Steve drives through a yellow light on the way to the hospital. He hopes that this will be the day Brad finally gets it. They both watch the massive building grow larger in the distance. Two brick towers rise fifteen-stories high, and hundreds of black windows make the building look like the eyes of a giant insect watching them approach.
“Do you think you’re ready for this?” Steve asks.
Brad gulps nervously, but says. “I’m not afraid.”
Steve taps on the brake. “I won’t lie. I’ve never visited a hospital burn ward before and I’m a little afraid.” He turns into the hospital parking lot. “But I do have a question for you. Why can’t you talk to your mother and I like you talk to Rick?”
Brad decides if he should start an argument. Usually, he’d invite a fight with his father, but he has bigger things on his mind. He looks at his father as they roll into the parking lot. “The reason I don’t talk to you is because I don’t trust you. You asked for the truth, so don’t be mad when I tell you the truth.”
Steve thinks about the condescending remark. What does he mean he can’t be trusted? Retaliation brews in his mind as he thinks through the exchange. All he’s ever wanted is Brad to be honest, and even though that wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear, at least he was honest.
They get out of the car, and the sun dips behind the buildings. They walk toward the hospital entrance. In the lobby, Brad lowers his head. He’s still embarrassed to be recognized as the kid who started the fire. The administrator points at the elevator as his dad checks them in. “They’re waiting for you on floor 4.”
Brad darts into the elevator and the door closes. They exit on the fourth floor into a much smaller lobby. The first thing he notices is the smell. It makes him want to gag. It’s a strong and sickening smell; like rotting meat mixed with hospital chemicals. Brad breathes through his mouth because the smell is so disturbing and penetrating.
A nurse wearing blue scrubs walks in through a plastic curtain. She’s thin, and even without make-up, has a pretty face. She hands Brad a folded pile of clothes and breathing mask. “My name is Mandy and I oversee the burn ward on this shift. Once we get behind the plastic curtains, you can’t have any skin touching the open air, so please put on these protective clothes. Our patients are hyper-sensitive to infections as their internal flesh has been exposed by the burns.”
Steve raises his hands. “What about my clothes?”
The nurse points at a chair in the hallway. “Brad is the only one approved to visit the patients today, so please wait for us to return. We do bandage changes at the end of every hour, so we’ll be back before then.”
Mandy double-checks his scrubs to make sure he’s totally covered, and she walks toward the plastic curtains. “Now come with me. But please whisper when you get close to the patients. Even though most of them are unconscious, we don’t know how much of their brains are still alert. If you see something frightening, keep it to yourself, so that the patients can’t hear your description of the condition they’re in.”
Brad pulls down the medical mask over his face.
They walk inside the plastic curtains, and the smell, warmth, and darkness intensifies inside the rooms divided by plastic sheets. All the plastic must be a system to control the temperature and quarantine patients, Brad thinks. The smell of infected flesh grows stronger the deeper in he walks. He was hoping the mask would help, but it’s so tight around his face, it’s constricting his breathing and making things worse.
Mandy walks towards the first room. Dozens of wires connect to a body lying on the bed. The wires then connect to a machine that flashes with red and green lights on the wall. A ventilator goes up and down. Most of the body’s face is covered with bandages, and its grey arms are lying at its side. Brad peers through the darkness waiting for the body to sit up, and its eyes to open like a mummy, but nothing happens. Mandy whispers in his ear, “This is the critical condition portion of the burn ward − also known as intake − where we stabilize the patients following their initial burns.”
She walks to the other side of the bed, “Burns may look simple to diagnose, but they’re the most tricky of all injuries to treat. A mysterious wave of reactions assault the body when a serious burn occurs. The internal nervous system overreacts trying to correct its temperature, and the body reacts differently every time. So when we’re treating a burn victim, we’re really not just focusing on the small burned area, but we’re really trying to diffuse the entire bomb of problems that’s going off inside each victim.”
“Minutes after a serious burn occurs, the burned area swells to cartoonish degrees. Hands and legs and faces will expand to four times their normal size and look like balloon animals. Then in a weird twist, the skin instantly reverses temperature, trying to freeze the burn, which then sends the body into a spiraling shock. It’s a crazy concept to comprehend, but most serious burn patients actually die from freezing to death rather than dying from the burn itself.”
Brad points at the body lying in front of them, “What happened to him?”
Mandy shakes her head, “Drunk driver crashed into him a few days ago. Gas lines burst open, and a fire consumed the car. Most of his face was melted off so we’ve been cutting skin off his back trying to graft him a new face. He’ll never look the same again, but at least he’ll have his life. It’s really a sad story, especially because the guy was innocent in the accident. His wife and kid visit every day, but they’ll never see him the same way again once these bandages come off.”
“What happened to the drunk driver?”
Mandy shrugs, “Dead.”
Brad can’t breathe with his mask on and he fumbles trying to move it with his rubber-gloved hands. Mandy seizes his wrists. “No. I told you, you can’t take that off in here. Now follow me; the next bay is for the patients who have stabilized.”
They walk through a hallway of plastic curtains, and these unconscious bodies lie in rows of individual, temperature-controlled tents. They look like little incubators, he thinks. They enter another bay of curtains and see a body with more machines connected to it. Mandy shakes her head, “Burns covered 40% of his body when he came in. Thirty years ago the shock would have killed him, but we’re getting better at saving lives here.”
“What happened to him?” Brad asks.
“He hit an electrical wire while gardening at home. The electricity left the wire and got trapped inside of him.” She looks at the body, “When electricity enters you, it fries you from the inside out. See those red blotches rising out of his skin? That’s where the electricity tried to escape, but it couldn’t. So let this be a lesson… Before you dig, call an expert first.”
Brad shakes his head. Mandy grabs his arm and spins him around, “But I want to show you one more patient before you go.”
They walk between the last maze of curtains and he sees a body lying on a bed against a wall. An unrecognizable head lies on top of the pillow. The body looks smaller than the others. The face is flat – until he realizes most of it has been burned off. Its arms look plastic, which means they’re probably made of re-grafted skin. Its hands are melted together like clubs. Brad shivers when he sees the face. Teeth poke out of the mouth, and its nose is gone. Brad feels sick, and wonders what type of accident created this nightmare.
Mandy points at a framed school picture. It’s of a beautiful blonde girl around his age.
“At one time, that’s what she looked like. But last summer she came in with burns covering 70% of her skin and total disfigurement of the upper body. Even after all the plastic surgery, we still don’t know if she’ll ever walk or talk again. Every time I pass her, I wonder what I’ll tell her when she wakes up. This is her reality for the rest of her life.”
Brad’s throat tightens inside the mask. “What happened to her?”
Mandy looks down at the body, “She was boating with her brother, and he was lighting fireworks from the boat. There was no wind that night, and gas vapors collected in the bottom of the boat. Sparks from the fireworks must have fallen in the gas vapor, and the whole boat exploded. She was knocked unconscious immediately and slowly cooked alive in the bottom of the boat until her brother finally pulled her out.”
“What happened to her brother?”
“He committed suicide last month; he just couldn’t take it anymore.” She whispers to herself, “What am I going to tell her if she wakes up on my shift?”
The lights start spinning. Brad feels like he’s about to faint. He grabs the wall. Vomit surges up in his throat and he can’t hold it in. He runs to the lobby, rips his mask off, and throws up on the floor.