By: Adam Kluger
Jacob Shellstein was an ordinary New York Dermatologist who enjoyed collecting stamps, studying birds, reading Revolutionary war books and treating his patients.
When his wife had just about enough of their normal existence without the luxurious perks her other Upper East Side friends seemed to enjoy and flaunt in her face daily, she served Jacob with papers charging him with being “withdrawn, cruel and unusual,” and she took custody of their teenage daughter Annabelle, and moved in with that hedge fund manager Juan Carlo Esposito-Caron whom she had been having an affair with for years now.
Dr. Jacob, not one to get overly emotional, became even more withdrawn. As his practice started to dwindle and his finances suddenly dissipated after a contentious settlement (not that the good Dr. Jacob ever had any intentions to contest a thing), he looked through the mail on the kitchen counter of his new “bachelor” pad and saw a missive from an organization he knew well, “Doctors without Borders.” The telegram was from an old colleague he also knew quite well, Dr. Felicia Winstrom, she was in Guatemala handling a leprosy outbreak and she desperately needed her old mentor’s help.
Dr. Jacob was on a plane to Guatemala the next morning.
Felicia and Jacob had been more than just colleagues. He had wanted to marry her at one time but the timing had never worked out. Their love affair and shared passion for helping others made them perfect potential life partners. Dr. Jacob read about George Washington’s theory of enlightened procrastination on the small prop-plane as it circled over the Green Mountain Range and Jungles of Guatemala.
Felicia was just coming out of a tent when she spotted Jacob–she went to him, put her arms around him, pulled down her surgical mask and kissed him passionately with tears running down her eyes.
“You came, you came…my dearest love…I knew you would …I knew you would”
Felicia collapsed in Jacob’s arms, clearly sleep-deprived and overwrought. Jacob carried her to her small hut, laid her on her bed and let her sleep.
After speaking in Spanish with a couple local doctors and nurses Jacob got a better grasp of the nature of the outbreak –and knew from the description of the symptoms, exactly which type of leprosy it was, the warning signs to look for, and the utmost importance of keeping certain acutely infected patients away from the general population. Upon receiving those instructions, the nurses rounded up the patients with those particular symptoms.
Dr. Jacob explained to Felicia when she awoke that time was not on their side and that it was absolutely essential to try out a new, relatively untested, infectious disease treatment on at least one of the patients to see if it might reverse the awful symptoms.
The local doctors found a willing volunteer, a 10 year old boy whose face was starting to bubble like a gourd. Upon administering a large and painful hypodermic with a strong steroid and drug that had recently been FDA approved, the young patient’s symptoms started to go into remittance within 48 hours. The look of joy and relief on the boy’s face and the local doctors was matched only by the love in Felicia’s eyes for Dr. Jacob.
The rest of the acutely infected patients were quickly administered shots and all seemed to be under control except for one minor incident where an old villager, who did not appreciate the size and pain of the needle, and perhaps the non-chalance of Dr. Jacob, jumped up screaming from the table and bit his arm. Dr. Jacob calmed the old woman down, finished administering the shot, checked his arm and quickly wiped the area on his arm with a alcohol swab, bandaged it and continued on with the hundred or so remaining villagers.
The next morning, Felicia kissed Jacob on the cheek and was quickly off in a helicopter to another village area in the Ticataxa Region after having received a telegram regarding another outbreak. She couldn’t say no. The letter to Jacob included a photograph, a poem and a promise– that when the time was right they would find each other once more–and never be parted again.
Jacob felt relieved and was happy for the first time in what seemed like years.
When Dr. Jacob got back to New York he immediately started to feel funny.
He went into his office and gave himself a full physical. What he saw caused grave concern. He administered the hypodermic with the anti-infectious disease serum and waited 48 hours.
The symptoms were getting worse.
Of course, it must have occurred when that old woman bit me–but why did her leprosy symptoms go away–could I somehow be resistant to the cure?
He looked in the mirror and was shocked by his appearance.
His face looked almost reptilian.
Dr. Jacob was horrified, panicked and confused but knew exactly what he must do.
He needed to quarantine himself immediately. He packed a couple bags full of supplies, put on latex medical gloves sanitized the area, placed a hand-written quarantine sign on his outer door and waited for dark.
He drove upstate at night to his small, broken-down cottage in Millbrook where he kept a small laboratory and research center and often studied birds and nature. The area was beautiful for nature lovers with the nearby Innesfree Gardens and various farms, but of no interest whatsoever to his ex-wife. “Let him have his little nature shack she told her attorney, it’s not worth anything.”
Jacob called a trusted colleague and told him what had occurred and that he couldn’t risk starting a leprosy outbreak by infecting an ill-equipped hospital staff and that the best solution was either to find a cure in his laboratory–quickly– or kill himself by tying himself to a chair and lighting the shack on fire. There was no other way as he saw it.
His good friend could not believe the situation was so dire. Dr. Jacob assured him it was so.
“Paul, remember my old Medical School nickname?
“That’s exactly what I look like now.”
“I’ve got to go…no time.”
Jacob Shellstein was awarded the affectionate moniker of “The Turtle” early on by his adoring Columbia Medical School classmates because of his last name, his tortoise shell glasses, his methodical nature in the lab, his withdrawn personality outside the lab and because of his preternatural intelligence– if ever a man was the embodiment of a wise old turtle it was indeed Jacob. He graduated the top of his class and became a leading global specialist on infectious diseases. His charitable, pro bono medical work around the globe over the years had positively impacted thousands of lives.
Jacob carried the two large red plastic containers of gasoline up from the basement and plopped them down on the carpet next to the rocking chair in the study. He took a favorite old book on George Washington and placed it on the chair and then he went back into the lab.
He biopsied his leprous flesh and tested it for hours under the microscope. He poured through old books and scanned the internet looking for any similar cases of patients with similar reptilian-looking skin.
He thought he found one possibility about 20 hours in but it was a false lead–so he kept plugging away.
He listened to Gershin’s Rhapsody in Blue as tears ran down is turtle-like face, He loved the song and it made him think of his beloved daughter Annabelle Blue–who he might never see again.
His good friend Paul called and asked if Jacob wanted or needed anything.
Jacob joked– “a cure would be nice.”
“Absolutely, said Paul, awkwardly–let’s pray for that–what about a Blonde Russian Hooker? he joked in a thick Russian accent –a call-back to an old medical school joke about what would be a good solution to any problem? Jacob laughed and replied, “No Paul, she would probably just say, “I von’t fuck Turtles!”
“Hang in there buddy–if anyone can figure this out you can.”
Jacob smiled and then suddenly a light bulb went off. Joking about hookers suddenly made him think of a whole new group of unapproved FDA rejected HIV drugs (Interferon6QP & Glaxiclaplonase) that had shown great promise in tests on mice in combating certain infectious diseases when used in combination–but the potential side effects were still totally unknown if used on humans. Jacob probably still had the recently mailed samples in his medical kit –never used– he glanced into his study at the two containers of gasoline–and then quickly rifled through the kit. After preparing the hypodermic he said a short prayer. He quickly wrote a last will and testament with instructions to leave everything he owned to Annebelle Blue along with a brief note to her and he emailed it to Paul. Then he phoned Paul and left a message on his voicemail and told him that one bullet, or a torch thrown through the study window from a safe distance of at least 10 feet –would ignite the gas containers and set the house on fire and protect everyone from this new strain of untreatable leprosy and that NYPD/ Hazmat– if they have not already– should simply light his old apartment on fire as well-to be safe.
Jacob Solomon Shellstein, or the grotesque creature he had suddenly become, then took the large hypodermic needle and jammed it in his arm. the image of George Washington flitted quickly through his mind as he gasped in excruciating pain, closed his eyes, and then everything …just…went….black.
Two years later at solemn dedication ceremony at City Hall, the Mayor of the City was heard saying, “…Today we remember the heroic spirit of a New York doctor whose courageous actions and selfless decisions protected the lives of thousands of our fellow New Yorkers…”
Later that day a family walking by Belvedere Castle in Central Park stopped at a little area before the Delacorte theatre.
“Now, what’s this big surprise?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Annie and I thought you might like this little part here Darling–it’s called…”
“I know exactly what it’s called Felicia, you minx…it’s Turtle Pond–home to red-eared turtles, loons, frogs, ducks and soon one very beautiful, retired and very pregnant wife of mine.
“Oh, Jacob… I’m so indescribably happy.”
The three of them hugged and soon there would be four.