Regina watched the white Ford cargo van disappear around the bend. The last one was finally gone. For two years they had been out there—like the neighbors from hell. Now just like that they were gone. Off to the latest scandal, affair, murder, or whatever else viewers were willing to stomach in the name of news.
Finally, after two years they were old news. Her husband Michael’s face would no longer be plastered on the nightly news show while his fellow doctors and researchers commented on the questionableness of his ethics, while debating if his medical license should be permanently revoked.
The cameras came months before the criminal trial got on the way, a trial strangely reminiscent of the Scope’s Monkey trial, the O.J Simpson murder trial, Michael Jackson’s molestation trial, or any other trial that was more about show than substance.
But through it all she remained the dutiful wife, cooking, cleaning, and looking after their two kids who thanked God for small blessing-were at an age where they could understand what was going on. She also maintained a full load teaching Sociology at the University of Georgia where she was a tenured professor.
Talk about stressed, but somehow she made it. And every step of the way she smiled at the media personalities who hounded her mercilessly.
“Mrs. Hamlet, how do you feel about your husband’s medical license being revoked?”
Because they got paid to be persistent inevitably another would shoot, “Mrs. Hamlet, do you feel it’s right for your husband to play God and determine who lives and dies?”
Inwardly she smiled at the sound bite, “play God” but only offered her usual, “No comment.”
“Mrs. Hamlet, now that your husband Michael has been charged with a criminal offense, how has it affected you and your family?”
That’s right hit below the belt try to use her motherly instincts against her. Nice try, she thought, while giving her the same, “No comment.”
“Please Mrs. Hamlet, one more question. Is it true your husband is considering giving up his American citizenship?”
Question like those came on a good day. At other times they were so vicious she would make it into the safety of her home or office bolt the door and cry. Yes, yes thank God it was all finally over the trial and the media circus it caused.
Yet even as she stood in the window watching the last media van leave she did so with a pain of regret. For there had been one unintended causality of the entire ordeal. Something broken without the possibility of being fixed. Her twenty-five year marriage to the love of her life.
Don’t cry, not again she told herself turning from the window. She surveyed the pastel colored living room, looked at walls she had painted herself, at wallpaper she installed. Now the room was filled with brown packing boxes. Boxes filled with twenty-five years of love. Twenty-five years worth of precious irreplaceable memories. Overwhelmed she could no longer fight the tears. How had they gotten so far off track?
In the eighties, they were just another cute couple, voted most likely to succeed. Two college kids in love. Of course even back then her dreams were a lot more modest than his she wanted to be a social worker, but he wanted to save the world literally. This translated into a teaching position for her while he went on to become a genetic scientist.
His specialty was infectious diseases, a field near and dear to his heart. As he was still in middle school when his favorite uncle Buck succumbed to the AIDS virus. Then and there he vowed to find a cure.
It was a vow that would eventually lead him to Princeton where he earned his Ph.d. at the top of his class, and to a decade later being generally recognized as one of the top three pathologists in the country.
While Michael became more and more recognized in his field earning awards and writing books about the different workings of the immune system, Regina was more than content with the quiet drama free life they had built that included a four bedroom home in a peaceful upper, middle class subdivision, two kids, and a black cocker spaniel named Hillary. For years her biggest gripe was that Michael’s career frequently kept him away from home, especially when he worked for the CDC.
Things were a little better now that he was at Merck, but he still crisscrossed the country several time a month.
Then came the 21st Annual Infectious Disease conference which was held in Singapore that particular year. Michael had just finished giving a well received presentation about a new cell engineering process that Merck had recently perfected when Borris Yelkstein, the eccentric Russian oil barren and multi-billionaire approached him out in the lobby. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Mr.Yelkstein had just recently finished serving a three year prison sentence for tax evasion and had fallen out of favor with the Kremlin. A very bad position to be in, in Russia’s dictator-democracy –
Nevertheless, Yelkstein was as bull-headed as ever and had recently acquired a controlling stake in InLiv, a small Russian vaccine maker that was making waves on the Russian stock market.
Ever the salesman, according to Yelkstein, his scientist had discovered the “drug of all drugs”, a miracle drug tentatively called RU-842 that could render the AIDS virus completely harmless. The drug was still in its infant stage and Yelkstein was looking for a pathologist to take over the program and help him market the drug. Was he interested?
Interested was an understatement. He was completely fascinated . If what he was being told was true, it would be the biggest medical breakthrough of the twentieth century, even bigger than Jonas Salk invention of the Polio vaccine.
Once the conference was over, Michael was consumed with thoughts of RU-842. He told Regina, “Baby, not only is he offering me a million dollar a year salary, but a five percent equity stake in the company. If we can successfully bring this vaccine to the market that could be worth millions, maybe even billions. I mean think about it… This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
She wasn’t convinced, “I don’t like it. If it was a respectable research hospital or even a reputable drug company if there is such a thing … maybe. But who is this Yelkstein character? So what he has lots of money? The man has zero experience in the drug business and a reputation that puts him a few notches above Al Capone. And what if his miracle drug doesn’t win FDA approval? Huh, Michael? Then what?”
He respected his wife’s opinions and listened carefully to what she said. Everything she said had merit, in fact they were the same concerns he had spoken out loud.
“I mean, you’re right and of course it’s much too early to say what’s what. I haven’t even reviewed the data yet. But if what Yelkstein says is true…My God think of the implications just for Africa alone?” He shook his head. “Regina, do you remember what I told you when we first met?”
She turned her head, of course she remembered. He had told her he believed it was his destiny to find the cure for HIV, AIDS. But what young college student at an Ivy League university didn’t have big dreams?
Regina told him, “What I want to know is why he chose you? Out of all the other professors, doctors, scientist, and researchers at the conference, some with bigger names than yours? What made him approach you with this golden opportunity?”
Michael looked at his wife and smiled its funny at how two people who have been together for so long begin to think alike. He said, “I asked Yelkstein the same thing. His reply was that he had been reading my papers and keeping up with my research that he supposedly found fascinating. He also said that since Africans and African Americans are the two groups hit hardest by the virus, an African American doctor was first on his list.”
Not convinced she shook her head. The tad bit she had read about Yelkstein on the internet didn’t go a long way toward convincing her that he was the type of man that gave a rat’s ass about affirmative action, much less cultural diversity. Borris Yelkstein would put his own mother in front of a firing squad as long as the executioners used bullets produced at one of his factories. She wanted to slap some sense back into her adorable, brainy husband and say, “Get for real, the man is permanently banned from 13 countries.”
Reading her expression Michael raised his hands, “Now, I’m not naive. We both know American scientists are generally held in higher regards than their Russian counterparts. Having an American scientist as the lead researcher will help give Borris the credibility he no doubts craves…”
Regina didn’t let him finish. She was tired of talking about it. He had just made it home, and Borris had taken up enough of their time.
“You mad,” he asked. She told him that she wasn’t and to prove it she grabbed his hand and lead him to their bedroom.
Exactly six months from the date Regina was in the kitchen cooking a roast while grading mid-term exams when Michael returned from his first fact finding trip to Russia.
After giving her a quick peck on the cheek, he leaned against the cabinets with his hands deep in pockets of his blue dockers. The fact that something was wrong was written all over his face, but still she waited for him to tell her. Call it woman’s intuition if you like, but the way she felt about Yelkstein and InLiv had finally sunken in. Humming to herself, it took an inordinate amount of self control to keep her from blurting out “I told you so.”
When the silence became crippling she said, “What’s wrong? InLiv not on the level?” At the time she said it, she had no idea and had assumed that InLiv was at worst some type of cover for one of Yelkstein shading business deals.
Without answering, he kept staring at the same spot on the floor like a Gypsy studying the Tarot cards. Slowly he looked up, “They’re on the level. If the data I examined can be validated and reproduced in a controlled blind study, I believe they have did it. Found a cure for the deadliest killer of our times.”
Obviously she was missing something, “So, what’s wrong?” Something was wrong, of that much she was certain.
He stepped out of the kitchen and glanced at the stairs. Listened. Heard Michael Orchard at work saving the world on his Play station 3, he dropped his voice, “The problem is the vaccine itself,”. He was barely whispering now and she had to strain to hear him. “It has to has to be cultivated in two stages before it will produce the antibodies necessary to neutralize the virus. Healthy stem cells fused with anodes of the drug along with a carbon copy of the virus have to introduced into an unaffected immune system. Then the new immune cells can be extracted and transferred to an infected person, which causes the immune cells to attack the infected ones, render the virus harmless.”
The confusion showed on her face; her area of expertise was cultures and poverty and couldn’t tell bacteria from a nuclei. “I still don’t see the problem.”
“There’s two: For starters, due to the size of the nanos, they can only coated with enough of the drug to produce a small amount, perhaps enough to cure a hundred people, give or take a few.”
That didn’t seem like much of a problem to her; a hundred people a batch was better than no people and a limited supply would drive the price of the drug sky high which she was sure Borris would love. No, that wasn’t it, there had to be something else?
She asked, “What’s the other.”
He sighed, “Live samples of the virus have to be introduced into healthy immune system, i.e. host for the incubation process to work, but only those who receive the stage 3 drug will derive any type of benefit. The host will be immune to the drug, totally resistant.”
Regina’s mouth fell open, “So what happens to the host?”
“The same thing that happens to any other person with the AIDS virus.”
He had to be kidding! She said, “you mean they die, don’t you? Michael, you’re talking about infecting healthy people with a deadly disease? Listen to me, Michael. You can’t do that, it’s unethical! They’ll revoke your license,” she was practically screaming
“They would be selected from Third World countries where people generally have a lower life expectancy to begin with, and compensated for participating.”
“Participating. Compensated. We’re talking about murder,” she shook her head. “Michael, you can’t do this.”
Irritated he fired back, “I didn’t say I was going to do anything… I’m just telling you how the drug works, for Pete’s sakes.”
After that there just was no use talking to him about it. He was convinced he could find a way to do good without doing evil and became obsessed with RU-482-Making monthly trips to Russia to observe the various clinical trials that were already taking place, he was certain there had to be a way to harness the power of the drug without the human casualty factor.
Then the scandal broke. News reports said he was participating in unlawful drug studies in violation of the Marin Act. Newsweek labeled him a “Mad Scientist,” a man so obsessed with saving life he was willing to play God to do it.
The media onslaught was followed by a 31 count federal indictment. And like that in the blink of an eye their wonderful life was gone. They had to mortage the house and raid their retirement accounts to cover his legal expenses. And with every household dollar being dedicated to keeping him out of prison, they could no longer afford their oldest daughter Lisa’s MIT tuition, forcing her to transfer to a instate college.
With options slim to none, he turned to Yelkstein for help. Yelkstein agreed to pay him the million dollar salary in advance, provided he come aboard as a full fledge member of InLiv once his legal troubles were over with.
That day had finally arrived.
In the morning, Michael was leaving America, perhaps for good.
And Regina was leaving her 25 year marriage.