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Excerpt: The Second Opinion

Why am I in such pain? Can someone please tell me what happened? What happened to me? I can feel that, Vernice. I can feel you moving my ankle. Oh, my God…

Multiple contusions and abrasions…  Fractured pelvis…  Nondisplaced fracture, proximal humerus…  Pulmonary contusion and laceration secondary to posterior displaced fractures of right seventh, eighth, and ninth ribs…

With the grim litany ticking through her thoughts, Thea Sperelakis approached Cubicle 4 in the medical ICU of the Beaumont Clinic.

Transverse linear skull fracture…  Extensive mid– brain stem hemorrhage… Level I coma…

Thea hesitated, envisioning what her father would look like and knowing that, as an internal medicine specialist herself, her projection would not be far from on the mark.  According to her brother Niko, police estimated that the vehicle that struck their father at five thirty in the early morning eight days ago, then drove away, had to have been traveling seventy, at least.  It was a miracle he had survived the impact, which threw him more than twenty- five feet.  But then, for as long as Thea could remember, Petros Sperelakis was, to his children, the Lion—aloof, powerful, and brilliant, often to the point of majesty.

The Lion.

The absence of skid marks suggested that the driver never saw his victim.  Make that his or her victim, Thea edited, intent on enforcing that sort of accuracy, even in her thoughts.  The police still had no clues and no witnesses.

Alcohol, she guessed.  According to an article by Eileen Posnick in a seven- year- old issue of the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, alcohol was involved in more than 90 percent of hit- and- run accidents where the drivers were eventually apprehended.

Behind her, Niko stepped out from the group that included his twin, Selene, plus a trio of Beaumont Clinic dignitaries, and took Thea’s arm.  He was swarthy and broad- shouldered, with their father’s strong nose and piercing dark eyes, but with features that were somewhat softer.  At forty, he was already an associate professor of cardiac surgery at Harvard—a wunderkind, with several significant contributions to the field.  Selene, exotic, elegant, and totally self-assured, was no less accomplished as a hand surgeon.

“You okay, Thea?” Niko asked softly.

As she had been taught to do, Thea searched her feelings before responding.  Her father, bigger than life itself, was in a deep coma from which there was a 0. 01 percent chance he would recover even minimal function—at least according to the retrospective study of traumatic midbrain hemorrhages published by Harkinson et al.  in the American Archives of Neurology, volume 117, page 158.  One in ten thousand, not counting the ribs and other fractures.

Poor Dad.

“I’m okay,” she replied.

“Want to go in alone?”

Why would I want to do that? she wondered, shaking her head. Would their father be any less comatose if she saw him by herself?

She shrugged that it made no difference, but sensed she could have come up with a more acceptable response.

“Suit yourself,” Niko said in a tone that was quite familiar to her.

Thea knew her brother cared about her—Selene, too.  She also knew that the twins had always thought she was odd, though certainly not as odd as their oldest sibling, Dimitri.  But their attitude, as emphasized over and over by Thea’s longtime therapist and mentor, Dr.  Paige Carpenter, was their problem.

One in ten thousand…  Poor Dad.

Thea ran her fingers through her short chestnut hair, took a single deep breath, and stepped through the doorway.

As anticipated, there were no surprises.  Legendary Petros Sperelakis, medical director of the Sperelakis Institute for Diagnostic Medicine, lay motionless—the central figure in a tableau of medical machines.  Across the room, his private duty nurse (Haitian, Thea guessed) rose and introduced herself as Vernice.

“I have heard a great deal about you, Dr.  Thea,” she said.  “I hope your flight was an easy one.”

“I just read,” Thea said, taking the husky woman’s smooth, ample hand.

I just read.

It was, Thea knew, the most resounding of understatements.  During the twenty- hour series of flights and layovers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Boston, she had read Don Quixote, the second edition of Deadman’s A Manual of Acupuncture (for the second time), and Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle—more than sixteen hundred pages in all.  She would have made the trip home sooner, but she was on a mission moving from refugee camp to camp in the bush with a team of nutritionists, and simply couldn’t be reached.

“There’s been no change,” Vernice said.

“I’d be most surprised if there were.  He has taken a severe beating—especially to his head.”

Thea approached the bedside, instinctively checking the monitors and intravenous infusions.  Petros lay quite peacefully, connected via a tracheotomy tube to a state- of- the- art ventilator.  The various Medecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) hospitals to which Thea had been assigned over the past five years had been reasonably well equipped, but nothing like this place.

The Beaumont, as nearly everyone referred to the institution, was a sprawling campus, the size of a small university, consisting of what had once been Boston Metropolitan Hospital, now augmented by two dozen more buildings, varying widely in architectural style.  The buildings were linked by tree- lined sidewalks above, and an intricate maze of tunnels below, some with moving walkways and others with tarnished tile walls, leading in places to stairways that went down for two or three damp stories, and dating back to Metro’s earliest days in the mid- nineteenth century.

Oxygen saturation…  arterial blood pressure…  cerebrospinal fluid pressure…  central venous pressure…  urine output… chest tube drainage…  cardiac rhythm and ECG pattern…

Thea took in the complex data and processed them as if they were a grade- school primer.  Steady.  Everything was nice and steady.  At the moment, the fierce battle for the life of Petros Sperelakis was being fought at a cellular and even subcellular level.  And his youngest offspring, cursed by him when she made the decision to avoid academic medicine and “give her services away,” to third- world countries, pictured the microscopic conflict clearly in her mind’s eye.

At best it would probably be weeks before the man regained any consciousness.  Along the way, his system would have to negotiate a minefield of infections, blood clots, kidney stones, embolisms, cerebral swelling, chemical imbalance, intestinal obstructions, and cardiac events.  But in this setting, with this equipment, he would at least have a fighting chance.  Still, from what Thea knew of her father, if it were his choice, it was doubtful he would try very hard to steer clear of the mines.

She took the man’s hand and held it for a time.  It had been only eight days since the accident, but his muscle mass was already beginning to waste away.  In addition to the trach, he had a gastric feeding tube in place, two IVs, a urinary catheter, which was draining briskly into a collection bag, and a BOLT pressure manometer that passed through his skull and into the spinal fluid–containing ventricle of his brain.  His eyelids were paper- taped down to protect his corneas from drying out, and splints on his wrists and ankles were strapped in place to prevent joint contractures, against the remote possibility of a return of function.

Petros Sperelakis—an icon brought down by a driver who was either in an alcoholic blackout or was aware enough to try and get away before anyone showed up.  Never had Thea’s father looked even remotely vulnerable to her.  Now, he looked frail and pathetically infantile. Thea sensed that she was expected to stay at the bedside a bit longer, and she planned to be there as much as possible in the days to come.  But she had slept little if any on the planes, and the exhaustionof the flights was beginning to take hold.  Fifteen minutes, she decided. Fifteen more minutes would be enough to stay at the bedside whether the others thought so or not.

Niko had invited her to stay at his house, but three kids under ten, much as she loved them, provided more commotion than she could handle.

Selene and her partner, a banker or businesswoman of some kind, lived in a designer high- rise condo by the harbor.

The obvious choice was the spacious Wellesley home in which she and the others had grown up, and where Petros still lived with the ghost of their mother and with Dimitri who, many years before, had moved into the carriage house along with his computers, his monitors, his shortwave radio, his telescope, his machinery, his library of manga, graphic novels, and Dungeons and Dragons manuals, and his vast collection of Coca- Cola and Star Wars memorabilia.

It would be good to see her brother again for many reasons, not the least of which was that of all those in her family, he was the one she related to the most—something of a mirror of what she might have been like had she not had the benefit of early diagnosis, intervention, and extensive behavior modification therapy.

From her early childhood, Thea had memories of the family talking about Dimitri’s aloofness and strange behaviors—his lack of friends, offbeat humor, and often- inappropriate statements.  Physical age, twelve years ahead of her.  Emotional age, inconsistent and unpredictable.

“Dimitri, this is Robert, your new piano teacher.”

“Oh, hello.  When’s the last time you went to the dentist?”

She would never know the bulk of what the family said to one another about her, but she also knew that the choices she had made, with Dr.  Carpenter’s help, were the right ones for her, and ultimately, for her patients.  Keeping her life as uncomplicated as possible, she had learned, was not only a pathway to happiness, it was her roadmap to survival.  If there was any single word that did not apply to Petros Sperelakis, it was uncomplicated.

Born and raised in Athens until his late teens, Petros was strictly Old Country in his attitudes and philosophy—a brilliant physician as dedicated to his calling and his patients as he was hard on his family. Verbal chastisement and high expectations were his weapons, as well as his only means of expressing love.  His wife, Eleni, had rebelled against him in one way and one way only, by continuing to smoke cigarettes despite his vehement edicts that she stop.  The lung cancer that took her did nothing to soften Petros, and virtually every mention of her by him was followed by the impotent plea: “If she had only listened to me…  If only she had listened.”

Thea reached between the tubes and brushed some damp, gray hair from her father’s brow.  The sadness she was feeling at seeing him in such a state was, she knew, as much learned as it was deep-seated and visceral.  But she also knew that it was still as real an emotion as those of her two “neurotypical” siblings.

From the beginning, Petros could never understand her shyness, or the severe reactions she had to certain noises—especially vacuum cleaners and hair dryers—as well as to certain foods, and different textures of clothing.  When she was twelve, pressured by Eleni that she was seeming more and more like Dimitri in her lack of friends and her pathological obsessions, especially with books of all kinds, Petros consented to allow his wife to bring her to Dr.  Carpenter.  It was Carpenter who subsequently suggested that Thea was exhibiting many of the symptoms associated with the condition called Asperger syndrome.

The decision to allow his younger daughter to undergo neuropsychiatric testing and therapy did not come easily to Petros.  In the lexicon of his life, there was no such word as can’t and no such concept as psychotherapy.  If he had any weakness at all as a diagnostician, it was in the area of psychosomatic illness and the mind-body connection.

“I think he’s comfortable,” Vernice ventured from across the bed.

“I’m sure he is,” Thea replied, managing with some difficulty to swallow her belief that if Petros was feeling anything, then he was certainly not comfortable, and if he was feeling nothing at all, then trying to equate that void with comfort was a stretch.

“Your brother Dimitri said that if your father was in as deep a coma as he appears to be, it was a futile exercise to wonder if he was comfortable or not.”

“Sometimes, Dimitri says things just for the shock effect,” Thea replied, smiling inwardly at the number of times and situations in which her eccentric sibling had done just that.  Vernice had gotten off relatively easily.

“Well,” the nurse said, “at least we have the comfort of knowing that Dr.  S. is being taken care of in the greatest hospital in the world.”

“Yes,” Thea said, wondering where Vernice, and Newsweek, and the countless others who believed as she did about the Beaumont, could have gotten such quantification about something so unquantifiable.


At virtually the same instant, in the Susan and Clyde Terry Cancer Center, on the far side of the broad campus of the so- called greatest hospital in the world, the treatment nurse was doing her job, injecting a cutting- edge experimental drug into the central IV port of a burly man named Jeffrey Fagone.

Fagone, a trucking magnate from western Pennsylvania, had his rapid accumulation of wealth interrupted by an unusual variant of the blood cancer known as Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia.  His presenting symptom had been lower-back pain. The referral by his primary care doctor had been to the expert in the disease at the Beaumont, where Fagone went yearly for his five- day spa pampering and executive medical checkup. Now, he was part of a cutting- edge treatment protocol—the sort of protocol that the doctors at the Beaumont were renowned for establishing.

Fagone flew up to the Terry Center weekly on his GulfstreamG500 corporate jet.  Now he was about to receive the third in a series of ten treatments.  The first two had been absolutely uneventful.

This injection, however, would be different.

The vial from which the medication was drawn had been skillfully switched during its journey from the research pharmacy to the cancer center.  The new vial, with the same ID number as the old one, now contained enough concentrated bee venom to turn Fagone’s bee sting allergy, duly noted in his medical record, into an anaphylactic reaction—a fearsome medical emergency, equivalent to the Fourth of July fireworks on the Charles River Esplanade.

The eruption did not take long to begin.  The first few molecules of the venom instantly began mobilizing mast cells from all over Fagone’s body.  The cells released huge amounts of histamine and other sensitivity chemicals.  More venom, more mast cells, more histamine. In less than a minute, Fagone’s tongue, cardinal red, had swollen to the size of a golf ball, and his lips to violet sausages.  The muscles in the walls of his bronchial tubes went into vicious spasm. Seconds after that, his larynx, also in spasm, closed off altogether. His entire body became scarlet, and his fingers became nothing more than nubs protruding from softball-sized hands.

The team in the Terry unit acted quickly, bringing out a stretcher and hoisting the two-hundred-and-seventy-pound former teamster onto it, then wheeling him to an area that could be screened off from other patients.

But they were paddling against a medical tsunami.

The IV port was available, but the oncologist covering the unit, a young woman less than half Fagone’s size, was not skilled in dealing with emergencies of this magnitude.  By the time she got the right medications into the man, Fagone’s blood pressure had been zero for nearly three minutes.  By the time she gave up trying to force anendotracheal breathing tube past the massively swollen, distorted vocal cords, and began clumsily performing her first emergency tracheotomy while waiting for the ENT surgeon to answer his page, there had been no effective respirations for four minutes.  She had just sliced a scalpel across her patient’s massive throat when his heart stopped.  The blood fl owing from the gaping laceration was gentian.

When the oncologist, frustrated and utterly demoralized, called off the resuscitation at the ten-minute mark, a useful airway had still not been established.

Jeffrey Fagone, who years before had survived two assassination attempts during his rise to wealth and power in the Teamsters Union, had no chance of surviving this one.

Unlike the other attempts, however, there was no suspicion of anything sinister at work here.  Fagone had been done in by a lethal allergic reaction to Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia experimental drug #BW1745.  No one present that day thought otherwise.  There would be no analysis of the contents of the vial, and the perfunctory autopsy performed the next morning would disclose nothing out of the ordinary.

The treatment protocol for #BW1745 would be suspended indefinitely, but within just a few months, the principal investigator, supported by a hefty grant from one of the pharmaceutical giants, would roll out another experimental drug to meet the demand of referrals from all over the world.

The Susan and Clyde Terry Cancer Center closed for cleanup and staff support for an hour after the tragic event, but there were patients to treat, many of whom had come from even greater distances than Jeffrey Fagone.

Soon, like the surface of a pond disturbed by a jumping fish, the ripples had subsided, and the world’s greatest hospital had gone back to being the world’s greatest hospital.

Available FEB 17, 2009!