“I feel like I’m wearing a suit of armor. My whole body feels tight.” Major Mathew Collins threw off the sheet and pulled down his hospital Johnny.
“Take it easy Major Collins. The feeling is subjective for the most part.” Colonel Abram Gesecke flipped some pages in Collins’ hospital chart.
“Well for the most part, I feel like every muscle in my body is trying to leave it.” Collins looked at Gesecke and then at the Air Force nurse. He flopped back from a sitting position to a 45-degree angle on his electric bed. “How long will I be here?”
“You’ve been here one month and I think you’ll be ready to go stateside by the end of the week. I have to arrange your transfer to Wilford Hall in San Antonio.”
“I’m the only patient like this to come out of Afghanistan?”
“You’re an anomaly Major. Al-Qaeda or the Taliban used the trichothecene before but the toxin causes paralysis. You had the reverse. You’re muscles became stronger–hypertonic–and went into partial spasm. Every member of the SEAL team died except you.”
“I understand all that. What about the future? I can walk and do everything. I just get stiff all over.”
“Your condition is stable. We have to continue to observe your progress. You’ll need a muscle biopsy at Wilford Hall and more testing but we want you to get back to civilian life right away. Right now you need massage therapy at least twice a week and exercise therapy the same amount.”
“Look, Dr. Gesecke, we’re both doctors. You’re a neurologist and I’m a plastic surgeon. I need to get back to work–to see if I still have my dexterity in the operating room.”
“You still have your fine motor skills and your sense of touch is entirely normal. You just have to adapt to your new muscle tone.” Gesecke had the look and physique of the new Star Trek commander including the shaved head. His authoritative presence was effective.
“What’s that supposed to mean? And what about my increased muscle mass? I used to be at my ideal body weight.”
“Matt, I’ll be following your care in San Antonio. I’m going back with you. You’ve looked at yourself in the mirror. Your muscle size has more than doubled since your unit got ambushed. It’s now stable. Your muscle strength has increased out of proportion to your size and that’s what needs to be fine-tuned. You’ll work in your trade at Wilford Hall Air Force Hospital and if everything’s okay you’ll be somewhat released to civilian practice.”
“Somewhat released? What the hell does that mean?” Collins grabbed the bed handrails as he sat up again. The rails gave way and detached from the bed. He saw the nurse’s wide-eyed stare as he stood up in his briefs with a deformed bedrail still in his hand.
Gesecke pointed to the metal tubing. “That’s what you have to adapt to. You have to know your own strength.” Gesecke paused. “You’ll still be in the military–in the inactive reserves–while we determine what your final neuromuscular status will be.”
The nurse wrote something in the progress page and smiled at Collins. “You’re going to PT now. You can get into your sweats.”
Collins looked again at Gesecke. “Dr. Gesecke, what’s my working diagnosis?” He put on his sweat pants and his sweatshirt.
“For lack of something definitive we’re calling it a ‘post-concussive shock syndrome’. It’s purely descriptive of your being exposed to the shock wave of an explosion. The trichothecene exposure is top secret. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not supposed to be using chemical weapons.”
“Are you sure it was al-Qaeda? Saddam Hussein was supposed to be the one who used the stuff on the Iranians.” Collins tied his sneakers and stretched his legs.
“We’re not sure. It’s politically safer to blame al-Qaeda or the Taliban at this point.”
Collins began stretching his arms and moving them in wide circular motions. “There’s no antidote for trichothecene poisoning.”
“If we get to the victim in time, we can provide mechanical ventilation and wait for the toxin to dissipate. It may take a few days but it’s theoretically possible to save the victims.”
“Theoretically. What a cop out. By the time we get to the victims they’re dead.”
“Let’s change the subject Matt and focus on you. You should have died from trichothecene paralysis but didn’t. Why? We have to know. We also have to know why your connective tissue is so strong. Every attempt to biopsy your muscle tissue breaks our instruments and any tissue sample we get is mangled and unsuitable for any testing.”
“So I may be the cure. I’m a test subject. Are you looking for antibodies from me?”
Gesecke smiled. “Anything’s possible Matt. Go down to your PT. In two days you’ll be in San Antonio.”
The nurse motioned Collins to the wheel chair. “Sit, Major.”
“I can walk better than before. This is ridiculous.”
“Sit. Hospital rules, Dr. Collins. Are you concerned because I’m a woman driver?”
“It’s the wheelchair. I don’t need it.”
Gesecke gave him a pat on his shoulder. “Just be patient, Matt and be a patient. When you get to the states we’ll get you back to work in the OR.”
Collins sat in the wheelchair and folded his arms. He looked up at the shapely nurse and smiled. “Are you coming stateside with me, Captain?”
“I wish.” She released the wheelchair brake. “Off we go, Major.”
The water was hot and soothing in the Jacuzzi pool. Collins sat in front of the water jets and across from an opposing current of warm water. The tightness in his arms and legs went away quickly. He looked at the wall clock. Twenty minutes of hydrotherapy and he would get a total body massage for another twenty minutes. Collins thought back to the day he received his orders to go with the SEAL team.
“Navy SEALs? I’m Air Force. What’s this all about?” Collins waved the thin pages in the air.
“They need a plastic surgeon to go with them on a special operations mission.” The Chief of Surgery at the Air Force hospital sat back in his high desk chair.
“What? I thought plastic surgeons were protected. We’re rare commodities in wartime–even peacetime. This is bullshit.” Collins threw the papers onto the desktop.
“All I can tell you, is the SEAL team has to extract a politically high muckity-muck being held prisoner by al-Qaeda on the Afghan-Iran border. It’s a place 50 miles west of Herat.”
“I haven’t a clue even to where Herat is.”
“It doesn’t Matter. In two weeks you jump in with the SEALs. You have to determine if the person is real or has had a plastic surgery job on his face. You’ll get pictures and a physical profile on this guy, including any scars or identifying marks and characteristics. It’s his face and any possible alterations we need you most for.”
“What’s the risk of failure here? What if I become the next hostage?”
“You’ll be briefed on the entire operation. The SEAL team–and that includes you–will have a large back-up of marines to help get you back to a safe haven in case of trouble.”
“Where do I go from here?”
“You go to Landstuhl Army Hospital. It’s adjacent to Ramstein Air Force Base in Ramstein Germany. The Navy SEAL team will be training not far from there.”
“Sir, this sounds like a circus. I’m Air Force, going to an Army Hospital and being trained with a Navy special-ops group.”
“If the person retrieved is the real deal, you’ll be going directly back to Landstuhl for further verification of his identify. You’ll be on the medical team taking care of him.”
“What if he’s had a facial reconstruction and isn’t the right guy?”
“Then you’ll come back to Landstuhl without him.”
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