Troubled By The Highlander – Rebecca Preston

They always said doctors made the worst patients. Karen Frakes turned over restlessly in her bed, grimacing a little as even that slight movement made the room lurch and spin. She’d spent her whole career working hard, pushing herself to her limits and beyond every single day, determined to be better, sharper, stronger every minute that passed… and now here she was, stuck in bed and barely able to sit up. It was hard not to feel frustrated. Easy enough to tell a patient they needed rest if they wanted to recover… much, much harder to take that advice from yourself. Or from another doctor. Even if they were her colleagues, there was just something so grating about the way they looked at her, tucked up in bed like this… feeling utterly useless and more than a little frustrated to have fallen sick. That was meant to be rule number one, for an epidemiologist and medical doctor like Karen and the rest of her team. She’d been meticulous with her infection prevention — checking and double-checking her protective gear whenever she visited a patient, sanitizing herself thoroughly wherever she went, obeying regulations to the letter. She’d always been a stickler for that stuff — almost to the point of annoying everyone around her (and that was saying something, in their line of work.) But somehow, she’d still managed to fall sick. And it sucked being sick far from home. That was what she felt most keenly as she languished in her bed, impatiently waiting for the illness to lift so she could get some work done. Tunisia was a beautiful place, and while she’d been well, she’d enjoyed what she’d seen of the capital city Tunis, where she and her colleagues had been sent as part of a delegation from the National Institute of Health. And it was a good hospital to be sick in, that was for sure.

But overall, feeling as wretched and miserable as she did, she’d have preferred to be home in her own bed. But that wasn’t an option. Hadn’t been for a couple of weeks now. She and her group had been sent over when a strange new respiratory condition had been observed in the city. From what they’d gathered, it was an airborne virus, with symptoms similar to a common cold or flu… but in a considerable percentage of cases, the fever got quite serious indeed. There had been enough deaths — and the spread had been fast enough — to alarm the World Health Organization and cause a spike in media coverage around the world. So, the NIH had sent them over to investigate, to work in the hospital that was taking in the more serious cases. When Karen had gotten sick, the disease had just been granted epidemic status. Now, she didn’t quite know what was happening. Ever since her fever had started spiking, her colleagues had refused to discuss work with her, insisting that she focus on getting well before she tried to keep working through a pretty serious illness.

It was aggravating. Ninety percent of cases didn’t require hospitalization at all — the fatigue, fever and respiratory symptoms made them pretty uncomfortable, of course, not to mention contagious, but they were generally safe to stay home and recover there in quarantine. Karen had hoped that she’d be one of those ninety percent — after all, she was young, she was in good shape, she was hardly a member of a more at-risk group when it came to the disease. When she’d started noticing symptoms and the test had come back positive, they’d put her in a hospital bed just for convenience — there were plenty to spare, after all, and it saved her a trip back to her accommodations. But as the days had gone on and her symptoms had gotten worse and worse, it became clear that hospitalization had been the best thing for her. Frustrating! Incredibly frustrating, she thought, the spike of annoyance followed by a familiar wave of dizziness as her fever and malaise made it clear that strong emotion could wait until she was better. There were so many better things she could be doing with her time than languishing here in a hospital bed like some kind of… invalid. Ever since she’d been a little girl, she’d been a terrible patient when it came to getting sick. Her mother had had to almost tie her to the bed to get her to stay home from school when she was unwell… she’d lie in bed, gripped with anxiety that she was falling behind at school, wasting time just lying around in bed. That had been when her interest in medicine had started, actually.

She’d always loved school and missing it because of a cold or stomach bug made her furious… so she’d started, at age ten, doing her research. She’d learned about the importance of hand washing, how diseases were transmitted — then she’d stumbled upon research about the immune system. It had fascinated her utterly… and, she remembered with a smile, it had been a little flame that her parents had enthusiastically fanned. And here she was, twenty years later, working for the NIH. It was her dream job — had been ever since she was a little girl. And though the chances of getting sick had always been slim, and she’d always laughed her mother’s concerns away, now she felt a little guilty. She sat up slowly, reached for her phone as she gritted her teeth through the nausea. She’d told her parents she’d fallen ill, though she’d understated the severity of the condition a little… her mother fretted too much at the best of times. It was just a nasty flu. It’d be gone soon….

and she could get back to work dealing with it. The worry, of course, was that it would spread to other countries. So far, the spread seemed to be contained locally… but they had their concerns about the disease’s incubation period. So far, it was looking like symptoms took between a week and ten days to show themselves — and some evidence also suggested that patients were contagious during almost that full period. That spelled disaster. When Karen had gotten sick, they’d been in talks with the local government about instigating some quarantine procedures for the more vulnerable members of the public — the elderly, people with chronic lung conditions or who were immunocompromised, or very young children. She wondered how all that was going now. Nobody would speak to her. This illness, she knew, had the potential to be of worldwide interest… every move they made right now was critical. It was frustrating as hell that nobody was keeping her abreast of what was going on… but she knew that it would be infinitely worse for them to risk getting infected by her.

That was why they weren’t visiting as much. She understood. She’d have done the exact same thing if it had been one of her team mates, and not her, in this bed. But it was her. And it was awful, as much as she was trying not to think about it. The fever was all-encompassing, a dull, sick presence that made her head swim. She felt inches from unconsciousness all the time — it was an active effort to stay awake, to stay focused on the here and now. Her body felt like a complete stranger to her… weak and exhausted, she could barely raise a hand without feeling like it weighed a thousand pounds. And in the back of her mind, a lingering fear — one that had hung around since she was a child, one she’d never quite managed to banish entirely — a fear that this was worse than she thought, a fear that the disease’s fatality rate just might be about to get another number… But that was ridiculous. She was a thirty-four-year-old non-smoker in excellent health.

She wasn’t going to die — she was just going to feel like crap for a few days, and then she was going to recover, and with any luck she’d get some immunity from the disease out of it. That was, unless it mutated again… early days, still. Sighing, Karen expended the last of her energy and rolled over, her eyes drifting shut as she settled into a deep, deep sleep.


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