“Is it legal for us to meet?”
Beth looked into my eyes. The light flared off of hers, coming from the river. We sat at a decrepit picnic table. Annoyed, she answered, “There was no other time.”
We met in Monrovia, Liberia. Her parents introduced us at a mixer sponsored by the Mining concern. I was fresh from my training. I must have looked unsure of myself, newly hired. Maybe it was because I was the only black man not wearing a gold watch, or a gold ring.
She shined in the conference room lights, her brown eyes glassy from drink. Or maybe she just liked what she saw in me. I preferred to think it was the latter. She was pretty despite being short and broad. Despite the glaze, I had a sense of her intelligence behind those eyes.
“Magumba, this is my daughter, Beth. Beth, Dr. Magumba, just joined the concern.”
It felt like her parents intercepted us, as we were about to give up on a passing flirt. There were other single women floating around, sampling the male nectar. They seemed to gravitate toward the married men, those free of their wives. All the men present could afford to have a mistress out in the surrounding villages. Women that other men referred to when they asked their friends about their ‘little hut.’
I suspect her parents wanted a man of principle in their daughter’s life. I found out later she made a mess of many of her previous relationships. What could one expect when she was a professional?
“My daughter here is a lawyer. I begged her not to come home. But she insisted on serving our people.”
“Papa, you’re embarrassing her before this young man. Leave them be,” said Beth’s mother. She looked meaningfully at her daughter, then at me, and smiled. Clearly, I was a fly trapped in her parent’s web.
“Well, that was unpleasant,” was the first thing Beth said to me, as her parents walked away, greeting the General Manager (GM) as he arrived. So, it began between us.
Flash forward five years and a picnic table. I squinted, unclear if it was the reflection on the water, or her response, “Lawyers! Eager to spin the truth into a convenient fabrication.”
“Let’s move on…” she smiled at me, a smile I knew only too well, “so there was no other solution, no treatment options?”
“Maybe in the city, in a civilized corner of the world. But ‘this is Africa.’”
“So being lost in the wilderness is your defense?”
“Remote is not lost. Access was the issue. Doesn’t matter where you are! Without the proper tools, I was hamstrung! Even highly trained specialists like myself. I had no choice. Getting the Rabies immunoglobulin in sufficient quantity to treat the entire family was months away. The closest source was Paris. I used what was on hand.”
“and children died…”
“and children died, some of them, anyway,” I agreed. I opened my empty hands to her, as I did to the family. My brown eyes bore into hers, until she flinched, uncharacteristically.
“Being the prosecutor, I’m just trying to understand what motivated you.”
“What motivated me? I am not a criminal.”
“That is yet to be determined. You claim you made your decision based on recommendations from the family.”
I nodded. “The window was small. The behavior of the dogs remained in question. Unprovoked bites from strays. That’s what they said, but the kids could have been pestering the animal, and the parents intervened.”
“Lots of unsubstantiated claims.”
“Beth, life is not a court of law. We can’t always corroborate a statement and gather evidence before we act. Sometimes, we have to take it on faith, on trust.”
“In your favor, you followed protocol as ordered by the concern.”
“Yes, treat the employee first. What remained allowed me to treat two more of the five family members with immunoglobulin. Plus, I could vaccinate all of them.”
“Which you did?”
“Then how did you decide who you would save?”
“I think you answered that yourself. I advised, but I let the family decide.”
“Now, they are claiming you forced a decision on them.”
“The time window for treatment is small. I forced them to decide within that window, when the treatment would be effective.”
“Could you not give a partial treatment to all of them, rather than give a complete treatment to the lucky ones?”
“Not anymore than you can ask a judge for a partial guilty verdict.”
At this, those present in the courtroom tittered. The judge banged his gavel and called them to order.
“Or get a woman partially pregnant!”
This time everyone laughed. More gavel banging.
“Objection!” cried the prosecutor.
As everyone settled down, the heat and humidity in the court weighed heavily on me. Not to mention the prosecutor, whose husband, that would be me, was on the stand. The court reporter wiped her brow and documented the previous testimony.
“You said, you advised the family. What did that involve?”
“How do you choose who lives and who dies? I suggested they consider their health, their chances for achievement, and their ability to contribute.”
“Then you pointed out the losers…”
“Objection!” this, from my defense attorney, “the prosecution is testifying for the witness.”
“Sustained. Move on, counselor.”
“Then what did you do?”
“I left them to decide.”
“I treated those they selected.”
“But you didn’t do that.”
“No, I asked the family to reconsider.”
“Because I wanted them to be sure.”
“In fact, they believed you decided for them.”
“Objection, calls for speculation.”
“Sustained! Do you have any more questions for the accused?”
“I do. What happened next?”
We were facing an outbreak of rabies in the compound. I called on the local government officials, but they claimed it was the responsibility of the company. While I waited for a shipment of animal vaccine from the capital, the GM called a meeting. We had a lot of wild and tame animals in the compound, some having made it through the fence.
The GM recommended we slaughter them. I countered, as the unrest that followed would not be good for business. “What do you suggest, Dr. Magumba?”
“Once the vaccines arrive, myself and the best hunter we have here, will hunt down and vaccinate the uninfected animals and kill those that are rabid.”
“And how will you know which has received vaccinations?”
“I will paint a ‘V’ on their right leg with white paint, Sir.”
There was a lot of muttering and discussion around the table. Silently, they voted in favor of the idea.
“Who’s our best hunter?” the GM asked.
“Nyagoi,” answered one of the mining bosses.
“Get him,” ordered the GM, “Dr. Magumba and Nyagoi will hunt tomorrow.”
The morning was cool and clear, the fog finally lifting after lingering for a week.
“Good vision,” Nyagoi uttered.
He checked his rifle again. I checked my tranquilizer gun after loading the darts containing Ketamine. I would use it on the animals that were wild or did not come when called. We set out as the sky flared gold, lighting up the low scattered clouds.
The first half of the hunt went rather smoothly. We treated pets both large and small from cats to zebra. Then we checked the usual haunts for the local wild cats and dogs, even a hyena. I had to grab an extra can of spray paint, but soon ‘V’ marked animals were roaming the compound. It was reassuring to those encamped, even the pile of carcasses we assembled.
The sun was high, and I could see sweat pearling in Nyagoi’s short black hair. I could feel the first hints of sunburn on my face, neck, and arms. We took lunch in the canteen. Local fish, imported greens, and cassava. After, we decided on a nap, wanting to wait for the early evening, when the animals foraged for food.
Nyagoi and I walked silently in the underbrush. He was far better at it than I. When we spotted the pack; we realized they had already spotted us. They were snarling and drooling, displaying the strange tail flicks we came to know as a sign for rabies.
The hunters were now the hunted, as the pack closed in on us.
Nyagoi aimed, fired, and reloaded his bolt-action rifle as quickly as he could. The booms of the rifle did not frighten the dwindling pack, as they should. I aimed at those that came too close, but there were too many. We faced rabid rage and death as they probed ever closer.
Flashes of dripping teeth, low growls, and crazed eyes moved our way. Just when I thought we were about to die, a line of fire came from the trees. Our gunshots brought the others. They mowed down the rabid beasts and saved us. Even then, Nyagoi took a stray bullet. A group of tribesmen helped carry him back to my clinic. I stabilized him after emergency surgery and gave him antibiotics.
Before I left the killing ground though, I stared in horror and regret at the carcasses scattered about. It was not their fault they caught the disease or the bullets that followed. A high cost to pay to protect the compound. My sadness gave way to joy, as I watched kids playing with puppies, both wearing white ‘V’s on their thighs.
“While you were out hunting, who was looking after your patients?”
“You mean the kids that were dying? Their family. Supportive measures could only prolong their suffering. It was a kindness for them to spend their last hours with their parents.”
“And did you? Hasten their death?”
“No, but I saved a lot more from dying that day. Every day, patients fill my clinic with malaria, yellow fever, and parasite infections. If I could prevent rabies, or at least arrest it while we waited for the immunoglobulin, then the hunt was worth it.”
“So you intentionally neglected dying patients? The family wanted, nay demanded, more from you.”
“I did not neglect them. Their memory of the events leading to their children’s death must have changed with their grief. I’ve seen a lot of that living here.”
“Your Honor, the prosecution rests.”
What followed was a parade of defense witnesses testifying to my character and veracity. They recalled the children, parents, and the events surrounding the tragedy. Nurses came forward, and local family and friends. Then the judge retired to his chambers to deliberate.
“All rise. This court is in session,” called the elderly bailiff.
“Will the defendant rise,” the Judge ordered, after everyone settled back in their seats. The air was still and hot in the courtroom. Folks wiped their brow. The defense attorney rose by my side.
“Dr. Norris Magumba, I find you guilty as charged.”
Beth, the prosecutor, my wife, cried the loudest. I dropped my head in despair. The defense attorney squeezed my shoulder. The courtroom was astir, with murmurs and tears.
“I am not finished. Although I have found you guilty, I suspend your sentence. If we imprisoned every doctor for attempting to practice with limited supplies, all the physicians here would be behind bars rather than out practicing. This court, like Dr. Magumba himself, grieves the loss of those children that died from rabies. Yet you made every effort to serve your patients, going above and beyond, while placing yourself in harm’s way. We can ask no more than that from any of our physicians. Dr. Magumba, you are free to go. To the family, this court offers its deepest condolences. This court is adjourned.”
Beth came over and hugged me. Soon we both trembled with relief and tears. As the court emptied, my defense attorney closed his briefcase and patted my shoulder. As we left the court, I thought of all the kids playing with their puppies, both wearing ‘V’s on their thighs. Then I went back to work, opening the clinic in the afternoon. Sad, but wiser. Trust restored.
*Keith A. Raymond, MD. Muckendorf an der Donau, Austria, Europe. Dr. Raymond is a Family and Emergency Physician. He practiced in eight countries in four languages. Currently living in Austria with his wife. When not volunteering his practice skills, he is writing, lecturing, or scuba diving. In 2008, he discovered the wreck of a Bulgarian freighter in the Black Sea. He has multiple medical citations, along with publications in Flash Fiction Magazine, The Grief Diaries, The Examined Life Journal, The Satirist, Chicago Literati, Blood Moon Rising, Frontier Tales Magazine, and in the Sci Fi anthologies Sanctuary and Alien Dimensions among others.