A Fierce Radiance
By Lauren Belfer
Hardcover, 544 pages
List price: $25.99
Wednesday Morning, December 10, 1941
The Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, New York City
Claire Shipley was no doctor, but even she could see that the man on the stretcher was dying. His lips were blue from lack of oxygen. His cheeks were hollow, his skin leathery and tight against his bones. His eyes were open but unfocused, like the glass eyes in a box at a doll factory she’d once photographed. Although his hair was full and dark brown, not gray, Claire pegged him at over eighty. His head swayed from side to side as the orderlies slid the stretcher out of the ambulance and onto the gurney. Beneath the once-white blanket, his right leg was grotesquely swollen.
Making a split-second appraisal of the scene, guided by intuition, Claire crouched and pivoted until she found the best angle. Using the 35 mm lens, she stopped down on the Leica to increase the depth of field. She took a quick series of photos, bracketing to guarantee the exposure: the patient in profile and a half-dozen nurses, doctors, and orderlies gathered around him, like a group portrait by Rembrandt, their faces saying their thoughts. They knew he was dying, too. Out here in the cold without their coats on, with the man looking dead already and nobody else nearby but Claire, they dispensed with their usual cheery and encouraging expressions.
The group proceeded into the hospital. Claire followed, the others oblivious to her. She was like a spy, paid to fit in, to hide in plain sight, her identity and her loyalties concealed. Her ability to hide in plain sight was a paradox, even to herself, because she was physically striking. Had the others taken the time to notice her, they would have seen a thirty-six-year-old woman filled with the confidence and glamour of success, tall, slender, strong, her arms and shoulders shaped from carrying heavy photographic equipment. Her thick dark hair fell in waves to her shoulders. Her face was broad, her features well defined.
She wore her usual winter uniform of loose navy blue trousers, cashmere sweater over silk blouse, and a beige fleece-lined jacket with eight pockets. It was a hunter’s jacket, and she’d ordered it from a specialty store. Claire Shipley was a hunter: searching and waiting for the proper angle, the telling moment, for a narrative to give sense to the jumble of existence.
Upstairs, the group crowded into a private room. In one coordinated heave the orderlies shifted the patient from the gurney to a bed. The man moaned. At least the orderlies were quick. The staff bustled around the bed, taking the patient’s pulse, drawing blood, rearranging his useless limbs. In the enclosed space, the rotting stench he gave off assaulted Claire. She felt a constriction of revulsion and forced herself to ignore it, because the man’s eyes were alive now. Golden brown eyes, shifting slowly, their movement consuming his energy. His eyes followed the voices of the nurses. When Claire’s daughter, Emily, was a newborn, her delicate face peering from a wrap of pink blankets, her eyes had followed Claire’s voice around the room just so while Claire’s husband held her.
Claire felt a piercing ache. Her daughter had died seven and a half years ago. June 13 would mark eight years. Rationally, Claire knew that seven and a half years was a long time. Nonetheless sudden, intense memories jarred her, bringing Emily back with painful clarity.
Claire’s husband was gone, too, although by now she could usually keep a mental door closed on the anger and despondency that had followed his departure. Automatically Claire did a maternal checkin: her younger child, Charlie, was safe at school. Later he would be at home following his usual routine with Maritza, their housekeeper, who was like a grandmother to him.
At the recollection of tucking a wool scarf into Charlie’s coat this morning, Claire confronted the dying man before her. Outside, he’d been easy to objectify. Here, with the movement of his eyes, he became an individual. Someone’s husband, dad, son, brother. His fate became personal. Focusing on his eyes, Claire opened the camera’s aperture to narrow the depth of field. She wanted to portray the staff and equipment as blurry and ominous, the way he must be experiencing them.
Claire couldn’t help herself: there was Emily, lying on her bed at home, too weak to fight on, lost to infection, strands of her curly, light brown hair sticking to her cheeks. The well-meaning doctor who visited each day couldn’t help her. Claire held Emily’s hand long past the moment when Emily’s spirit or soul or spark—whatever constituted life—slipped away. In a wave of delayed recognition, Claire understood that Emily was no longer simply resting after her terrible, twisting struggle, but was lifeless. Without life. Dead. After a moment Emily’s eyes opened, staring at the ceiling without seeing it. Her pale blue eyes seemed to turn white while Claire watched. Screams of torment consumed Claire in waves, even though someone else seemed to Claire to be screaming, a kind of ghost self within her. Charlie woke from his nap in the next room. “Mama,” he called.
Whom did he want? Claire wondered as she heard his cries. She was immobilized by a dense weight within her chest. Then Claire realized with a start that she was his mother. The “mama” Charlie called for was her. She heard footsteps in the hallway. A voice hushed Charlie. Comforted him. Took him from his crib. Claire’s own mother, here to care for them.
Ever so softly, with a lifetime’s worth of gentleness, Claire pressed Emily’s eyelids shut. She kept her hand in place for long minutes. Beneath her fingers, she felt Emily’s brow, the tickle of her eyelashes, the tender perfection of her eyelids, the softness of her eyebrows. Emily’s eyebrows were darker than her hair, and Claire’s mother had predicted that Emily’s hair would turn dark as she grew older. Now they would never know. Claire tried to collect within her hand a generation of caresses, from the moment of Emily’s birth to the point far in the future, past Claire’s own death, that should have been the natural course of Emily’s life. Emily’s skin was still warm beneath Claire’s palm.
Seven and a half years ago. Like yesterday. A cliché that was always true. Claire picked up the chart from the end of the hospital bed and read the history of the man lying helpless before her. Edward R. Reese Jr. Age: 37. Height: 5'11". Weight: 175. Marital status: Married. Two children. Address: 1020 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. Profession: Banker. Claire shuddered. He was only one year older than she was. She imagined him holding his children on his lap to read them a story at bedtime, the way she held Emily and Charlie. She saw him advising clients in a wood-paneled office.
He began to breathe in quick, choked gasps, as if the air were a knife cutting his lungs. Claire read on. Fever upon arrival at the Presbyterian Hospital on Monday, December 8: 104.1. Fever upon transfer to the Rockefeller Institute: 106.04. Bacterial level in his blood at 7 am on December 10: 100 per milliliter. Claire didn’t know what that meant but assumed it was high. He’d been treated with two types of sulfa drugs, sulfadiazine and sulfapyridine. Neither had worked. He’d had three transfusions to try to clear the bacteria from his blood, to no avail. The infection had entered his bloodstream from a skin abrasion at the right knee. There were six abscesses in his right leg. His lungs were affected. Diagnosis: Staphylococcal septicemia.
Blood poisoning. Emily had died of blood poisoning. In one gliding motion, a stately, straight-backed nurse took the chart from Claire’s hand and reattached it to the end of the bed. Chief Nurse Brockett, her identification badge read. Beneath her regulation cap, her steel gray hair was pulled into a bun. Her aloof severity reminded Claire of her high school headmistress, the type of woman who could intimidate with a glance.
“You may not read the chart.” Nurse Brockett enunciated each word with precision, as if she suspected that English were not Claire’s native language.
“That’s fine.” Claire pushed her memories of her daughter out of her mind and attacked the problem at hand. Nurse Brockett. Well, Claire wasn’t subject to this hierarchy, and Nurse Brockett didn’t intimidate her. Through her years of work she’d learned to agree with everyone in charge and then, when their attention was diverted, do exactly what she needed to do to get the story. Bravado was a trait Claire put on each morning with her silk blouse and tailored trousers. Her boss had sent her here to follow the testing of a potentially revolutionary medication, but already Claire knew that the real story, the one with emotion and power, was about saving the life of Edward Reese.
To establish her prerogatives, Claire took her equipment bags to a narrow table against the wall on the far side of the room. The table held a blue-patterned porcelain vase filled with white, billowy hothouse roses. Claire placed the vase on the floor. Sensing the nurse’s glare at her back, she slowed her movements, staking her claim. She took off her jacket, folded it, and stashed it beneath the table. When Claire heard the nurse’s footsteps leaving the room, she felt relieved: first skirmish won. She arranged her cameras and film on the table for easy access. In her notebook, she wrote down the details about Edward Reese. She checked the picture count on the cameras and sketched out rough captions. Claire was working alone today, without a reporter to take formal caption notes and help with the equipment. Ever since the attack on Pearl Harbor several days before, the office had been topsy-turvy. This assignment had come in unexpectedly, and with staff heading to Washington and Hawaii, editorial had no reporters to spare. Just as well. Claire preferred to work alone, without a reporter’s interference.
When Claire finished what she thought of as her housekeeping chores, she looked around and was surprised to find herself alone with Edward Reese. His eyes had settled on her. She felt self-conscious and wanted to say to him, don’t worry, I’ll do you proud. Meeting his gaze, she said nothing, but it was the vow she made to herself. With her light meter in hand, she toured the room, taking sample readings and orienting herself. Luckily the room was bright. She wouldn’t need artificial light or a tripod, at least not yet. The setup here was a little strange for a hospital. She glanced at Reese, who continued to watch her. She wondered if he’d noticed the oddness. The spacious, high-ceilinged room looked like the reception area of a private club, with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the river and an arrangement of leather chairs and a sofa. Brilliantly colored, semiabstract seascapes decorated the walls, no doubt loans from Mrs. John D. Rockefeller Jr., who collected modern art. Sunlight reflecting from the river shimmered and trembled upon the walls and ceiling, as if the hospital room were an extension of the paintings.
Claire turned. A doctor in an unbuttoned white coat stood before her. He was about six feel tall, lean, with brown hair brushed back, and steel-rimmed glasses. He wore a conservative tie, buttoned-down oxford shirt, and a dark suit beneath the white coat. A stethoscope was draped around his neck. He held a clipboard and a three-ring binder. He was in his late thirties, Claire judged from the lines around his eyes. His face had an open, boyish handsomeness, yet the hard set of his shoulders revealed his disapproval. Nurse Brockett stood like a sentinel behind him. In the light from the river, the doctor’s eyes were deep blue. At five foot eight, Claire could almost look him in the eye, an advantage.
“I’m Dr. Stanton. The physician in charge of this case.” As Claire evaluated him, he evaluated her, and he was surprised. She was attractive. A professional woman who paid attention to herself. He appreciated that. She wore red lipstick. Her clothes, clearly designed to be comfortable for her work, nonetheless showed off her figure. Claire understood his look and gave him time to indulge it. She needed Dr. Stanton, because now her narrative had two protagonists: the man dying on the bed, and this doctor, who might, or might not, save his life.
“Would you kindly step outside?” he said.
“Happy to.” As she followed him into the hallway, she sensed Reese studying them. Dr. Stanton walked with a certain insouciance, or maybe simply absolute confidence. Of course the confidence could be a veneer forced upon him by his position. Whichever, Claire found it stirring. The bottom of his white coat flicked backward with each step. He turned to her when they were several yards down the hall. “Dr. Rivers told me you’d be working here today.” Dr. Rivers was the director of the hospital. He was the one who’d contacted her editor about the story, following up on a casual conversation they’d had over lunch at one of their clubs. “Frankly it wasn’t my idea to invite you, but he’s the one in charge. We don’t have time for you, and we won’t be making allowances for you. I’d advise you to stay out of our way.” “Good. I’m hoping to stay out of your way, too. I’m hoping you’ll forget about me completely.”
Frowning, James Stanton appeared at a loss for a response. Nothing like agreement to diffuse an argument, Claire had learned long ago. By necessity, she was an expert in the manipulation of her assigned subjects. Stanton stared at her, and she stared back.
“Maybe you should tell me what you’re dealing with here. So I can work harder at staying out of your way,” Claire added with a flirtatious touch of irony.
Her tone surprised him, too. For one instant, he allowed this woman to take him away from the morning’s pressures and responsibilities . . . to a vacation at the seashore, a hotel room filled with sunlight. He confronted her naked body on the bed.
Stop. She’d made a request for information. What was he dealing with? He couldn’t easily explain the issues to an outsider. Here at the Institute, the medication had been tested only on mice, never on a human. Worldwide, the medication had been tested on only a half-dozen humans. For a variety of reasons, none had survived. Nothing about the medication was established except its unpredictability. Educated guesswork alone would provide Stanton with the proper dosage for the injections. Edward Reese might have an allergic reaction and die the moment Stanton gave him the first shot. An undiscovered impurity in this batch of the drug could kill him. Yet the patient was on the verge of death anyway. Most likely he would be dead within hours. There was also a chance that the medication would work. In that case, James Stanton and his team would save Edward Reese’s life.
All this he was dealing with. To Claire Shipley he said only, “The patient will die without radical intervention. That’s what makes him a suitable candidate for this experiment.”
Claire detected the emotions held in check beneath Stanton’s professional demeanor. She made herself sound sympathetic. “I understand, Doctor. Tell me about the medication.”
To Stanton, the potential power of the medication was staggering. Its origins, however, were preposterous. “What about it?” His tone was harsher than he’d intended.
Claire heard his defensiveness, and it alerted her: here was a place where she could penetrate his inner life, his doubts, fears, and hopes. “Everything. What it is. Where it’s made. How it’s made.” She asked a string of questions to keep him engaged, to develop a common ground between them.
“We make it in the laboratory downstairs.”
“I’d like to photograph the lab later.”
“Not possible.” His refusal was automatic. He wouldn’t let an outsider get too close.
“Think about it.” Keep the conversation moving forward, don’t stop to recognize rejection. “What’s the medication made from?” When his professional colleagues heard the answer to this question, they thought he was crazed. He’d learned to confront their disapproval openly rather than retreat from it. He gave her a half smile, not exactly a friendly smile, more like a dare.
“Green mold. It’s made from a fluid produced by a common green mold in the same family as the mold that grows on stale bread and that’s used to make Roquefort cheese.”
“Sounds delicious.” Green-mold medicine didn’t bother Claire, if it worked. She saw Emily’s small and perfect hands folded upon her chest as Claire waited for the undertaker. Who had folded those delicate hands? Claire herself ? She couldn’t remember doing it. Her own mother, who might have remembered, was dead now, too, so this was something else Claire would never know.
“Depends on your point of view.” Stanton was glad she made a joke about the mold, glad she didn’t try to ingratiate herself with disingenuous acceptance. After all, maybe he was crazed. Recognizing the possibility steadied him. Gave him perspective. In the lab, they grew the mold in milk bottles and bedpans. The drug had worked well on mice in the lab; indeed the results had been spectacular. The medication was ready for the next step. This was an experiment like any other, he reassured himself. Just like any other.
“Jamie.” Cradling a folded towel, a young woman walked down the hall toward them. Swaying on high heels, she held herself with the elegance of a movie star. Her makeup was perfect. Her dark hair was held back with a filigree barrette at the nape of her neck, a utilitarian style that she’d transformed into the height of fashion. Beneath her unbuttoned, tan-colored lab coat, she wore a stylish skirt and a white silk blouse. Claire rarely felt outdone in appearance, but this woman made her feel overweight and earthbound.
When she reached them, Stanton said, “Claire Shipley, this is Dr.
Lucretia Stanton. Our resident mycologist.”
Claire demanded of her memory the meaning of the word mycologist. A page in a high school science textbook came to mind. A mycologist studies mold.
“Please, call me Tia.” Her tone was more youthful and friendly than Claire expected from her appearance, and her appearance was the opposite of what Claire would have expected from a woman who studied mold. “Jamie told me you were coming today. I wish I could shake hands, but as you see.” She held forth the towel, and Claire glimpsed a glass vial of brownish yellow powder cradled within it.
Tia Stanton, James Stanton . . . were they a couple?
That would make an intriguing twist, a modern-day version of Madame and Monsieur Curie, the French couple who discovered radium. In her best of-course-you-can-trust-me manner, Claire asked, “Are you two married?” The female Dr. Stanton laughed and took a step backward, as if to escape a common accusation.
“Tia is my sister. She’s younger and much more brilliant than I am,”
James Stanton said. “She’s willing to work here at the Institute even though she has to put up with me. The job market for mycologists, let alone female mycologists, who want to do medical research is somewhat limited—a fact that is obviously an affront to our civilization.”
Claire was an only child and thus not an expert in siblings, but she thought Tia looked at her brother with an unusual degree of trust and affection. Glancing between them, Claire saw that the two shared a familial link in their eyes and their coloring.
Despite its appeal, Stanton resisted the urge to continue this conversation.
“Let’s get started.” Abruptly he turned away and walked into the hospital room. Tia followed with the vial of brownish yellow powder. Claire experienced a satisfying sense that both Dr. Stantons had forgotten her. At the long counter along the wall, the two had a quiet discussion and checked the information in Stanton’s binder.
Using the Rolleiflex, Claire went to work. She knelt to make the two scientists look larger and more dramatic in the photos. The distinctive feature of the Rolleiflex was that the viewfinder was on top, and Claire held the camera close to her waist to frame the shots. Nurse Brockett brought them a sealed container of clear fluid. A Filipino orderly wheeled in a cart of sterilized glassware. James Stanton chose a beaker from the cart. Double-checking the measurements, he mixed the powder and the liquid in the beaker. Claire photographed every step. Film is the least of our costs, so use it, her photo editor always said. Better to have too much coverage than not enough, to give some choice in the layout meetings.
While Claire worked, she recalled reading in the Times some months before about a new medicine made from a fluid given off by green mold . . . sitting in the garden, the pale leaves feathery on the trees, her son building a model-train village across the flagstones at her feet. Yes, she’d read the article in the spring, May or June. The experimental drug was called penicillin. The drug had been discovered in the late 1920s by Dr. Alexander Fleming, a researcher in London. Although Fleming published his discovery and experimented with the mold, he’d had no success developing the fluid into a viable medication. The mold was temperamental, virtually impossible to work with. Few researchers saw any reason to pursue Fleming’s discovery. Penicillin was essentially forgotten until the past few years. With the war raging in Europe, physicians and military leaders were desperate to find a cure for battlefield infections. The development of sulfa drugs in the 1930s had shifted physicians’ attitudes toward systemic medications, those that could be injected into the body without harming healthy tissues. Researchers at Oxford in England, and at Columbia University here in New York, began experimenting with penicillin. According to the newspaper, penicillin was thousands of times more powerful than sulfa drugs. Unlike sulfa drugs, which were made from chemical dyes and caused a range of side effects, thus far penicillin had proven to be nontoxic and without side effects. Scientists theorized that it would prove to be useful against a wide range of infections, including pneumonia, scarlet fever, meningitis, syphilis, and blood poisoning. However, the necessary clinical testing hadn’t yet been done. Given the production problems, the Times noted, penicillin might remain nothing more than a laboratory curiosity.
A quiet crowd gathered at the door, doctors, nurses, orderlies, and several administrators. Their presence alone showed Claire what was at stake here today for James Stanton and Lucretia Stanton. A robust, gray-haired man dressed in the white uniform of a naval captain pushed his way into the room. From his sense of entitlement, not to mention the flashy uniform, Claire pegged him as Dr. Rivers.
“All right, let’s get going, I’ve got a luncheon meeting at noon.” The usual way of the world, even here. Rush ahead because the boss has a luncheon to get to.
“I trust you’ve checked this batch for impurities, Stanton.”
Instead of answering the question, Stanton said, “Dr. Rivers, this is Claire Shipley.”
Forgetting his schedule, Dr. Rivers turned gracious. He took Claire’s hand and patted it, holding it a second too long. His skin was puffy. She suppressed the inclination to pull her hand away. “Honored to meet you. I’ve admired your work.”
“Thank you,” she replied, grateful for the recognition. If his admiration made the assignment easier, so much the better.
“I knew Harry would send me the best.” He was referring to the magazine’s editor, Henry Luce. “You have everything you need, Miss Shipley? Mrs. Shipley?” He had the soft trace of a southern accent and a cultivated southern charm.
“Mrs.” Claire continued to use her married name, both because she’d made her reputation with it and because it felt like a protection for her son. The stigma of divorce was bad enough; she didn’t want the parents of Charlie’s friends to wonder if he’d been born out of wedlock.
“My staff has made you welcome?”
“Extremely.” James Stanton was the one she had to work with, so she positioned herself on his side. “They’ve been most accommodating. In every way. Especially Dr. James Stanton.”
“Good. Stanton, give Mrs. Shipley every consideration, would you?”
“I have, sir, and I will.” She heard the edge in Stanton’s voice. She didn’t dare glance at him, for fear she would smile and give the game away.
Dr. Rivers glanced around the room. “You’re alone here, Mrs. Shipley?”
Claire knew what this question meant: no man here with you, Mrs.
Shipley? No man to be in charge of everything? After years of experience, the question annoyed her only a little. She didn’t need to fight any personal or societal battles with him or anyone. She only needed to get the story. “Quite alone, Dr. Rivers.”
“And you can manage?”
“Yes, I can manage.”
“Good for you.” He play-punched the air with approval. “Okay, Stanton, let’s go. I’ve got three minutes.”
Dr. Stanton ignored his boss’s injunction to hurry. He stood at the porcelain sink at the end of the counter and slowly washed his hands. Nurse Brockett held a clean towel for him. He dried his hands methodically. With care, he filled a syringe with liquid penicillin measured to a precise amount.
“Thirty-five thousand units,” he said to Tia, who nodded and made a note of it in the binder. The dosing was extrapolated from what they’d been giving the experimental mice. A mouse weighed x and was cured with dose y. This human subject weighed a and therefore needed dose b. A simple algebraic equation. He tried to maintain this level of detachment, to keep at bay the other variables vying for his attention by the hundreds. The leap between a mouse and a human suddenly became staggering. Yet he had to move forward. Holding the syringe upward, he pushed the plunger to make certain no air remained inside. He capped the needle. Tia watched intently, as if poised to catch any misstep. He stoppered the beaker that held the remaining penicillin. He went to the bedside. Nurse Brockett followed him.
Edward Reese appeared comatose, his head fallen to one side at an odd, twisted angle. The stench was pervasive, but Stanton didn’t notice. Holding the syringe in his right hand, Stanton put his left hand over the patient’s.
“Mr. Reese, I’m Dr. Stanton.” He took his time. Stanton believed that reassurance and respect were part of the treatment process, too. “Everything that’s happened to you in the past few hours must be a little confusing.”
Mr. Reese showed no sign of hearing him.
“We’ve got a special medicine we want to try today. It’s proven useful for the type of illness you’ve come down with.” His voice and manner were soothing and calm. “You shouldn’t feel anything when I give you the shot, possibly some stinging, but that will pass. We’ll be giving you this medication every four hours. All you have to do is rest and let the medicine work. Someone will be with you all the time to make sure you’re okay. If you need anything, just ask.”
Mr. Reese wasn’t capable of asking for anything.
“Now I’m going to inject the medicine into a muscle in your arm.” ased on his research, he chose to give the medication intramuscularly instead of through an intravenous drip.
Claire positioned herself on the far side of the bed, looking across r. Reese to Stanton and Brockett, capturing in one shot the contrast f their faces: the intense concentration of the doctor and nurse, the keletal emptiness of Mr. Reese, Tia gripping a pencil and frowning n concentration in the background.
Nurse Brockett pushed up the striped sleeve of the hospital own and cleaned a spot on Mr. Reese’s upper arm with an alcohol-dampened cotton ball, adding the smarting scent of alcohol to the stench of infection. Dr. Stanton removed the cap from the needle and slowly injected the medication. Those standing around angled to get a better view as they watched the brownish yellow fluid being pressed into Mr. Reese’s body.
When the injection was complete, Dr. Stanton withdrew the needle and placed the syringe on the metal tray Nurse Brockett held out to him. In the silence the syringe clattered against the metal. She placed the tray on the bedside table and wiped the injection spot with a fresh alcohol dampened cotton ball, pressing against the skin to ward off bleeding.
Dr. Stanton stepped back. He felt suspended in time, waiting for a reaction. What he wanted was no reaction. Everything should remain the same. Mr. Reese continued to breathe in short, shallow gasps of pain. After several minutes, Nurse Brockett checked Mr. Reese’s pulse and blood pressure. She nodded to Dr. Stanton, then to the others. The audience relaxed into a fidgety sense of relief, the men touching their ties, the women patting their hair. Everything was normal. The patient had received the medication and was still alive. Nurse Brockett noted the pulse and blood pressure on the chart, maintaining the usual routines.
“Well done, Stanton,” Dr. Rivers said as he strode out. The crowd slipped away. After a few private words with her brother, Tia left. Dr. Stanton asked Nurse Brockett to put the remainder of the liquid penicillin into the refrigerator until it was needed. Then he turned to Claire. He was surprised by how liberated he felt, how lighthearted. He even felt a touch of pride that he’d been able to show Claire Shipley this accomplishment. But work pressed against him. “Most likely we won’t see any results for several hours, Mrs. Shipley. Probably not until tonight. Perhaps you’d like to return to your office? I’ll have someone telephone you later.”
“No, thanks,” Claire said cheerfully. “I’ll wait here.”
“I thought you would.” His face softened into a diffident smile. “I need to make some notes, so I’m afraid you’re on your own.”
“Exactly what I like to be.”
“I suspected as much.”
All at once Claire liked him, his dry humor, his hidden shyness. Retrieving his binder, he sat at the desk in the corner and began writing, his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Observing him from a distance, Claire realized how attractive he was. When she took his picture, he didn’t glance up.
What now? The story had just begun, yet the action had dissipated. Of course the waiting was part of the story, too, with its own rhythm, its own creeping boredom and anxiety. Claire organized and numbered the rolls of film she’d exposed and outlined the captions. She loaded the cameras with fresh film, so she wouldn’t be caught changing film at a crucial moment. Sensing that she needed a few more shots of Mr. Reese at rest, she turned to him.
Then she noticed the woman standing at the far side of the bed and clutching a camel-hair coat to her chest. When had she slipped in? The woman’s shoulder-length straight hair, a bright, pure blond, was pushed behind her ears uncombed. Her youthful skin was splotchy, her eyes swollen. She wore a blue cashmere twin set that was stretched down on the left side, as if she’d slept in it. Her plaid skirt had twisted so that the zipper was halfway toward the front. Her perfect pearls, glowing with a pinkish sheen, made her appearance even more bedraggled by comparison. She stared at the bed but appeared afraid to take the ten steps that would bring her to the bedside and envelop her in the reek of infection.
The patient’s wife. She had to be.
Claire’s renowned colleague Robert Capa said that if you didn’t take sides as a photographer, you were nothing but a voyeur. Claire knew Capa, had talked to him for hours over drinks, questioning him about his experiences. He’d forthrightly said that he’d be happy to continue their conversations in a hotel room, but although Claire didn’t oppose an occasional (or more than occasional) fling, she avoided men who were reputed to ask every woman who came along. Claire appreciated the perhaps naive pleasure of feeling special. Instead Claire made Capa her friend and learned what she could from him.
Now, following his precepts, she took this woman’s side and photographed her staring at the bed, capturing her pathos and her tragedy.
Approaching her afterward, Claire moved slowly, trying not to startle her. “Mrs. Reese?”
Like someone sleepwalking, the woman turned toward Claire. She nodded.
“My name is Claire Shipley.”
“Patsy Reese.” She held out her hand with instinctive courtesy. Her palm was overwarm and damp. Nevertheless Claire shook it firmly. “I’m a photographer with Life magazine.” Claire paused to let the name sink in. Life was wildly popular, the most popular magazine in the country, defining and reporting on everything that was newsworthy and exciting. “We’re doing a photo essay on penicillin, the medicine they’re giving your husband. We’re hoping other people will learn about the drug and be helped by it.”
This was exaggerating the truth, but Claire had to get Mrs. Reese’s permission to do the story. Without her permission, the story would end here. You can trust me. This was the message underlying Claire’s every professional interchange. She sensed that someone from Mrs. Reese’s background, Park Avenue and pearls, would be best influenced by an appeal to charity.
“Do you mind if I follow your husband’s story?”
Mrs. Reese looked confused. “I don’t know.”
“Dr. Rivers, the director of the hospital, thought the testing should be documented.” How quickly she called upon the support of a man she hadn’t liked. Claire despised this part of her job.
“Dr. Rivers was the man wearing the uniform?” Patsy Reese asked.
“Yes. Would you be willing to sign a permission form?” Claire pressed. “You can change your mind later.” Theoretically this was true, although in Claire’s experience people seldom felt emboldened or entitled to retract a signature on a document. “There’s no problem with changing your mind later.”
Patsy looked as if she couldn’t wrap her mind around the option laid before her. She concentrated on it, struggling to pin it down. “I guess it’s okay.”
“Thank you.” From a zippered compartment in her camera bag, Claire retrieved the permission form. Placing her coat on the back of a chair, using the coat as a table, Patsy signed the form without reading it.
“Again, thank you.” Well, that crucial task was easier than Claire had expected.
“Ed and I read your magazine.” Patsy spoke with an extreme politeness, as if she were courting Claire instead of the other way around.
“We enjoy it.”
“That’s kind of you to say.”
“I remember when Life first came out.” Her voice turned wistful. “Ed brought home a copy. We were the only family on our elevator bank to have one.” That first issue, November 23, 1936, just over five years ago, was famous for selling out within hours. “Our neighbors came over to see it.”
Patsy was filling time, Claire realized. Reaching for any available triviality before she had to confront her husband on the bed. “That must have been fun,” Claire said soothingly.
“It was. I made popcorn and we sat around the living room taking turns looking at it.” Suddenly Patsy grasped Claire’s hand and pressed her fingernails hard into Claire’s palm. Claire steeled herself and didn’t move. “Claire? Your name is Claire?”
“May I ask you a question?”
Patsy glanced at Dr. Stanton, engrossed in work at the desk. “Not here.” She searched the room for a safe haven. “By the windows.” She dropped Claire’s hand and crossed the room, Claire following. When they reached the windows, Patsy leaned toward Claire and whispered, “What did you say about the medicine they’re giving my husband? What did you call it?”
“What’s that?” she challenged Claire, as if Claire, not the medical staff, were responsible for it. “I never heard of that. At Presbyterian Hospital, they wouldn’t tell me anything. Only that they wanted to try a new medicine, and they didn’t have enough of it there so they had to bring him here. As if I didn’t have a right to know anything else.” Claire said, “I’m sorry.” And she was, terribly sorry, for this unfortunate young woman.
“When they asked me if it was all right to bring him here and to give him the medicine, I had to say yes. What else could I say?” “You’re right, you couldn’t say anything else.”
“They wouldn’t even let me get into the ambulance with him. I had to search for a taxi. What if something happened to him while I was caught in traffic?”
“Thank goodness he arrived here safely,” Claire said.
“Tell me what you know about the medicine,” Patsy said.
“Not very much. I read an article about penicillin in the Times. About six months ago. That’s all.” Claire couldn’t bring herself to tell Patsy Reese about stale bread and Roquefort cheese, and especially not about finicky mold and laboratory curiosities. “You should ask the doctor.” “Do you think he’d tell me?”
Both women looked at Dr. Stanton. He was using a ruler to plot out information on a graph. His intent concentration made him look like the smartest student in any class he’d ever attended. The resident genius. Claire understood Patsy’s reluctance to approach him. When Claire’s mother, Anna, was dying of cancer through increasingly tortured months, her doctors refused to share any information. The physician in charge didn’t even want Anna to know that she had cancer. Anna demanded the truth, in a conversation that quickly turned hostile. The physicians’ creed seemed to be that the fewer facts patients and their families knew about an illness, the better for everyone, especially the doctors. Physicians justified their approach by claiming that patients and their families lost hope when they knew the truth.
Patsy sighed and turned to look out the window. She pressed her forehead against the glass. She breathed deeply, taking control of herself. Her breath produced a circle of condensation on the windowpane. The reflected light was soft against her hair and cheeks. Exhaustion was layered onto her face in fine lines. Claire thought of Italian Renaissance paintings of women posed beside windows. Stepping back, she took Patsy’s portrait in profile.
Then Claire followed Patsy’s gaze out the window. The East River was green-black and roiling. Tugboats pushed barges piled with construction beams, gravel, garbage. A police boat patrolled the harbor. Ferries labored across the blustery current. Sunlight glinted off the steel trusses of the Queensboro Bridge. Welfare Island, with its maze of dilapidated public hospitals, seemed to shine in the winter light. The tide was coming in, rolling against the embankment, tossing the small delivery boats that plied the river. The East River wasn’t a river at all, but a strait. Manhattan was a coastal island, and the sea was close by, surging and unforgiving.
“Do you want to know what happened to Ed?” Patsy asked.
“If you’d like to tell me.”
“Okay.” She seemed to drift, and when she spoke again, she might have been in a trance. “It started out as a scratch. Not even. He was playing court tennis.”
Court tennis—here was a reference that gave away this family’s social standing. Court tennis was a game played in the enclaves of the upper class.
“Every Thursday at lunchtime Ed plays court tennis with his brother Kip. Kip is a nickname for Christopher. Some people call him Chris or even Chip, which he hates, but we call him Kip.” Her voice grew stronger, as if these meaningless details grounded her. “They play at the Racquet and Tennis Club. Well, that’s the only place you can play court tennis. In Manhattan, I mean. When we’re in Tuxedo, they play at the club there. Anyway, it was just a slip. He stumbled when his shoes stuck to the floor. You know how that sometimes happens, when you’re racing from side to side and the floor is almost sticky from so much polishing?”
Claire nodded, although she didn’t know, had never played court tennis or squash, had never been to the Racquet and Tennis Club on Park Avenue, or visited the protected enclave of Tuxedo Park northwest of the city. She felt an unexpected tinge of class resentment. “It wasn’t even a scrape. The skin was barely broken. That’s what Ed said, at least. He didn’t remember it when he was in the shower afterward.”
Claire saw Emily, skipping joyfully outside their apartment building on West 111th Street. She tripped on an imperfection in the sidewalk, a small edge where one slab rose above the next by a quarter inch, no more. That quarter inch killed her. Emily broke her fall with her hands. She wasn’t the type of child to scream and cry, but she moaned as she pushed herself up. Both knees were scraped. Brush burns covered her palms. But her face never touched the pavement. Her face remained perfect and lovely to the end . . . the full cheeks, the wide brow, her skin so smooth and soft. The day was warm for June. Emily was wearing her favorite dress, the one with smocking on the bodice. The dress was yellow with a print of green and blue merry-goround horses. Emily didn’t want to get blood on her dress. “Mommy, hold my dress,” she said as they went upstairs to wash and bandage the scrapes. Claire bunched the skirt and held it above Emily’s knees. Four days later Emily was dead.
Patsy continued, oblivious to Claire’s anguish. “By Sunday his knee was a little swollen and stiff, but then we heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor and he put the stiffness out of his mind. It seemed so minor compared to everything else that was going on.”
Patsy paused, remembering that day. Claire remembered, too. Each morning when she woke up and turned on the radio news, she felt as if she were hearing about Pearl Harbor for the first time. Each day, she felt a shock like the first shock. The attack on Pearl Harbor and the destruction of the nation’s fleet were incomprehensible. Pearl Harbor was the first topic when you telephoned a friend or passed an acquaintance on the street. Where were you, what were you doing when you heard the news, people asked obsessively, as if trying to grasp that it had actually happened. Claire and her son were at home. Claire was tormenting Charlie by making him try on all his clothes so they could donate what he’d outgrown to Greenwich House, the local settlement house, before Christmas. Claire had turned on the radio, to a concert by the New York Philharmonic. She’d been looking forward to it. In the middle of the program, an announcer delivered the news.
Claire hadn’t waited for her boss to telephone her. Immediately she arranged for Charlie to spend the rest of the day around the corner with the family of his best friend, Ben. Charlie was thrilled, especially because they simply left the clothes in a pile on his bed. Claire went to the office. When she arrived, she learned that Mr. Luce had ordered the week’s issue remade, a tremendous expense because they’d already closed and were in production. Trying to get an overview, Mack Mahoney, the photo editor, had sent photographers around the city for shots of ordinary people and their reactions.
When Mrs. Roosevelt spoke to the nation in the early evening, Claire was outside Grand Central Station. “I have a boy at sea on a destroyer,” the first lady said in her high-pitched voice, always surprising to Claire in a woman who otherwise seemed formidable. A dozen people pressed around the open doors of a Checker cab parked in front of the station, the radio turned up loud. “Many of you all over the country have boys in the service who will now be called upon to go into action. . . . You cannot escape anxiety, you cannot escape the clutch of fear at your heart.”
Along Forty-second Street in the chill of early winter, cars and taxis pulled over and strangers gathered to listen to Mrs. Roosevelt. Using a tripod and a long exposure in the misty darkness, Claire captured a rhythm of headlights, streetlamps, and silhouetted figures bundled in coats and hats. Mr. Luce admired the haunting shot and ran it as a double truck, across two facing pages, in the magazine.
“By Monday morning,” Patsy said, “Ed’s knee was huge, and there were red streaks up and down his shin and his thigh and he could barely walk, and the pain was . . .” She inhaled sharply, fighting back tears. Claire touched her shoulder to comfort her, but Patsy pulled away, biting her lower lip and clenching her hands together. She stared fixedly at the river. “It happened so fast. By the time we arrived at the hospital, the infection was in his bloodstream and in his lungs and everywhere. The pain was so awful that Ed asked them to amputate his leg, but they said it was too late even for that.”
Searching for some way to comfort her, Claire asked, “How old are your children?”
Slowly affection transformed Patsy’s face. Her clenched hands relaxed. Claire wondered how she herself looked when she talked about Emily and Charlie, wondered if she revealed the same combination of joy and love that Patsy now showed.
“Sally is eleven and Ned is nine. Sally goes to Spence and Ned goes to Collegiate,” she added, replying to a standard question, heard even when it wasn’t asked.
“I’d like to meet them. Take their picture.”
“For the magazine?”
“Thank you. I’d like that. I’m hoping they can visit Ed tomorrow.”
She glanced at her husband in confusion. “If he’s not busy with the doctors, I mean.”
If he’s not dead, Claire assumed Patsy must be thinking.
“Maybe when the children are here, I’ll ask the doctor about the medicine. Maybe he’ll explain it to them. They’re only children, after all. We can say it’s a science lesson.”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
Patsy gave Claire a grateful smile, as if they were two mothers at the playground plotting a treat that was supposed to be for their children but was actually for the grown-ups.
Patsy swayed, gripping the windowsill to steady herself.
“Are you okay, Mrs. Reese?”
“I’m a little dizzy. I haven’t been sleeping or eating.”
Claire gestured toward the sofa. “The doctor said he won’t know anything for several hours. You should lie down.”
“Yes.” Retrieving her coat, Patsy made her way to the leather sofa. Claire followed, careful not to touch her but close enough to help if she stumbled. Patsy shaped her coat into a pillow, unfolded the tartan blanket draped across the sofa’s armrest to cover her legs, and settled herself on her side. She closed her eyes. A lock of hair fell across her cheek. Claire pretended to busy herself with the equipment. After several minutes, Patsy’s breathing took on the steadiness of sleep. Claire used the Leica. Although she bracketed the shot, she trusted she had what she wanted on the first try: the entire scene a blur except for Patsy’s now-innocent, sleeping face.
Edward R. Reese Jr. received the first injection of 35,000 units of penicillin at 12:04 pm, when his fever registered 105.9. He received the second injection at 4:00 pm, when his fever was 105.7. Claire confirmed these details when she reviewed the chart during one of Nurse Brockett’s breaks. His breathing was still a harsh, tortured moan.
At 6:00 pm, Nurse Brockett ordered a junior nurse to escort Patsy Reese, who’d woken, to the dining room for dinner. An orderly brought dinner on a tray for Dr. Stanton and came back with a tray for Claire, an unexpected gift. She looked at Stanton, expecting him to ask her to join him, but he reviewed his notes while eating. Generally she shared meals with the subjects of her stories, but in this case Claire decided not to press her position by inviting herself to join him.
At 8:00 pm, at the third injection, Mr. Reese’s fever registered 105.8. Stanton was troubled when Nurse Brockett told him this. She also gave him a report on the latest blood tests. The concentration of bacteria was down, but only slightly. Tia Stanton had rejoined them, accompanied by a colleague, a slight, white-haired British man whom she called David. The Stantons didn’t take the time to introduce David to Claire.
“Do you think we should raise the dose?” Dr. Stanton asked them. “Hard to say,” David said. “We don’t know why he isn’t responding. In our experiments, the mice responded almost immediately.”
“We need to keep our long-term treatment options open, too,” Tia said.
Despite all that was at stake, they gave their opinions matter-offactly. Claire was impressed.
“Several high doses short-term might be better than sustained doses long-term,” Stanton said. He, too, appreciated the attitude of his colleagues. They kept him steady. There was no room for overt emotion within the confines of the experiment. There would be time, too much time most likely, for emotion afterward.
“It’s a possibility,” said Tia. “We’ll design the protocols to test the hypothesis in mice.” She noted it on her clipboard.
Stanton thought for a long moment, considering the options. The staff waited on his decision, but he took his time. Impatience was an enemy. He had to keep his mind clear, thinking ahead to the next patient and the next. “I’ll continue with 35,000 units every four hours. We’ll use higher doses on the next patient. Next time, I’ll also use a double dose for the first injection.”
“The mice will try that idea, as well,” David said.
Had they already given up on Edward Reese? Claire wondered.
Their attitude was part of the story, too, the professionalism reflected in the steadfast expressions and straight postures, which she duly captured on film.
Tia and David left. After writing his notes, Stanton gave Claire an appraising glance. As attractive as she was, he wasn’t in the mood for small talk or flirtation. He retrieved a back issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Might as well use the empty hours between injections to catch up on his journal reading. He didn’t want to leave the room for any length of time until he had a clear understanding of the outcome of the experiment.
Midnight. The fourth injection. Protect us now and at the hour of our death, the prayer came to Claire’s mind unbidden. Patsy dozed in one of the big leather chairs. Nurse Brockett took Mr. Reese’s temperature.“102.4.”
The fever was down, dramatically. Stanton steeled himself to a pretense of calm impassivity. “Take the temperature again, would you, Nurse Brockett.”
“Yes, sir.” She looked as if she doubted it herself. Afterward, she went into the hall, where the light was brighter, to read it. Claire took a shot looking through the darkened doorframe, the hospital bed a shadowy presence on the left, Nurse Brockett in full light in the hall beyond as she read the thermometer. It was a design that reminded Claire of Dutch paintings: women glimpsed through doorways. Claire was risking handheld long exposures because she didn’t think Dr. Stanton would take well to flashbulbs going off near his patient or to the maneuvering of the tripod. She prided herself on being able to remain absolutely still for a half second or even more to secure night shots without intrusive equipment. The photo-lab staff would push the film during development.
Claire glanced up: Stanton was watching her. Unexpectedly, she felt self-conscious, sensitive to his opinion of her.
Rejoining them, Nurse Brockett repeated, “102.4.”
“Kindly draw blood for a slide, Nurse Brockett.” Make no conclusions yet, Stanton cautioned himself.
“Yes, sir.” She followed his instructions, taking a small amount of blood from Mr. Reese’s left index finger. Stanton smeared the blood on a slide and stained it. When it was dry, he examined it through the binocular microscope on the counter. He made notes on what he saw. Even now, he didn’t let himself make a definitive conclusion.“Mrs. Shipley, take a look?”
He beckoned to her, suddenly eager to share his work. He didn’t tell her what to do. He assumed she knew.
Claire hadn’t looked through a microscope since she took a required biology course as a college freshman. She didn’t want to disappoint the doctor or embarrass herself by making a mistake. The eyepiece was a jab of cold metal against her skin. She decided that the large black knob on the side must be the focus, and she turned it. He stood beside her, observing. His close physical presence stirred her.
“You’re looking for colonies of Staphylococci. Staphylo means ‘grapes’ in Greek, and that’s what they look like. Round and clumped together, like a bunch of grapes.”
Gradually dark shapes came into view, small, clustered circles like grapes, harmless-looking shapes that could make a thirty-seven-yearold man, and a three-year-old girl, die.
“I see two groups.”
“I found three, but even so, very few.” He turned to Nurse Brockett. “Well, I think we’re finally making some progress.” All at once he felt exuberant, as if pure energy flowed through him. His years of effort suddenly became worthwhile. When Claire raised her camera to capture the joy on his face, she sensed that his defenses had dissolved and she was sharing his thoughts.
Patsy Reese slept on. Stanton decided not to wake her. Let her
catch up on her sleep. Good news is welcome anytime it arrives. “Hi, everybody.” A young doctor bounded into the room with the boisterous demeanor of a man who’s just gotten out of bed, had three cups of coffee, and can’t wait to start the day. Dr. Lind said the name embroidered on his white coat. He was blond and had the big, pudgy appearance of a college football player who’s no longer getting enough exercise. “You okay, boss?” he asked Stanton. “You look a little . . . off.” “The fever’s down and he doesn’t know what to do next,” Nurse Brockett said smugly, as if she’d known all along that the medication would work. She prepared to turn her authority over to the night nurse, a pert middle-aged woman who looked like a Puritan and who rapped her fingers on the counter impatiently as Nurse Brockett reviewed several dozen details.
“We’re not ready to break out the champagne yet,” Stanton said, “but things are going well. Better than I expected. Sit down, Lind, and I’ll brief you. Mrs. Shipley,” he said with resigned forbearance, “Dr. Lind is covering for the night. The patient’s condition has stabilized, and I’m going to get some sleep.”
At least he would try to get some sleep; he felt so jazzed up he doubted he’d be able to. As a resident physician at the Institute, he was required to live at the hospital, which was both good and bad on nights like these: good because his bedroom was nearby, bad because he could have used a little distance, a quiet walk home to gather his thoughts.
“I suggest you do the same,” he said.
Claire saw no reason to insist on working all night if the physician in charge, her story’s co-protagonist, felt confident enough to go to bed.
“You may come back tomorrow. Around noon, shall we say?”
“That sounds a little late.” Claire challenged him because presumably he would expect it, while thinking to herself, good, I’ll be able to walk Charlie to school and drop off the film at the lab.
“No visitors in the morning, hospital rule. The patients have to be bathed and the rooms cleaned. Dr. Rivers made an exception for you this morning. I’ll tell the guard at the gate to let you in at 11:45.” He felt unexpectedly pleased at the prospect of having her around tomorrow.
“Good night, Mrs. Shipley.”
“Good night,” she replied, putting on a bright tone.
On her way out, she captured the two doctors reviewing the chart, their faces drawn together in concentration. The angle of the light, a slanting wedge from the desk lamp, emphasized the darkness around them.