Chapter One: Beginnings
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2000 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
I still remember my thoughts when I awoke. My first thought, as it had been everyday for the last year and a half, was thankfulness that I was still alive. My second thought -- one that had been happening less and less frequently over the last couple of months -- was that this was a good day because the pain was not totally debilitating today. From then on, things began to get confusing.
Maybe I should explain a bit. For that matter, maybe I should apologize in advance if this narrative seems to jump about. My name is... no, my name was George LaPierre. I was a research scientist with a specialty in genetics and oncology. You see, all four of my grandparents had died of cancer at an early age and so had my parents -- heck, I barely got to know my mother; she died when I was just six. I figured that my body was a ticking time bomb, just waiting to go off -- and I was damned if I as going to "go quiet into that dark night" or however the quote goes. Selfish? Certainly. In my shoes, I expect you would be too.
It was at my mother's funeral that I first announced that I was going to cure cancer. As you can guess, my father and my relatives humored me. After all, who takes a six-year-old boy seriously when he says he is going to change the world?
After the funeral I was quieter, less apt to play with my friends and more likely to spend hours on end in my bedroom. It became very common, whenever my father would check in on me, to find me on my stomach with my feet up in the air and my elbows propping up my head as I stared at one of a collection of books about the human body. One of my presents for my seventh birthday was a new children's book of anatomy. It was to replace the book I had worn out with my constant perusal.
At first, my father was concerned by the abrupt change in me, but one of the psychologists where he worked -- he was a nuclear physicist, and the government wanted to be sure that everyone working around "da bomb," as they called it, was as stable as possible -- advised him that I was just going through a particularly intense grieving process and that if I didn't get over it in a while, my father should bring me in to talk to him. Luckily for me, Dad became caught up in his work as his own way of grieving and soon considered my behavior normal.
Do not get me wrong. I still did all -- well most -- of the things kids do. I played ball, climbed trees, debated the merits of various comic superheroes and went to school. I was a Boy Scout and still am, at heart, if you believe my best friend Paul. I developed an interest in girls at an early age -- like I had a choice living on an army base -- and I went to college, joined a fraternity and graduated summa cum laude. It might have been magna cum laude were it not for that unfortunate incident at the lab where Professor Carlton was splashed with semi-permanent skin coloring meant for my lab partner in response to his attempt to substitute alcohol for water during one of my experiments. Paul thought it was hilarious. The unfortunate part was that Carlton, Professor Carlton Waldorf Maldonado, did not, and tried to fail me. Luckily, I was good enough that he couldn't make an "F" stick, but he did only give me a "C" -- thus, summa instead of magna. Oh well, I still ended up getting a better job than the girl who was magna cum laude.
Back to when I woke up. Once the initial joy of surviving to live another day passed, I examined my surroundings; pale green walls, fluorescent lighting and medical equipment everywhere. This was not my bedroom. It was not even Kansas -- and if I had a little dog named Toto, the dog would not be around either. Perhaps I should explain that morphine makes thinking very difficult. It is like you are wading through a swamp and making the simplest connections is a major effort. That is probably why it took me so long to realize that I was in the same hospital room that I had been in for the last month and a half.
It is also probably why it took me so long to notice that the pain was gone, but then it is always harder to recognize the absence of something. My best friend Paul Goldblum -- the same Paul from the Chem Lab incident -- is a trial lawyer and he would always complain that it was harder to defend the innocent ones than the guilty ones. For the guilty ones, Paul invariably found that they were playing pinochle or poker with their best buddies at the time of the crime. For the innocent ones he had to prove that they were at home, in bed, alone, with no witnesses. It must be my Boy Scout training, but I always silently cheered when Paul told me he really had an innocent one.
I think the same thing applies to pain. First, you have to realize it has gone -- that absence thing. Then, and only then, you can begin to recognize the extent of its absence. Is it just the morphine dulling your senses so you cannot feel it? Are you still dreaming; imagining what it would be like to be pain-free again? Are you dead and feeling no pain at all? Given the excruciating pain I had been in, believe me, I had been wondering about death a lot lately.
It was not until I actually moved that I began to truly appreciate the absence of pain. I had cancer of the bones, one of the rarer forms of cancer, even for my family. Notice I did not say leukemia, which is effectively cancer of the bone marrow. They are both phenomenally painful, but there are treatments for leukemia, treatments to extend your life -- sometimes a significant length of time. No such luck for cancer of the bones, especially once it had metastasized and spread throughout my body making surgical removal an impossibility.
As I said, the movement brought home the absence of pain. My joints did not ache. The muscles did not rub agonizingly against mutated bone. I did not feel the sharp pain of snapping bone, weakened as the cancer leeched away the calcium so vital to healthy bones in milk commercials.
If I am depressing you, my apologies. That is not my intent. Did you hear the joke about the lawyer's opening remarks in behalf of a client accused of breaking a valuable vase from the Ming Dynasty? Remind me at the end of this story and I will tell it -- and in case you are wondering, I collect lawyer jokes. It is a defense mechanism, my way of getting back at Paul. As I've mentioned, Paul's a lawyer and he's always got another mad scientist joke to tease me with so, in self-defense, I'd zinged him back with lawyer jokes.
Actually, I think I have it easier. Have you noticed how many lawyer jokes there are out there? If there is a grain of truth in most humor, it does not speak well of the legal profession; although Paul has never, ever, given me reason to believe he was anything other than a hundred and ten percent honest. Why I remember once he found a satchel filled with money and he... well, that is a different story.
Thinking of Paul reminded me of why I was not in my own bed -- or actually, our last talk together as he witnessed me signing the papers that got me here...
"George, are you absolutely certain you want to do this?" Paul stood worriedly looking down at me from beside this very same bed. "You know that there are always new procedures being developed, procedures that are not as radical as this one. You also know how much can go wrong between animal trials and human trials. I strongly encourage you to think carefully before signing these papers."
I took the papers from his hand -- or at least I tried. It only took me four attempts and I was too weak afterwards to reach for the pen. "Look at me Paul. I am dying -- I have days, maybe weeks to live. There's no time for a new cure," I stopped to catch my breath, even breathing was getting to be a strain, "and even if I had the time, I'm not sure how much longer I'm willing to live with this pain."
Paul nodded sadly. I knew he understood. We had had variations of this conversation for over a year. He was just being a good friend and trying to make certain I was making a considered decision. Rather than make me suffer the agony of further speech, he carefully placed the pen in my hand and guided it to the proper place on the paper. Once I was done signing and initialing, he took it all from me and notarized the document -- I was hopeful, but neither one of us knew whether this was my salvation or just a quicker way to attain the inevitable. He walked out of the room without another word, but I heard his ragged sobbing before the pneumatic door closer finished its task.
One of the interesting things about cancer cells, and I will try not to lecture here, is that they are really your own cells. Cancer is your own body, your own DNA, turning against you. Sure, there are pre-viral strands of DNA that enter the cell and live on the helix, but they seem to be segments of DNA, in effect part of the human genetic matrix. It is just recently that we discovered that the cell changes result from the waste products interacting with selected segments of the gene strands on a number of different chromosomes. In effect, the little bastards shit all over us, causing mutation.
The problem has always been that we can't seem to kill the pre-viral strands without killing, or mortally wounding, the gene; and efforts to just eliminate the specific cells using lasers and surgery haven't always worked because it doesn't always get all the pre-viral strands. They are still in the body searching for a likely cell to make into home sweet home.
The goal of my research was to develop a pre-pre-viral strand. In effect, we wanted to build a critter that would attack the pre-viral strand. It is like the limerick -- sorry, you would think I would have remembered the exact quote, but things have been a bit difficult lately. The part I can remember goes something like this:
The bears had bugs,
And the bugs had bugs,
Each smaller ad infinitum.
Well, we accomplished that. We built an even smaller strand of DNA, really just a clump of the four proteins from which DNA is comprised, and designed it to only attack partial strands of DNA. AND IT WORKED! It actually worked. Our protein clumps would only attack partial strands of DNA and destroy them. In the process, it also eliminated the mutagens in the cell nucleus and allowed the body to gradually replace the damaged cells with healthy new ones.
However, that was only half the battle. The other half was to speed the healing and cell replacement process so that the body regenerated itself before it died from the double insult of cancer and the war of viruses as the protein clump killed the pre-viral strand. For that, we turned to the research of Dr. Chen-Liu and his colleagues. You have probably heard of him, or at least the line of topical skin rejuvenation formulas the cosmetics companies have created based upon his discoveries. Not as well known but, in my opinion, much more important are the injectable "scrubber viruses," as he calls them, that clean up the waste material in the cell and dispose of it in the kidneys and intestines. For some still unknown reason, it also served to increase the rate of cell regeneration -- sometimes logarithmically depending upon the strength and purity of the viruses injected.
We were able use this as part of a one-two punch to cure cancer. The first step was injection of our protein clumps to kill the pre-viral strands and the second step was to flush the clumps, the strands and the damaged cells from the body. We used the completely undiluted version given the tremendous amount of cell repair needed.
That brings me back to waking up pain-free for the first time in recent memory. Paul was there, looking haggard. He had not shaved in several days and given his tendency to forget to eat when he's concentrating on something, I was betting he hadn't done much of that either. I stretched and groaned as I used muscles that had been dormant for a while and he was instantly awake and by my bedside.
"How," I croaked," long?"
"A week and a half. How are you feeling?"
"Probably better than you, if looks can tell anything," I smiled up at him to show that the croak was not a problem. "How long have you been here?"
"Since you were injected. Last night, the doctors said it is too early to tell for sure, but that you seem to be fully recovered. Everything went exactly as predicted. They removed the IVs with the morphine drip late last night."
"Everything?" It was great news to hear that the cancer was gone, that I would be able to live, and that I would live without excruciating pain, but the procedure had a down side too, one I had been unwilling to consider seriously until now.
"Everything," Paul answered quietly, searching my face for any indication of how I was going to take the news. He looked strange, almost wistful, which didn't seem quite the right emotion for a best friend, but I brushed it off as the last traces of the morphine still playing havoc with my thought processes. Besides, I had "more important things to consider."
With a tentative movement, my right hand -- did I tell you I was right handed -- moved slowly up my body. I felt it move across my stomach, past my ribs, and finally to rest on my chest. They were small, but they were there. Two of them. Fleshy masses. Breasts.
I did not realize I had been holding my breath until I released it with a hiss. Paul nodded, "That's correct. Breasts. The doctors tell me that they will grow larger as you regain some of the mass you lost to the cancer. They tell me the rest is anatomically correct too."
Turning for a moment, he reached to the nightstand and picked something up. The same man who had shouted down prosecutors, who had won our college fraternity's Dollars for Decibels contest by shouting louder than anyone else, spoke so softly that I could barely hear him. "Would you like to see yourself?"
The answer was a no-brainer, but still I hesitated as all sorts of thoughts ran through my mind. The one side effect of this treatment, the treatment I had helped create, was that it destroyed all partial DNA strands. While this meant that some cells in the process of mitosis were erroneously destroyed, that was a small consideration in my decision to volunteer. After all, the scrubbers used in the second half of the process would just clean them out along with the rest of the waste. The bigger problem was the "Y" chromosome.
Have you ever looked at images of the human gene structure? Sure, most people know about the forty-six chromosomes, but fewer people consider how the "Y" chromosome looks like the "X" chromosome with one leg missing. That is right the protein clusters considered the "Y" chromosome a strip of partial DNA and eliminated it. The "scrubbers" got the body to repair each helix, but had no "Y" chromosome to build on, so it duplicated the "X." In effect, I was now genetically and physically female.
Now the thought of being female did not bother me. That is not why I hesitated. If someone were to ask me which sex was the better one, I would probably just look at them like they were crazy and offer a quasi-witty response like, "The one not paying the restaurant bill." What bothered me was that I would have two identical "X" chromosomes. Do you have any idea how many "X"-related genetic disorders there are? I will make this easy. We already know of more than a hundred and more are being found every day. I was deathly afraid that I had done little more than exchange my cancer for some genetic death sentence. That is why I hesitated. I was scared, so scared that I just nodded my head rather than speak.
Paul took the hand mirror he had picked up from the nightstand and held it before me. My face was very much like my mother's, and as my father had reminded my often before his death, it was a beautiful face with gray-blue eyes, a pert nose, and eminently kissable lips, but that is not what I was looking for. I looked for the telltale signs of genetic disorder; eyes too far apart that might indicate Fragile-X, the enlarged epicanthic fold over the eyelid suggestive of Downs, or the Strawberry marks suggestive of Cornelia DeLange. "What about the blood work?"
"Not all back yet, but so far the doctors say there are no signs of any identifiable genetic disorder."
Not bad for a lawyer, I thought. He had really been listening when I described the risks and benefits of the procedure. Of course, he would have had to since he was the one who would have had to defend my decision in a court of law had anyone challenged it. Thank god that did not happen or I would have been long dead before it was agreed that I could do what I wanted with my body. Actually, I was lucky. The fact that the research was done on a military base meant that there was sufficient security to prevent too many people from finding out and sticking their fingers into my life... or death.
"So can I get out of bed?"
"I don't know. Let me ring for the doctor and we'll see."
It was seconds after Paul rang that the doctor entered. It was as if they were monitoring the room, just waiting to be called; it made me feel important until I reminded myself that this was not a general hospital. There are reasons for adages like "Don't volunteer." At a military base, too much attention is rarely good.
He did the basics, blood pressure, listening to my heart, thumping my back, and checking my ears, nose, and throat, and incidentally driving me crazy as he refused to answer any of my questions. Finally, he looked at the medical chart, "uh-hummed" a couple of times and looked at me; my eyes not my still growing breasts -- at least until he spoke. "Well George. It looks like you may want to start thinking about a new name. Of course, with experimental treatments such as this, we can't be certain, and you understand that we will not pronounce you cancer free until you've gone five years with no new symptoms, but all indications are that the treatment was a complete success."
"What about the genetic studies? Do I have a clean bill of health there too?"
"The nurse handed me a bunch that should include the last of them just before I came in here," he took several lab slips from the pocket of his hospital greens and sorted through them. "Yes, here it is. Uh-hum. Yes. You test clean for all known, diagnosable genetic conditions."
"So when can I get out of here? I'd like to walk around a bit."
"As soon as you're able. We have nothing to compare your experience to, so we will work at your speed. If you think you can do it, we will try it. Shall I call a nurse to assist you?"
"Yes please." With that he left, leaving me smiling like an idiot and Paul shuffling his feet uncomfortably.
"I um, I guess I should go now," he stuttered and actually blushed.
It took me a moment to figure out what the problem was -- remember I said I was still a bit slowed down by the last vestiges of morphine. "Oh." The nurse's arrival interrupted our mutual discomfort session and Paul slipped out the door without another word.
Do you remember that book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus? My biological training tells me that this is not really true, but in terms of clothes, rituals and general body maintenance, it may well be accurate. Some parts are familiar but other parts are quite different.
For example, pants go on the same way, one leg at a time, regardless of gender, so do tee shirts and robes. The thing about reversed buttons takes all of one trial to figure out. Admittedly, the bra is a bit strange, but mostly because of its novelty... and the fact that it can be a pain to put on. The only other issue is the irregularity of women's clothes. Much more selection than in clothing for men, women's clothes seem designed to push the eye in one direction or the other with sweeping necklines, off the shoulder fashions and slit skirts.
The biggest difference in terms of rituals is the fine art of applying war paint, as I like to call it. So many different options in terms of color, style and purpose, so many ways to apply it. I have often wondered if it was not some sort of defense mechanism. You know, smaller creature uses larger creature to protect it, much like those birds that perch safe from predators atop hippopotami and peck the bugs out of the skins of the hippos before they can cause irritation or even infection. If it is, I can tell you that it is a damn shame that any woman would feel so weak or in need of protection that she would feel the need to seek a protector.
Even bodily maintenance is similar, albeit more intense. Hair washing remains the same, there is just more to wash. Soaping down a body is soaping down a body, regardless of gender. It is just a bit different the way the nooks -- I did not say nookie -- and crannies are laid out. Then there is hair care, where things begin to get really different again.
Luckily, the nurse understood those differences even better than I after my weeks of intensive study. Patrice -- that was her name, Patrice DeJesus -- did not try to make me over into a woman right then and there. Instead, once she had done a bed bath, she gave me clothes I could handle, panties, jeans, a tee shirt, socks and sneakers. No bra, but then again, I did not really need one yet. She brushed my hair with a part down the middle to make it look a bit more feminine. Luckily, it was still a bit too short for any special treatment, not even a scrunchie to make a ponytail. We did not even talk about makeup that first day.
Finally, I was ready to stand up, but before she would let me, she called in an aide to help me in case I fell... and I almost did. It wasn't that anything was wrong, I just hadn't walked on my own for several weeks and physical therapy can only do so much, especially on an unconscious patient. No resistance, no muscle growth.
There I was. I was alive. I was walking. I was dressed. Life was great.