiz invited her to cocktails at his favorite watering hole, Harry's American Bar at Eden Roc on Miami Beach.

It irritated her a bit. Of course she would have a drink with him, but why he wanted her to drive all the way across to the beach, when they could just meet at a bar close to the courthouse was beyond her.

Ann Hunters irritation was compounded by the valet parking at Eden Roc she could just feel in her bones that it would take the pimpled faced youth's forever to get her car again when the meeting was over. And she planned to make it a short one. She had cases to prepare for the next day and was working on a very complicated decision that was due on Monday.

Judge Ortiz was seated in the corner of a comfortable sofa up against a window at least 30 foot high running from the lobby's floor to ceiling. Behind him was the lovingly restored pool area of the classic resort. It was a favorite with exiled Cubans and though she was anything but, she had been coming at the hotel since she was a young girl.

Her father did business with Miami's Cuban community and sometimes he would take his young blond daughter to the Roc. He'd rent a cabana and conduct his business while she played in the pool and ordered ice cream from the cabana staff until she was sick.

The Roc had weathered well, as had Judge Ortiz. He was a slight man with a very calm demeanor, but anybody who had ever seen him controlling his courtroom would know appearances could be deceptive.

- Mi hija, he stood and kissed the blond woman's cheeks.
- When are you getting married, Ana?
- When old, Catholic men like you change the laws and allow me to marry the woman of my dreams!

Always the same start to their conversations, and she always fought a desire to add:

- And when the woman of my dreams decides to materialize in my life.

He ordered a mojito for Ann and indicated he wanted another rum straight up.

- So jefe, why did you want to see me?

- Can't an old man want to meet with a beautiful young woman without a reason?

The smile in his soft brown eyes lit up his whole face, when he added:

- But as usually you are right, I did want to see you for a reason my friend.

Ann thanked the cocktail waitress for her drink and took a sip of the sweet and tart drink. It was a long time ago the mojito was her favorite drink, but she didn't have the heart to tell the old man. He would not understand the attraction of the clean rocket fuel taste of a dry martini made from Plymouth gin.

- Ana what do you know of medical patents?

She was surprised. She had expected a high profile case. Perhaps an important expatriate caught DUI or smuggling Cuban cigars.

- Not a lot.

He held her eyes over the rim of his glass:

- Good!

She was at a loss as to how it could be good that she didn't know anything about a case he was going to ask her to take or assist on.

Harry's American Bar was not terribly busy, here and there groups of men in corporate attire was conducting business over coffee or mineral water. The only other patrons drinking alcohol were obviously hotel guests on vacation.

Ann's boss indicated a woman sitting by herself in the curve of the huge circular sofa going around the perimeter of the bar, she was nursing a mojito.

- See, that woman over there?

Ann had noticed her when she came in. She was quite nice looking, a slender brunette, but it was hard to tell how she really looked because she was wearing the standard business suite of the power classes and the make up to go with the look.

There was a coiled tension in the woman though noticeable clear across the room.

- I want you to meet her, she's building a very interesting case and I want you to help her.

Ann's confusion must have been evident because the old man leaned over and placed his hand on her knee:

- Don't worry, I'm not asking you to do something unethical.

Gulu district, Uganda, November 2000
The quiet of the night was on occasion nicked by the squeal of nocturnal creatures just feet away from the small community. Africa was very present with its smells and its sounds. Only if you entered any of the huts backed up against the backdrop of trees would the illusion of an eco-friendly non-violent safari be broken.

Mo Bancroft was in her tiny laboratory. Nothing more than a shaky table with a few pieces of basic equipment that allowed her to do simple tests.

Not that she needed to. She knew that every single one of the 16 souls in the huts was ravished by the twisted g-note of death: Ebola.

In front of her on the table a few microtiter plates was set up behind them and a row of test tubes containing a clear liquid. She was working with three Petri dishes. She was scraping a thin layer of the growth media in one of the dishes and carefully transferring it to a thin piece of glass.

She felt his presence rather than heard it when the only other healthy person in the tiny village entered her hut. She knew he would wait at the door until she acknowledged him, not because he was subservient, not because she was the white doctor and he was the black doctor.

He would wait, because he was careful not to disturb her work.

- I'm almost done Robert.

She heard his breathing shift behind her and knew what was coming.

- The old woman in number 6 died 20 minutes ago.
- You should have come and gotten me
- No, what you do is more important. She went quietly I kept her comfortable.

She knew he was speaking the truth. She did not need to see another person die from Ebola she needed to find a way to stop the disease.

But she knew what it cost him to sit with the dead. He too had sworn to save lives, not sit idly by as death came, not even able to relieve pain.

She would never stop admiring his dedication. He even washed the bodies, trying to give them some dignity before gently carrying them to the makeshift morgue in an abandoned hut on the edge of the village. He would have to get up at dawn to burry the old woman. Dawn was only a few hours away.

- I brought you tea, he was still standing by the door she turned and reached for the steaming metal mug.

- Thank you, why don't you get some sleep?

With a faint whisper of his clothes he was gone.

Mo Bancroft dragged a hand through her short hair and down her tired face. Her eyes were bothering her again the only light she had to work by was from two lanterns. It was way too soft and flickered constantly.

She took a sip of the strong tea. Before she came to Uganda she'd heard that the locals never drank the tea or the coffee grown in the fertile but war torn country.

When she was introduced to her local guide and fellow doctor, Robert Onguti, she found out that was not true. On one of their very first outings in Kampala he took her to a small market.

He walked to a tiny stall where a crippled woman was sitting next to a huge old gas ring with a blackened and dented kettle on it.

- You want tea or coffee? It was just about the longest sentence he had spoken in the short period they had known each other.

She could smell the coffee and her mouth started to water after three days of lukewarm instant coffee at the hotel.

- Coffee, definitely coffee.

He said something to the woman in the local language she didn't know if it was Swahili or Luganda – her language course didn't start until the coming week.

The mug of coffee she was handed after the old woman was done fussing behind her gas ring was the best she'd ever had. Strong sweet and creamy. Later on she learned that it was made with goats milk and local raw sugar.

A few days later she went back by herself and tried the old woman's tea: A strong, clean brew of black tea. She became a regular customer and sometimes took other medical workers to partake of the delicious drinks.

She suspected Robert had bought the old woman's entire inventory of black tea. They hadn't been short for the entire month and a half they had been in the Gulu district northwest of Kampala.

She finished her tea and set the mug down on the floor by the door. She turned back to her workspace. She was ready to look at the sample she had taken from the dish.

She didn't just get tunnel vision, it was as if everything she was compacted around her. She whipped her head violently away from the microscope. She tried to focus on a space on the wall before she looked again.

- Robert!

Later on she would wonder if he really had made it back to his bunk and turned in for the night, he was at the door before the echo of his name was swallowed by the jungle.

- Take a look, and tell me what you see!

He moved to the table and put his eye to the ocular in a flash. When he looked up, she knew it was not a trick of her eyes his teeth gleamed white in an astonished face:

- It's changed!

He effortlessly picked her up in a gigantic hug.

Miami, Florida, March 2006
Judge Ortiz had the cocktail waitress summon the woman before Ann had a chance to asking him to elaborate on the job he wanted her to undertake.

Ortiz introduced the two women and Ann learned that the tense woman was Francesca Ferdinand of a very high profile company specializing in corporate law. She offered a firm handshake but wasn't big on eye contact something that Ann always paid particular notice to.

- Ann is our youngest circuit court judge. Since she came on board a year and a half ago she has expedited many cases and she has a very low tolerance for grandstanding. She knows her courtroom is not a road show.

Fran Ferdinand finally met Ann's eyes. Ann realized that she had been dismissed during the first part of the introduction, that the Ferdinand woman thought she was Ortiz' secretary.

- Thank you Hector for choosing such a competent person for my endeavor.

Ann had spend a lifetime not letting her every emotion reflect on her face, and Fran certainly didn't notice the change in her, but judge Ortiz did. Again his hand came to rest on Ann's knee, a gesture that didn't go unnoticed by Ferdinand.

Ann all but physically shook the hand off:

- I think I need a bit more information before agreeing to anything here. What kind of endeavor are we talking about, and what is the case you are building?

Fran Ferdinand had a very pleasant mellow voice, she said:

- We are going to Colorado to talk to a retired doctor. The doctor unlawfully used an experimental drug five years ago in Uganda. Her actions have most probably cost PharmaMenta close to 250 million dollars.

Ann kept her face as neutral as she could. The sum was not going to make her as much as blink, even though she had never dealt with anything even remotely that high before. She just gazed levelly at Fran Ferdinand expecting her to go on with the explanation.

But the attorney leant back in the sofa next to Ortiz and reached for her drink.

- Unlawfully? Isn't that for a judge to decide? And yhy not just invited her to Miami – one plane ticket instead of two?

Ferdinand put her drink down.

- She's not only retired she's also a recluse.

- Meaning what? Ann was getting fed up with the lack of information.

- Meaning she lives in a cabin somewhere in the Rockies and she does not have a phone and there has been no response to my letters.

- Let me guess, soon a case would reach the statute of limitation.

The Ferdinand woman merely nodded. Ann noticed that judge Ortiz did his best to avoid meeting her eyes that was not a good sign.

She knew PharmaMenta was the pride of the Cuban community in Miami, a company breaking into a very competitive market. It had huge successes with a couple of wonder drugs and the shares had shot up like a sugar cube in a glass of coke.

Ortiz had either invested in PharmaMenta or was looking out for his cronies in the boardroom.

What she could not figure out was why he had chosen her. She was known to go strictly by the book, and this was way out of the ordinary. It was not illegal, it was not unethical but it would preclude her from hearing the case should it require action.

She made a quick decision.

- I will think about this, but I need some material to base any decision on. Who is this doctor, what happened in Uganda and how did PharmaMenta suffer?

Ortiz and Ferdinand exchanged a quick look, then Ferdinand drew a thin folder out of her case.

- This does not answer all your questions. We can't tell you anything about the company before you decide to help. But there are some information about the doctor in there.

Fran Ferdinand stood and straightened her skirt, before kissing judge Ortiz on both his cheeks and offering a still cool hand to Ann.

- I hope to hear from you soon.

Ann pointed a finger at Ortiz once the attorney had left:

- You've known me since I was a child, I've never been invited to call you Hector. I don't like this, but I trust you so I'll read the material and I will think about it.

She stood before he got a chance to answer. For once he didn't get a hug from his young friend. She just nodded at him and turned away.

He followed her with his eyes across the lobby as did several other guests.

She was stunningly beautiful with her shoulder length blond hair, delicate high cheekbones and sharp grayish blue eyes. She carried herself with an athletic grace that belied that fact that she rarely did anything other than sit for 8 hours a day at work and then for a further 5-6 once she got home. A home she shared with a tiny gray cat.

Gulu district, Uganda, December 2000
That first shower under the tepid water at the Masindi Hotel awakened Mo Bancroft's desire for all the pleasures of civilization. She was torn between throwing herself on the comfortably looking bed made up with clean sheets, or calling room service for a stiff drink and a meal, any meal without chewy goat and matoke.

In the end she picked up the phone and called Roberts room. He picked up at the first ring:

- Are you up for dinner on the terrace?

He told her he had an errand to run but agreed to meet her at 8 pm. That left her some time to work on her notes. She hooked up her laptop and sat before the open door of her small French balcony.

The tension of the last two months slowly drained out of her shoulders. It was over. It had run it's course, she had done all she could, in 73 cases that was not enough. But she knew what she had to do now.

Robert was already sitting at a table on the terrace when she walked out. A candle in a hurricane threw shadows across his chiseled face. He had gotten a haircut and his shirt was almost luminous in it's whiteness against his dark skin.

He got up and drew her chair out when she approached. He was nursing a drink of waragi on ice. She laughed when she saw it. On the long dusty ride back from the village they had talked about what they missed the most, he had said waragi, the local gin and she had said it was a toss up between a shower and a dry martini on good London gin.

As soon as she was comfortable just such a drink was placed before her. The two friends saluted and drank.

- What time do we have to leave tomorrow?
- The plane is at 3.05 pm – if we leave by 9 am we should have time to spare for bad roads or anything else like that.
- How long is the flight to Nairobi?
- Just an hour and a half.

Mo ordered a dinner of roast chicken with mashed potatoes and Robert wanted a local fish stew with noodles. Two frosty mugs of beer accompanied the meal. A meal Mo for just a moment considered counting as one of the best she had ever had. Then she realized it was a very ordinary hotel meal. She had simply forgotten what ordinary was.

Nairobi, Kenya, December 2000
Less than 24 hours later, they were both checked in at The Stanley in Nairobi, Kenya.

Mo had told Robert she would just order room service and work on her notes all evening. She settled in at the fake mahogany desk and turned on her computer.

Her room even had a mini bar so she was nursing her first diet coke and debating with herself if she should take a bath in the lovely Victorian claw foot tub before she started working or before going to bed.

She decided on the latter and stripped down to a tank top and a pair of cotton boxers. It was going to be a long night.

She knew she had to think strategically and consider the politics of the issue, when all she really wanted to do was make the doctors and the pharma executives at the conference see the cost of 73 lives to the struggling population of the rural communities in northwest Uganda. Not to mention the blow to the already shaky health system that two dead doctors, three nurses and two aids meant.

But she also knew that 73 people dead in a country where civil war and conflict with the neighbors had cost many more deaths was not going to make anybody take notice.

So she had to make them notice what she had discovered out there, how close she and Robert had been to making a real difference. She needed to make sure follow up studies would be conducted.

Robert banged on her door at 7.30 the next morning. He kept banging so her sleep befuddled brain finally realized he wanted to talk to her not just wake her up. She untangled herself from the sheet and opened the door.

He handed her a lovely short sleeve linen shirt. Oatmeal colored with two breast pockets and a line of buttons that looked like they were carved of some kind of wood. A little bit safari and very expensive looking.

- You need to look corporate, was all he said before walking away.

Public speaking was not something she enjoyed. It made her head spin and her stomach upset, so all she could manage at breakfast was a cup of dreadfully bad coffee and a piece of cold toast with what tasted like cheap margarine.

She recognized a few people in the restaurant. Doctors she had met at conferences back in the states. Researchers she had had brief contact with. Nobody seemed eager to talk to her. All she got was fake smiles and clipped greetings.

Robert sat down across from her. He was wearing a very bright colored shirt with giant giraffes stenciled on.

- Nice shirt.

He grinned at her:

– It's the only way a black doctor can go unnoticed in this crowed. Twice I've been asked to fetch more cheese for the buffet by some of your colleagues.

Before she could apologize he covered her hand and added:

- Don't worry about it. It's good that they underestimate me.

Walking in to the auditorium she lost all sense of where she was. Right outside the doors were the hustle and bustle of Nairobi but inside was the soulless pan-national place of all symposiums, conventions and seminars: Instantly recognizable anywhere in the world with it's dark wall-to-wall carpeting, comfortable chairs, soft hum of air conditioning, a podium for the speaker and a blank screen ready to display endless streams of senseless and pointless power point presentations.

She wondered what would happen if conventions like this were taking place under a canopy in the northwest, with insects buzzing, blazing noonday sun and just one tiny bottle of water pr. person.

A bottle of water that if it was even remotely cold when handed out would turn warmer that your own blood in a matter of minutes and offer no refreshment at all. Half the people would probably drop of their chairs in a matter of hours with heat strokes.

Mo was scheduled as the third speaker just before lunch. Never a good time to captivate an audience, most of them would already be thinking about what to eat, whether or not to go to their rooms for a short nap or 15 minutes of cable porn or who to bamboozle for a quick deal.

It took her a few minutes to get her equilibrium on the podium. She put both her hands on the sides of the lectern and was glad when a glass of water was discreetly placed next to her by a livery dressed black waiter.

Robert immediately noticed a huge difference between the young doctor on the podium and the crowd. She was not the only woman. But she was the only one man or woman who looked like a rural laborer. Everybody else was pale, polished, neutrally dressed and soft.

The soft color of her shirt contrasted sharply against her deep tan. She was obviously too thin, her hair had not been cut short at an expensive salon but by a nurse's aid one night in the jungle. She had faint scars on her arms from infected insect bites and her strong hands were calloused.

She looked like someone getting the job done.

The audience looked like they only ever talked about how something could perhaps be done, if the price was right and there was a paper or a patent in it.

She squared her shoulders:

As you all know an epidemic of Ebola hemorrhagic fever sprang up in the Gulu district of Uganda in October this year. It was quickly established as the Ebola-Sudan subtype. So far there's been 422 reported cases with a mortality rate of 53 percent.

I recently returned from 6 weeks working in a small village near Opit. We saw 152 cases and lost 73 patients.

But that's not what I'm here to talk to you about. My colleague Robert Onguti and I saw some very interesting developments when we experimented with a drug called..

Before Mo Bancroft could finish her sentence an angry face man shot up from a seat at the front of the auditorium:

- She's a thief, nothing but a thief, she stole that drug and now she wants to claim….

Pandemonium broke out and nobody was thinking about lunch any more.

Continued in chapter 2

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