A Fierce Radiance

by Lauren Belfer

22 July 2010

Image from The Army Nurse (1945) 

A Radical Intervention

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.


“1940s Mass penicillin production” image (partial) found on Wichita State University.edu

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.

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.” Based 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 Mr. Reese to Stanton and Brockett, capturing in one shot the contrast of their faces: the intense concentration of the doctor and nurse, the skeletal emptiness of Mr. Reese, Tia gripping a pencil and frowning in concentration in the background.

Nurse Brockett pushed up the striped sleeve of the hospital gown 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 alcoholdampened 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.


Photo (partial) by © Sigrid Estrada

Lauren Belfer is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel City of Light, a number one Book Sense pick, Discover Award finalist, and New York Times Notable Book. Her fiction has appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, and Henfield Prize Stories. She lives in New York City.

© Lauren Belfer

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