(In 1952, polio reached its peak in the United States with 21,000 cases of paralytic polio. The first polio vaccine was introduced in 1955. By 1965, the total paralytic cases had fallen to 61. In this fictionalized history series, we will be experiencing the aftermath of polio, before the dramatic triumph of a vaccine. If you're just joining us, go back to Part 1.)
Forty-Four Years and One Month Since Hospital Admission
August 1996 (51 years old)
"Man, you've got some tunnels down here," Pete said.
His escort, the mechanical engineer, screwed an open light bulb deeper into the socket. The darkness retreated.
"This campus was built before the turn of the century," the man said. "Lots of buildings have been isolated from the power plant now. Like the new hospital pavilion. This steam is coming in from the dormitories."
"Way better efficiency."
The engineer nodded. "We used to really have to bake the dorms to heat the old university hospital when it was in this building."
"Just offices now?"
"Mostly." The engineer shined his flashlight farther back and illuminated a crisp, old tarp. "Here we are."
The air smelled stale. But not much mildew. The tunnels seemed pretty dry.
"How long has it been down here?" Pete said.
"Oh Jesus. Thirty years, maybe."
"Well, let's take a look."
Pete reached and pulled. Dust billowed up and swirled in the flashlight beam.
"Somebody decided to keep one around a long time ago," the engineer said. "But not many know it's here now."
"Good thing your CEO likes to take weird tours down here."
"Yeah. He loves the tunnels and boilers and shit like that."
Pete punched his mechanical screwdriver into four screws and pulled off part of the metal housing.
"Right model?" the engineer asked.
"Close enough. We're damn lucky, I can tell you that. This company stopped making this shit eighteen years ago. You couldn't sell your soul to get new parts for it."
"We called seventeen hospitals before we got lucky with this here one," Pete said.
"How does she look?"
Pete wiped some grime with a rag from his back pocket. "Well, the exchanger looks good. But we won't know for sure until we install it."
"You really still got someone in an iron lung?"
"Yep. Polio. Since back in the 50's. Great lady. Her name is Julia."
"Must be fucking hell."
Pete angled himself to get deeper in. "She doesn't seem to mind it so much. She's got a great sense of humor."
"Well, I can't imagine living in one of these things. I'd blow my brains out if I could get someone to do it for me."
"Piss!" Pete pressed a cut finger into his rag. The cloth had lots of dark decorations.
"What are you going to do when you can't fix it any more?"
Pete dabbed blood from the slice. "There's still a bunch of these squirreled away in basements. I'll keep it running."
"For her sake, I hope you do. She's gonna be happy to see you."
Pete smiled. "Yeah, she was pretty worried. The lung sounds pretty sick right now. But it's still pumping."
"You need a hand?"
"You mind if I grab a few more parts off this thing?" Pete said. "These motors scare me. If one quits.... But then again, they built some serious shit back then."
"Go ahead. None of this is doing anybody good down here."
"Thanks. Julia would kiss you if she were here."
The engineer repositioned the light as Pete expanded his dissection.
On to Part 16.
Go back to Part 14.