Influenza 56

The small room was, as usual, filled with the overpowering smell of disinfectants. At one side stood the usual white desk that seemed to match perfectly with the white walls, important papers and files of documents scattered messily across the top of the table. Behind the desk were shelves, filled with bottles of medicines and pills, injection needles, alcohol swabs and the like. A computer was on standby; a small green blinking light emanated from just next to the power switch. The room resembled nothing less, or more, than the typical doctor's office.

The doctor had always disliked the uniformity of the rooms in the hospital. White desks, white walls, white buildings, white cloaks, white medical apparatus. Every single corner of the hospital seemed to look alike every where you went, the walls stainless and scrubbed clean of bacteria. They only reminded him more of the mundane job of diagnosing people of the same illness everyday, battling with the disease and trying to save their lives, only to raise the white flag in defeat as the patients breathe their last.

He removed the thermometer from the patient's mouth, frowning as he stared at the reading. The symptoms were not assuring.

The patient shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "It's not flu 56, is it?" He added slowly, "Doctor?"

The doctor sat down in his seat and looked at his patient across the desk. He spoke through the white mask that he wore, "Sir, it seems that you have all the symptoms of Influenza 56, a new strain of the common flu. We will do a blood test for you and see how everything goes."

He watched the patient turn pale as he gave instructions to his nurse. He watched as the nurse tried to persuade the stunned man, glued to his seat, out of the room. He watched as the patient dazedly left, knowing well that his chances of surviving were slim.

The doctor walked to the window and stared at what was outside. Removing his glasses, he blurred his vision, burying his face in his hand as he sighed in resignation, crumpling the white medical mask by accident. The white mask covering his mouth that would provide little, in fact, no protection in keeping out the tiny molecules that contained the life-threatening virus that could take his life, like the way it had taken the lives of his patients.

He ran a hand through his hair. How long would it be before there would be a breakthrough in the medical research of influenza 56? The epidemic had already spread beyond the country—globalization had made it international. Everyday, people were dying of just a flu, so simple, and yet, so frightening. It was a new strain that had attacked furtively, disguised to be just like the ordinary flu, but slowly showing its menace as it grips the human lungs and slowly begins the victim's struggle to breathe. It was like drowning in water, only that the suffering lasted much longer before death takes over.

He was fighting a losing battle everyday. Patients were coming to him like bees to a hive, only that what he can do for them was never as sweet as honey. He could only quarantine them, and let them struggle on their own, before their corpses are taken to be burned immediately. They were like black dots on a white paper that had to be eradicated as quickly as possible.

He wondered if he had sealed his fate by coming back to work in his homeland. He wondered if it was the right choice to attempt to save those who cannot be saved. His colleague working in the same faculty as him just died of influenza 56. He wondered if his turn would come.

It was only a few weeks later that he fell ill.

It had begun small, nothing but a clogged up runny nose that sent him blowing into tissue papers and sneezing almost every other minute but it had already sent him panicking. However, he could not deduce if it was yet the fatal disease. But soon, he began to cough, and immediately he went for a blood test.

He was jittery while waiting for the results. He couldn't remain seated; he paced the corridor nervously, his mask covering his face for precautions. He tried to suppress a cough, but failed as he burst into violent tuses.

He froze as the nurse walked out of the room, holding an envelope that consisted of the results and analyses of the blood test. He snatched it from her before she could say a word. With trembling hands, he opened the envelope and pulled out the papers that, ironically, held his future, life and death.

He collapsed in his seat, staring at the papers he clutched tightly, making them crease. Then he let out a cry, dropping the papers onto the floor as he buried his face in his hands. Written in red, font size ten, was the word 'positive'.

"Sir, I know this is harsh," she spoke through the new N95 mask that provided more protection than his own mask, reminding him only of the fact that he was now a dangerous creature. "We would really like you to be quarantined. You can choose to be quarantined at home or –"

"No," he jerked his head up quickly, "Not at home. I won't allow myself to put my loved ones at risk." He swallowed uncomfortably as he made his decision. "Isolate me in the hospital. I'll be back here tonight."

He stood up, hands grabbing his pants. "And give me an N95 mask. I'll give it back when I come back here later."

He couldn't concentrate on driving his way home. More then once he had almost collided with another car, his hands too wobbly to control the steering wheel.

He walked into his home, possibly for the last time, turning away from his wife as a look of surprise appeared on her face. She questioned the reason for the mask, and he did not answer, trying his best to keep his distance from her. He didn't want her to get infected.

He panicked when she tried to reach out to touch him. "Don't!" She looked at him, baffled, yet a fear could be seen in her eyes that told the doctor that she had guessed it right.

"I…" His lips were quivering too much to articulate his words clearly. "I'm infected. Influenza 56, I…"

He didn't need to elaborate. His wife let out a cry of despair as she staggered back. The fear and sadness written across her face made his heart ache. Her fear of him as a monster, a vesicle which held a disease that was silent murderer, and yet, her love for him as a husband that made her sad for his approaching death.

He ran past her and up the stairs into their room, leaving her standing there in shock. Frantically, he threw his things into a suitcase, shutting the door and turning the lock as he heard her come up the stairs. He leaned against it, his lips pursed.

She rattled the door knob. "God, you aren't thinking about doing it are you?" Her voice was trembling, a lump rising in her throat. She banged the door and let out a demented shriek, "Don't you dare even think about isolating yourself in that hospital!"

He squint his eyes shut and leaned his head back against the door. Her protests kept going on, her wails piercing to his ears, and his heart. He heard the jingling of the key, and he moved away just before she burst through the door, slamming it open.

"Don't…" It was just barely above a whisper. Her eyes were puffy, her cheeks tear-stained. She broke out sobbing, and he flinched when she stroked her fingers across his mask.

She gazed into his eyes. "And I can't even see your face before you go," she muttered. He pushed her hand away.

"Please," he begged, "I don't want you to die too. Stay away from me…"

She broke out into new fresh tears as she ran out of the room, shutting the door behind her.

He felt his legs turn soft and give way, and he crumbled onto the ground. He stared at the floor, his vision blurring. Then he clawed at his hair, raising his head upwards as he let out a cry of despair. He broke down and sobbed.

He spent a full hour in the room to prepare himself mentally for his isolation, but found that he was still unprepared as ever when he walked out of the room. His family was waiting for him at the house front yard.

His wife was now less hysterical then before, but her eyes still betrayed sadness. His son's eyes were directed away from him, his face indicating feelings of anger and betrayal. His daughter, dressed in a little flowery dress and pigtails, held a teddy bear to her face, her large eyes brimming with tears even though she did not understand what was happening.

He walked past them quickly, heading towards the car, but was stopped by his wife grabbing onto his shirt. She placed her forehead on his back, her tears falling silently.

"I love you." She said.

He gripped his suitcase tighter as he felt tears fill his eyes again.

"Come back to us." She slowly let go of his shirt and took a step back. He looked back at his family members again for the last time, before he opened the car door.

"Don't go!" his son shouted out of the blue. His 15-year-old son was crying, something he had not seen him do for the past 2 years. "Don't go Dad! You can't do this to us!"

He ignored his pleas and sat in the car, shutting the door and starting the engine. He watched as his wife's face was being distorted by tears and sorrow; He watched as his son kicked and flung himself towards the car in violent protest, restrained by the arms of his mother; He watched his daughter wave at him, mouthing the word 'daddy', her lips turned downwards as she cried. He watched, and pulled out of the porch.

He couldn't stop the tears as he drove. He parked his car at the hospital carpark of the ICU block. He laid his head on the steering wheel, banging his fist on the car door, the faces of his family members haunting him as he wailed in distraught.

He opened the car door upon composing himself and got out, slowly walking towards the reception. The nurse took one look at him and immediately scuttled off to get a professional. Somberly, he was brought to his isolation ward.

The door was swung shut, and he knew he might never step out of the room again. The disinfected, anti-bacterial grey walls seemed to trap him in this deathly place that felt to him like a prison, and did nothing to improve his mood. The room was empty except for a white bed and table beside it. Sighing, he walked further into the room, trying to find a way to enjoy his last days here.

He lay on the bed, in hope to find sleep that could make him forget his turbulent emotions. But he could not, and lay tossing in bed as memories of his loved ones flashed across his mind. He did not get a chance to speak to his best friends or colleagues. There was no point in thinking about them now. This was the end, his end. There was nothing more. It was just him, this room, and influenza 56.

The days passed by dully, and he spent most of his time speculating the number of days he might have left. It might be tomorrow, it might be a week later, it might never be and he might just walk out of the room. Meals were brought to him by a nurse who was encased in what appeared to be an astronaut's suit; complete protection, there was no way she could get infected.

He soon grew stoic with regards to his death. It didn't make him shiver in fright, or make him think about his family members, or make him cry. It was just, simply, death.

But within only a week he could feel the worst of the symptoms coming on. His breathing felt acute and difficult, often setting off violent fits of coughing that made his whole face red and his eyes teary. It was difficult moving around; lying down made it much easier to breathe.

Soon it got so bad his lungs felt like they were on fire, bounded together by some invisible force and breathing made it feel bruised. Many a times he sent a hand to his chest and throat, nearly choking as he coughed so hard it sent his whole body lunging forward.

He had refused an oxygen mask to help him breathe earlier in his isolation, but now he could not. The nurse in the suit placed it over his mouth, and he felt temporary relief as he breathed in the fresher air. But immediately after he broke out into another bout of coughs that made the bed rattle.

It had been like this with all of his patients. He never really knew it would be like this until now. He clutched the bed sheet, trying to breathe.

He had already spent four days on the oxygen mask, but soon, it seemed that it was useless. It was a struggle to open his mouth without coughing, and gasping for air hurt his lungs so bad. He felt himself grow weaker and weaker, and food he could no longer eat.

He lay on the bed, staring at the grey ceiling. He thought of his childhood, his school days, the first time he met his wife, the happy times he had parenting his son and daughter. He thought of all the wrongs he had done to his loved ones, and wish that he could express that remorse to them now. He felt the tears come again; his time was coming.

He looked around the room, taking in everything around him. Grey walls of an enclosed, square room, a table, pillows and untouched food—his last look at life and humanity.

And slowly and steadily, as much as he had battled against it, his eyes closed and he took one last deep breath. He raised the white flag in defeat.

He died.