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University Hospital, Boston
IT OUGHT TO be raining, thought Luke Abramson. It ought to be gray and miserable, with a lousy cold rain pelting down.
Instead, the hospital room was bright, with mid-December sunshine slanting through the windows. In the bed lay eight-year-old Angela, Luke's granddaughter, frail and wasting, her eyes closed, her thinned blond hair spread across the pillow. Angela's parents, Luke's only daughter and his son-in-law, stood on the other side of the bed, together with Angela's attending physician. Luke stood alone.
He'd been playing tennis in the university's indoor court when the phone call from the hospital came. Or, rather, doggedly going through the motions of playing tennis. Nearly seventy-five, even doubles was getting beyond him. Although the younger men tried to take it easy on him, more than once Luke had gloomily suggested they start playing triples.
And then came the phone call. Angie was terminal. He had rushed to the hospital, bundling his bulky parka over his tennis shorts and T-shirt.
"Then there's nothing…?" Luke's daughter, Lenore, couldn't finish the sentence. Her voice choked in sobs.
Norrie, Luke called to her silently, don't cry. I'll help you. I can cure Angie, I know I can. But he couldn't speak the words aloud. He watched Lenore sobbing quietly, her heart breaking.
And Luke remembered all the other times when his daughter had come to him in tears, her deep brown eyes brimming, her dear little form racked with sobs. I'll fix it, Norrie, he had always told her. I'll make it all better for you. Even when his wife died after all those painful years of battling cancer, Lenore came to her father for comfort, for protection against the terrible wrongs that life had thrown at them.
Now Lenore stood with her husband, who wrapped an arm protectively around her slim, trembling shoulders. Del towered over little Lenore, a tall, athletic figure standing firmly beside his diminutive, grief-stricken wife. He's being strong for her, Luke knew. But he could see the agony, the bitterness in his clenched jaw and bleak eyes.
The physician, Dr. Tamara Minteer, replied in a barely audible whisper, "We can make her as comfortable as possible. I'll contact Hospice and—"
"It's all right." Angela's tiny voice cut the doctor short. She had opened her eyes and was trying to smile. "It doesn't hurt. Not at all."
Lenore and Del leaned down over their daughter's prostrate body, both of them in tears. Dr. Minteer looked as if she wanted to cry, too, but she held herself stiffly erect and looked straight at Luke, standing on the other side of the bed.
I can cure her, Luke told her. He didn't have to say it aloud. He knew Minteer understood what was in his mind. She knew it. And she rejected the idea.
* * *
GLIOBLASTOMA MULTIFORME IS a particularly pernicious form of brain cancer. Stubbornly resistant to radiation and chemotherapy, it usually kills its victims in a matter of months. It rarely strikes children, but eight-year-old Angela Villanueva was one of those rare cases.
Luke Abramson was a cellular biologist at the end of his career. Approaching seventy-five, he had been under pressure for some years from the university's management to accept retirement gracefully and go away. Professor Abramson was well liked by his students and practically adored by his small laboratory staff, but his associates on the university's faculty found him cantankerous, stubborn, frequently scornful of his colleagues, and totally unwilling to go in any direction but his own. His retirement would be a blessing, they thought.
Cancer had been the curse of Luke's family. Both his parents had been cut down by cancers, his father's of the lungs and his mother's of the ovaries. His wife, good-natured and health conscious, had succumbed to bladder cancer despite a lifetime of carefully watching her diet and faithfully exercising to keep her weight down.
It was if some invisible supernatural monster haunted his family, Luke thought. An implacable enemy that took his loved ones from him, year after year.
Luke had anxiously watched over his only daughter, and was thankful to a deity he really didn't believe in when Lenore grew up cancer-free. But deep in his consciousness he knew that this was no victory. Cancer was out there, waiting to strike.
It devastated him when it struck, not his daughter, but her child, Angela. Glioblastoma multiforme. Inoperable brain cancer. Little Angie would be dead in six months or less. Unless Luke could prevent it.
* * *
LEAVING ANGELA WITH her grieving parents, Luke followed Dr. Minteer as she strode determinedly down the busy hospital corridor. The hallway bustled with people hurrying to and fro; it seemed to Luke more crowded than Grand Central Station.
He was puffing. First tennis and now a freaking foot race, he thought. We must look comical: a lean, bent old man with bad knees and what was left of his hair shaved down to a whitish fuzz, chasing after a slim, dark-haired oncologist. God, look at her go. Sleek and lithe as a prowling cheetah.
"Hey, Doc, slow up," he gasped.
Tamara Minteer stopped altogether and turned to face him. Slightly taller than Luke, she wasn't exactly beautiful, he thought: Her nose was a trifle too sharp, her lips on the thin side. But she was elegant. That was the word for her: elegant. She moved like a cat, supple and graceful. Almond-shaped green eyes set above high cheekbones. Glossy raven-black shoulder-length hair. At the moment, though, her lean, taut face was set grimly, her brilliant emerald eyes snapping.
"I know what you're going to say, Professor, and—"
"Luke," he wheezed. "My name is Luke."
"It's no good, Professor," Minteer continued, her voice low, throaty. "You can't wave a magic wand and cure your granddaughter."
Don't lose your freaking temper, Luke commanded himself. You need her. Don't turn her off.
He sucked in a breath. "It's not a magic wand and you know it. It's manipulating the telomeres, and I've got solid experimental evidence for its efficacy."
"In lab mice." Minteer resumed walking along the corridor, but at a slower pace.
"And chimps," Luke said, hurrying to keep up with her.
That stopped her. Minteer looked surprised. "I hadn't heard about chimpanzee experiments."
"One chimp. NIH won't let us have any more, something about the mother-loving animal rights activists. As if we were hurting them."
"You got positive results in a chimpanzee?"
Luke waggled a hand. "Sort of. We haven't published yet."
Minteer shook her head and started along the corridor once again. "I can't let you use your granddaughter as a guinea pig."
"She's going to die, for God's sake!" Luke barked. Several people in the corridor turned to stare at him.
Minteer kept walking, her soft-soled shoes squeaking on the tiled floor. She reached her office door and yanked it open, Luke two steps behind her.
He followed her into the office and closed the door tightly, then leaned against it, puffing. "You ought to be in the Olympics, Doc," he said, breathless.
"And you should be retired," Minteer snapped as she headed for her desk, her body as rigid as a steel bar.
It was a small office, windowless, efficiently lit by glareless light panels in the ceiling. Everything in its place, except for a bilious green spider plant that had overflowed its pot and spread halfway across the bookcase in one corner of the room.
"Let me try to save her," Luke pleaded. "She's my only grandchild, for God's sake."
"It's a totally unproven therapy. How can I let you experiment on an eight-year-old child?"
"So you're going to let her die? Is that what you call practicing medicine?"
"Don't tell me what I should be doing," Minteer snapped.
"Somebody's got to!"
Glaring at him, she said, "You know I can't approve it."
"Yes you could."
"I don't have the authority."
"But you could recommend it."
"How can I recommend a therapy I don't believe in?"
"What freaking difference does it make? Angie's going to die unless you let me help her!"
"You can't help her. We've tried targeted bacterial vectors and immunotherapy. Nothing's worked. She's going to die, whatever you do."
"And you'll be killing her mother, too. This'll kill Lenore."
That hit home. He could see it in her face.
"I'm no good at begging," Luke said, hating the whine in his voice. "But please. For God's sake, please!"
Her rigid stance softened a little. She looked away from him, then slowly sank into her swivel chair. Luke remained standing in front of the desk.
"Recommend it to the executive committee," he urged again. "Please. It's Angie's only chance."
Minteer locked her eyes on Luke's. For an eternally long moment she said nothing, just stared at him. At last she nodded slowly and said, "I can't recommend your therapy, Professor. It's just a lab experiment."
Before he could protest, she added, "But I can ask the committee to hear you out."
"Thanks! Thanks a lot," said Luke. Then he abruptly turned and left Dr. Minteer's office. He desperately needed to find the nearest men's room.
Copyright © 2014 by Ben Bova