Tag Archives: antibiotics

Beyond the Shaman’s Cure

I staggered down the street away from the shaman with the roll of parchment under my arm.  “The only chance in the whole village, and he does nothing but give me a map,” I thought.  It was already two weeks since I felt wrong.  I should have gone then, but I thought I would get over it.

I could not even explain what ‘felt wrong’ meant.  Something was wrong with my vision, and I had a headache.  I staggered instead of walked, my feet wide apart for balance.  The ground seemed to vibrate and sway under me, yet no one else in the village seemed to notice.

I realized that I had walked past my own house with its bright blue door as I tried to recall the shaman’s words.  I turned back and thought, “What did he say about my leaving the village?”  It had something to do with the moon and the harvest, and something about his reputation.  And something about tomorrow.

I looked up and found myself right back at the shaman’s door, the faded red stain and its bundle of bones tied with string and hung on a nail.  I had walked right past my house again without noticing.  I turned and hurried away in case he came out and saw me in the street.

When I made my way home and closed the door behind me, I looked around the house.  I squinted in the bright sunlight that leaked between the sticks and boards of its four walls.  The soft chittering of creatures in the palm frond ceiling felt comforting and familiar, and I relaxed my shoulders with a sigh of relief. I let thoughts of the shaman drift through my mind, and tried to catch the meaning of his words.

Not so long ago, the shaman poked & prodded me with his strange traditional instruments, never explaining what they were, how they worked, or what they told him about me.  At one point, his breath hissed sharply as if I stepped on his foot.  “You haven’t stopped by to see me in a while, have you?”

“The last time you said I wouldn’t need to, remember?” I said.  “I had that rash on my hands and feet, and you said the spots would go away.  They did, so didn’t come back.  Was that wrong?”

He shook his head.  “No, nothing I could do anyway,” he said.  “And that first spot went away?”

“What spot?” I asked.  I rolled up my sleeve and glanced at all the bumps, scratches and cuts I collect during my days in the fields.  “Which one?  I get a hundred every day.”  I looked at his smooth arms that never held a hoe or a shovel.

“That big open sore across your finger,” he said.  “It was a big mess, what I call a chancre, remember?”

I cringed at the memory of the oozing sore.  “That was long ago, months ago,” I said.  I looked at my hands, unable to remember which finger had suffered.  “It didn’t hurt, didn’t itch, it just looked gross.”

“And the rash didn’t itch either, right?” he asked.

“No, but some of the spots were like warts,” I said.  “Wasn’t that all a couple years ago?  You were right, though, I started getting headaches back then, and I still get them.”

He rubbed his chin and said, “Hmmmm.  Now you have trouble keeping your balance.  I noticed you had a problem walking straight across the floor.”

I had forgotten about my balance.  “I walk funny now, more like a drunken sailor.  But I don’t fall down as often.  Ow!”  I jumped at the needle stab in my toe.  I looked down and saw nothing there.  “Do you have rats in here?”  I bent over and cradled my foot but could see no bite or stab mark.  “That hurt, whatever it was.  You didn’t inject me with your needle, did you?”  I looked across the several feet between us, then at the ground.  “I don’t know why I said that.  I’ll shut up now.”  There was a silent space of time.

Then the shaman said, “I have something in the magic box, but this is outside – I think we need to send you to, to, to another place.  A bigger place.  A bigger village – no, a city.”    He went to a fancy desk and pulled something out of a drawer.  It looked like a rolled up tube of glossy paper or animal skin.  As he handed it to me, he said, “This is a map of the whole state.  You see, here we are.  These are the highways in thick red.  The roads and paths are in smaller lines.  Way over on that side is a much larger village, a city with a much more powerful shaman.  You will need his help on this.  Just head west, into the sunset.  When you meet the ocean, go south.”

“Is it something I did wrong?” I asked.  “Something done to me?”

“If you stepped on a nail, you would feel the sharp pain right away,” he said.  “If someone attacked you, you would feel the blow on the back of your head.  If someone poisoned you, you would feel ill.”  He scratched his chin and blinked.  “A disease would make you feverish and you would need to recover somehow.  Our magic boxes used to have something to help your body cure itself, but that magic was used up years ago.  You understand these are not really magic boxes, don’t you?  They are things that help me to help you.

“Centuries ago, I would have tried giving you poisons like arsenic, bismuth or mercury compounds.  Then we learned to stop trying to kill our patients that way.

I pulled away from him, afraid that he might try to kill me with those things.  I knew Mercury is a planet but could not remember ever hearing about the other two things he mentioned.

His eyebrows went up as I moved away, and he said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to inject you with any of those.”  He looked around his small office.  “I don’t even have any needles anyway.  No one bothers making them any more.

“We once had what were called antibiotics, what you would call magic charms against diseases,” he said.

That confused me.  “I know I heard something about probiotics,” I said.  “So those cause disease?”

He shook his head and grunted.  “Not all biotics are bad, they don’t all cause disease.  Some of them we need.  So if the strong antibiotics kill off all the good bugs along with the bad, we used probiotics to give us new good bugs.”

“Bugs?” I asked.  “Like the roaches and beetles?”

“I wish we could kill off some of them too,” he said.  “But the bugs I mean are very tiny.  Anyway, antibiotics are long gone.  When we used them, someone needs to refill the boxes.  Mine has not been refilled in all these years.  I hope Doctor Sagroma is more fortunate.  You must find him, starting tomorrow.  I could be wrong about this, and he might just send you home.”

The shaman used a stylus and etched something onto the map.  “This is his name, Sagroma.  You might find him in the temple.”  He squinted at the map and said, “It says, ‘Not drawn to scale.’  I have no idea how far away this is or how long will it take you.  So you had better get started now, tomorrow, before it’s too late.”

“Sagroma,” I said.  “Temple.  Temple temple temple.”

He handed me a saltshaker and said, “This is not table salt, it’s potassium iodide.  Try some of that on food or make a tea with it.  Use an infusion of hops and a little sugar syrup.  See if it helps relieve the pain and lets you sleep.”

“Oh, I forgot to tell you about that,” I said.  “Yes, I have trouble sleeping at night.  Did I already tell you that?  Temple.”

Only as I sat on the floor of my house did I realize I had no idea of where I was going or the city’s name.  I unrolled the map and found what I thought was the spot.  There were several spots, each with writing next to it.  I chose the largest spot and tried to read its name.  The handwriting was lush and florid but the characters blended together into swirling patterns that only suggested letters I knew.  It could have been Triandium.

Someone knocked on the door.  Through the gaps in the wall I could see it was the shaman and someone else.  “Enter and be welcome,” I called out as the door opened too quickly.  As it banged against the wall and swung shut again, I saw the shaman and a large burly man, both with their arms full of something.

“I will not send you out to starve,” the shaman said.  “Here is a bag of things I collected for you.  People in the village are grateful for all your work in the fields, and already gave more than you can hope to carry.  Cograt here will act as your summons tomorrow morning.  He will sleep right outside the door and make sure you are up before it gets too hot for travel.”

I looked at Cograt standing in the doorway.  His arms were full of a sleeping mat and a large bag.  He looked around and set his load down just outside my door.  I knew his face from somewhere, I must have seen him without noticing.  The village is small enough to know everyone in it.  “Where have I seen him?” I thought.  “Was it the fields?  The market?  He looks like…”  I could not remember who he looked like.  I thought of my days, weeks and years in the fields just outside the village.  “Did this Cograt stand next to me with a sickle during wheat harvest time?”  I thought.  I tried to picture the time I spent, the hours waddling and stooping.  Mostly I pictured the dirt, wheat, and clover as my hands danced.  The short handle of the village sickles made us all squat close to the ground as we worked.  I never cut myself in all that time once I had a rhythm going.  My left hand reached down to grasp hold of stalks, and my right hand pulled the sickle close but not too close.  I let go and took a waddling step to the next handful.  Maybe it was normal that I couldn’t remember faces, even of people who worked next to me.  Better to forget and keep all my fingers.

Episode 26: The Shinola Cure

“So remind me,” said Rupert. “Why is the FDA raising a stink about our new therapeutic transplantation program?”

“Because we propose transplanting fecal matter into patients,” said Dr. Buttinsky.

Rupert’s response rudely sent his coffee across the conference table. He mopped up the mess with rapid dabs of a tissue while several others in the room ran for paper towels. Rupert grabbed a towel and pressed it to his face. His muffled voice said, “Doctor, do not ever tell me something like that while I sip coffee. Or anything else.”

Dr. Buttinsky pulled his face in and looked around the room. “Something like what?” he asked. His eyebrows were raised in a startled expression as if he had his third facelift just that morning.

Rupert stared at him. “You’ve been our veepard for a month now and you have no clue?”

“Veepard?” Dr. Buttinsky asked.

“VP of R and D,” Dr. Horrible said. “You are our fifth in four years. Don’t make us regret hiring you.”

Rupert looked at his hands and pulled his shoulders back. “As Chief Science Officer here, I expect Dr. Horrible to know exactly what is going on.” Rupert paused and looked at the seven scientists at the table. “Yet Dr. Horrible could not tell me what you are proposing here.”

“Marlene?” said Dr. Buttinsky as he looked at a young woman at the table. She poked at her computer and said, “We plan to make curing C. difficile easy.”

“Marlene,” Rupert said, “you should be in marketing. That’s good, very good.”

The projector switched on and a bright patch of light proclaimed, “Difficulties with difficile? Shoo it away with the Shinola cure!”

Marlene stood up. And up. And more up, towering above the table. “Several Canadian groups have been studying fecal transplants from healthy patients into people with persistent C. difficile infections. These are people suffering for years and who do not respond to antibiotics. We can cure them within one or two days.”

“Well, that’s a pretty tall order,” Rupert said. He clapped his hands over his mouth. “Sorry.”

Marlene rolled her eyes, then changed the projector display. Rupert read “Clinical Trials” and “The ‘Ick’ Factor.” Marlene said, “We are all aware this sounds most unpleasant, and cannot imagine how difficult it is to recruit patients for clinical trials. We must convince the FDA of safety and efficacy. But why is patient recruitment so difficult?”

“Because no one wants someone else’s poop put in them,” Rupert said. “You’ll never get anywhere with this.”

Marlene smiled and straightened up another few inches. “Wrong. All the patients want the treatment. None of them want to be the Control arm with standard antibiotics treatment only.”

Dr. Buttinsky said, “The disease is that bad. People will do almost anything for a cure.”

Rupert’s eyes glowed. “And pay almost anything? We can charge big bucks to sell them sh-”

“Shinola,” corrected Marlene.

“Wasn’t there some old saying about Shinola?” Rupert asked. “It used to be some shoe polish or something, wasn’t it?”

Dr. Buttinsky flipped through his notes and pointed at one page. “Someone recently revived the name. They trademarked all sorts of things including shoe polish and cosmetics. And wine.”

“But not therapeutic treatments,” Marlene said. She sat down and smiled across the table at Rupert. “It’s a natural.”

“Yes,” said Rupert. “I know a natural when I see one.”

Other scientists presented slide after slide of data, charts, tables, and diagrams until they heard Rupert snore. His head bobbed sideways and he sat up with a jolt. “I’m on it!” he shouted. “Yes, I’m – I…”

“So you have no objections to us proceeding with development?” Dr. Buttinsky asked.

Rupert shook his head. “I wasn’t sleeping, I was pondering.” He drummed his fingers on the table and looked at Dr. Horrible. “Come on, Dr. H, what is the obvious question here?”

Dr. Horrible glanced at his notes and said, “Two questions. First, if the data you showed are so compelling, who is our competition?”

“Just about any hospital can generate their own, um, transplantation material,” Dr. Buttinsky said. “What they can’t offer is, um.”

“Quality control and consistency of product,” Marlene said.

“What about quality control and consistency of product?” Dr. Horrible asked.

Dr. Buttinsky said, “There are researchers in Canada who are cultivating a simulated fecal product. That eliminates – sorry – the problem of screening donors for diseases.”

“Do you realize there are thousands of bacterial species in the human gut?” asked Dr. Horrible. “Which ones will you use?

“Um,” said Dr. Buttinsky.

“I took care of that,” Marlene said. “Besides contacting the original researcher, we can matrix out the likely candidates.”

Dr. Horrible turned away from Dr. Buttinsky and faced Marlene. “Very good. Any final questions, Rupert?”

Rupert’s face was very pale. “Isn’t there some more palatable way of delivering the, um, you know?”

“Well, as you saw from slide number 74, it’s usually a pint of donor material piped down the nose right into the patient’s intestine.”

Rupert’s face changed from pale to green. “Urgh,” he said.

“Researchers are interested in partnering for a freeze-dried capsule delivery,” Marlene said. “No losing anyone’s appetite, no mess.”

“Where can we work on that?” Rupert asked. “I wouldn’t want that research lab anywhere near our other facilities.”

There were unprofessional snorts of laughter from around the table. “He said ‘facilities’,” said one junior scientist.

Marlene did not so much as smirk. “There is a company called InnuEndo Solutions that is closing a research facility on Long Island. They plan to lay off everyone there, so we can have an instant workforce with incentive to deal with the less savory parts of this project.”

The research team stood to leave, Marlene towering above the others by almost a foot. As she left the room, Rupert noticed her shoes must have had at least eight-inch heels.

Later, in Rupert’s office, he saw that in bare feet she was still a foot taller than he.