Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2020 finalist, Linda Chang! Linda finished 7th grade this past school year. The story she submitted is called “Finding the Cure.” Our judges enjoyed Linda’s pacing throughout her story.
FINDING THE CURE
By Linda Chang
“Are you sure you don’t want to bring a snack?” my mom asked for the thousandth time.
“Yes, I’ll be fine,” I hissed.
It was my first day working at my first job: working on a cure for HIV at the Stanford Advanced Epidemiologic Research Center. The lab was famous for finding the cure to a terrible virus called COVID-19 back in 2020, nearly 30 years ago. I had just graduated from Harvard with a PhD in epidemiology last spring at the age of 16. Yes, I’m what you might call a “child genius,” but I don’t like to think of myself that way.
“Ok, if you’re sure,” my mom said. She reached into her pocket for her phone. Oh, gosh. “Let’s take a first-day picture!” she squealed.
“Nope,” I said, dodging her grasp and heading into the garage.
I turned on the light and got in the driver’s seat. Luckily, I’d won at convincing Mom that I could drive myself on my first day.
Something felt wrong. Oh right, the keys. Why was I always so dumb? I headed back into the house to grab my keys. Unfortunately, Mom was standing right inside the door.
“Smile!” she said, grinning so hard I genuinely thought her face was going to burst open. The flash on her phone clicked about a hundred times. I dashed out of the frame, too fast for Mom to get a clear picture, swiped my keys from my desk, and managed to get all the way back to the car without any more awkward pictures.
When I’d finally escaped my overly emotional mom (yes, she did keep texting me the whole way to the lab) and arrived at Stanford, I was actually starting to get a little nervous. I don’t usually get nervous, but just the sight of all the official-looking people in lab coats freaked me out. It took me three whole minutes to work up the courage to get out of the car and head into the building.
It was at least ten stories tall and made completely of glass, with a super modern feeling to it. The words “Stanford Advanced Epidemiologic Research Center” were printed on the front in slightly foggier glass color. Inside, I could see people in long lab coats walking around, looking through microscopes, writing at desks, and talking to each other.
I entered the building through the giant glass door in the front, my hands shaking. I was so much younger than all of the other people here. People gave me odd looks that I tried super hard to ignore. Since it was my first day, I asked the receptionist for a tag and showed her my “entry document,” as it was called. I scanned the tag against the wall and quietly got in the (glass again) elevator and headed to floor 3, where I was supposed to be working.
“Hi, Piper! Welcome to our lab. I’m Jenny. I believe we’ve met during the interview, am I right?” said a woman in a lab coat with neatly trimmed, short hair who I vaguely remembered. She was my boss and the president of the division I was working in.
“Y-yeah,” I said, weakly. How did I even get this job? I’m horrible at talking to people I don’t know.
“That’s great! I was going to let you get started in the HIV ward on this floor, but as you know, there’s a recent outbreak of COVID-48 going on, and we need to transfer some people over to working on that before it becomes a bigger problem,” Jenny said. “So you’ll be up on the fourth floor working on that. I hope it’s okay that I have to re-assign you before you even get started, but we need as many people working to solve the problem as possible.”
“Oh, ok! That’s great,” I said. I’d heard about the outbreak a few times before and was definitely worried about it. It wasn’t at its peak – or anywhere close – yet, which meant we needed to act fast. It wasn’t quite known yet exactly how deadly the virus was, but only one patient out of hundreds had recovered. The symptoms included white face, coughing, stomachache, and shortness of breath. I was excited to be able to work on something that could actually make a difference.
I got into one of the clean suits needed to enter the lab, freaking out because it was so official-seeming, and followed Jenny in.
Inside the lab, there were three people talking, examining samples under a microscope and trying to find some important features that made COVID-48 different from other viruses. I joined them and started looking, too.
After a few hours of research, I had an idea. There was one particular part of the virus called B-1 which seemed like it was significantly different from anything else, which I thought was probably important in curing the virus.
Everyone else seemed to be more interested in another part, though, and they’d already done a test on rats, so we decided to go forward with more tests on that instead. A few hours later, we were done for the day, and everyone went their separate ways. It seemed like our treatment was going to work, which excited me. It would be best if we could stop this before it quickly escalated into a bigger problem.
When I got back home, I was fully prepared for a round of Mom grilling me about how my day was. Luckily, though, she was stuck in traffic, and I had at least a few hours of peace before the grilling began.
“Hiiii Piperrrrr!!!!” a high, cute voice screeched from upstairs. That must be my sister, Connie. Connie was ten years old, but had autism and the maturity of a seven-year-old. She was my only sister and the third and last member of our household, since my dad passed away due to cancer when Connie was just three.
“Hi, Connie,” I yelled up the stairs, kicking off my shoes and putting down my computer bag.
“Can I show you what I made?” she asked excitedly.
“Yeah! I can’t wait to see,” I responded, heading up the stairs to go look at Connie’s drawing,
“Look, it’s me and you and Mommy! We’re in the park, and I’m on the swing over here, and you’re pushing me!” Connie said.
I gave her a big hug. “Cute,” I responded.
“Do you wanna play a game?” Connie asked, jumping up and down like her usual excited self.
“Yeah, sure! What game do you want to play?” I asked.
“How about Connect 4?” Connie asked, running over to her closet to dig out the game.
“Sure,” I said, helping her move some dirty clothes out of the way to get it out. “Do you wanna be red or yellow?”
“Red!” Connie declared, giggling. I handed her the bag of red pieces and opened up the yellow one myself.
“You can go first,” I said, snapping together the board.
“Okay,” Connie said, dropping one of her pieces into the slot.
Just then the garage rumbled. Mom was home.
I hid in my room, pretending to be busy with homework. Oh right, I’m not in school anymore. Well, I can’t use that excuse now.
“Piper, how was your first day?” I heard Mom shout from downstairs.
“It was okay,” I said monotonously, running down the stairs with Connie to meet her.
“Come on, that’s all?” Mom asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Mommy, my stomach hurts,” Connie complained. Please, distract Mom, I silently hoped.
Mom groaned. “Do you want to go rest?”
“Yeah,” Connie said. Normally she faked having stomach aches to get out of eating her vegetables, but suddenly she looked genuinely sick. The life in her when we were playing the game was all drained away.
“Okay, I’ll take you upstairs,” Mom said, taking Connie back up the stairs.
I followed them up the stairs and started quietly cleaning up the game, but in the back of my head, I was worried.
The next day, the first thing I did was check the news. It didn’t look pretty.
Two More Deaths reported in China; U.S. case total jumps to 50
3/6, 5:34 AM
By Richard Sanders and Mark Jackson
Health officials in China have reported two more deaths due to the recent outbreak of COVID-48, as well as 1,780 new cases, the largest 1-day jump yet.
To spare you having to read the rest of the article, here’s a basic summary: It’s all bad. And getting worse quickly.
I got in the car and started driving to work, glad that I could be part of solving the problem.
About five minutes later, though, my phone buzzed in my pocket. I had set up 3 different chats with Mom and specifically designated one for random check-ins (because she did those a lot), one for regular questions, and one for emergencies. Then I assigned a different notification sound to each chat. The buzz that my phone was making was the emergency one.
I knew that she often mixed up her most recently used chats, especially the random check-in and regular question ones. But she hadn’t used the emergency one in a long time. I doubted that she even really understood my system, but I decided to check, anyway.
Connie has a fever, so I’m taking her to the doctor. Do you want to come to help with the diagnosis?
That’s exactly what you’re going to the doctor for, I thought, but Mom wasn’t the type of person you really liked to argue with.
Sure, I’ll be there soon, I texted back, and five minutes later, I was home again.
Mom didn’t yell “hi” to me from upstairs, which was unusual for her. I figured she must be out of the house. I headed up the stairs, and nope, she was right there, talking to a nurse on the phone. Mom, of course, had to go out of her way to make a little cold into a big deal.
“Mom, I’m fine,” Connie groaned, but her voice didn’t sound fine. Maybe she was sicker than I thought.
“. . . could possibly be a case of COVID-48. . .” I heard the nurse say. I wasn’t really listening to her, but anyone saying that would have definitely caught my attention. “You should bring her in for testing as soon as possible,” the nurse finished.
“We’re on the way right now,” Mom said. She quickly gathered her stuff together and urged Connie into the car. I sat down across from her in the backseat, both scared and confused. Mom kept talking to the advice nurse the whole way.
Connie looked miserable, leaning on the side of the car. Her face was pale, and she was coughing. I wondered how she got this bad in just one day. She was completely normal yesterday. I asked her how she was, but she didn’t respond and instead just rubbed her eyes.
We pulled into a space in the lot pretty far away from the entrance. The medical center was busier than usual for 11:00 AM on a regular business day. When we finally finished dragging Connie inside (she didn’t resist, but didn’t exactly try to walk quickly either), we checked in at the desk and sat down in a waiting area outside a pediatrics office. Mom was
searching things like “what to do when a kid is sick” on her phone, and I couldn’t help but worry that Connie’s symptoms were exactly the same as what I’d read about in articles about COVID-48: white face, shortness of breath, and coughing. Although it felt rude, I scooted a millimeter away from her.
The nurse, wearing a face mask, came out about twenty minutes later and let us into the room. There, they did all the usual things – measuring Connie’s height and weight, having her sit on the weird bed with the crinkly paper – and after twenty minutes, finally got to the point.
Connie put out her arm, half-crying the whole time, and a doctor stuck a thin needle into it to take a blood test. Connie burst into tears, but seconds later, it was over.
The test took two days to give results, so the next two days were pretty suspenseful. But I tried not to think about it. I mean, this was a global problem, not a local problem. There weren’t any cases in our state, so why should Connie be any different?
Still, I was scared.
The test results came back two days later, and of course the hospital had to be difficult by making us go there to read the “confidential” medical information. We had to walk all the way to the sixth floor up the stairs (because the elevators weren’t working), which was an issue because Connie kept having to stop for breaks from being out of breath.
She was getting really, really bad. Her face was pale, and she had puked several times that day. She wasn’t really talking to me or responding at all, and it seemed like I’d already lost her.
We managed to half-walk, half-carry her up to the doctor’s room, where we went into a small office with thin carpet and awards on the walls to meet with a doctor.
“Hello, Mrs. Lee,” the doctor said, addressing my mom. The doctor had short, neat, brown hair and thin glasses, and she was holding a clipboard with paper on it.
“Hi,” Mom said. “So, what are the results?”
“Worrisome,” the doctor said. I thought she was going to talk around the point, but it turned out that she was pretty straightforward. “Connie tested positive.”
“Seriously?” I gasped loudly, which was too much for Connie’s ears because she clutched them tightly.
“Here, see the results for yourself,” the doctor said, holding up her clipboard so that we could see. Sure enough, they were positive. “We’ll need to test you and your older daughter, since you may have been exposed,” she said to my mom.
Oh gosh, really? I still squirmed at the idea of being poked even though I knew it was irrational and babyish. The doctor decided to do the test right there and then in her office, which was unfortunate because it meant I barely had any time to prepare.
I squeezed my eyes shut as the needle entered my skin, trying not to overreact. Then five seconds later, it was done. I opened my eyes.
Everything was fine.
Except for Connie.
She was nowhere to be seen.
“She has to stay in the hospital in isolation,” the doctor said, as if she were reading my mind.
The reality of it hit me. My sister was sick and had a very low chance of recovery, and it seemed there was nothing I could do about it.
I burst into tears for the first time since elementary school, sobbing into my mom’s arm. She didn’t say anything and just held my hand silently, letting me cry.
Then all of my years of training came back to me. I was working in an epidemiologic research lab. Helping stop viruses like this was my job. A solution had been in front of my face this entire time. How could I not have thought about that? I was determined to find a cure and save my sister.
Over the next two weeks, I was forced to stay home to self-quarantine because I’d been exposed, but that didn’t stop me from working hard on the cure. I talked to the other people in my group over video and they tested out a cure in the lab.
The most recent test hadn’t had great results, but we decided that it had a pretty good chance of working with a little bit more tweaking.
I worried about Connie every day. Mom and I were permitted to talk to her on video three times a week, but we were never allowed to actually visit due to how contagious the virus was – even more so than COVID-19, its predecessor. The first few times, she was still strong enough to talk (barely), but the last two times we’d called she’d been asleep on a hospital bed with an IV in her arm. I was scared like never before. Today we would be calling again, and I didn’t think I’d be able to take it anymore if Connie was still unconscious.
Mom pressed the call button on the computer, and after a few seconds, one of the nurses on the other end picked up.
“Is Connie awake?” I asked the nurse.
The nurse shook her head, moving out of the way so that we could see Connie’s face.
Her eyes were closed and her face was pale. A blanket was placed on top of her tiny, frail body, and her breathing was loud and heavy.
“Connie?” I asked, but she didn’t respond. I sat silently, willing her to magically get better.
She didn’t. Connie, always full over reckless energy, was completely still.
I left the room and let Mom have a few minutes by herself with Connie, and then the nurse shooed us away, as if watching her through a screen was slowing her recovery. I sat in a corner, crying again for the third or fourth time this week – I’d already lost track.
The next test of our treatment went badly, too, and we were starting to lose hope. Suddenly, I remembered something I’d seen way back on my first day, that I’d put aside because this treatment was going better. It was the B-1 part, and it seemed like the best option at the moment. I asked the rest of the group if they’d consider it, and they agreed. A few days later, we tested it out, and it worked perfectly. I was starting to have some hope again.
A week later, after another test had gone well at the lab, I decided it was time for action. We’d tried the treatment out enough on animals, and the next step was a trial on a willing patient. Connie was one of the only cases in our area, so we decided to test it on her.
Mom signed a stack of long documents waiving the hospital of all liability, and the doctors added my team’s cure to the bag of fluids flowing into Connie’s arm through an IV. She hadn’t improved over the last three days – in fact, she was getting worse. I desperately hoped that it would be effective.
Our lab was obviously attracting a lot of attention from the press, but I ignored it. I was doing this to help the recovery of my sister and the other patients, not to become famous.
A few hours later, we were having another video call with Connie, and this time I was actually hopeful and even a little bit excited, instead of sad and worried.
We called in, and I was met by a cute, tiny face. Connie was awake! She was still lying in bed, but her eyes were open and her face was full of warmth.
“Hi, Piper,” she said, hoarsely.
For the first time in weeks, happiness and relief rushed through me. “Hi, Connie,” I replied, wishing I could hug her in real life. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” she replied, and her smile said it all.