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My memory of Dr. Meta had not dimmed with the passage of years.
The only reason I had Dr. Meta as my patient was that I was on night call when he came to the Davies. Otherwise, the senior members of the staff would have taken care of him. He turned out to be an important man. A VIP!
He was a small man, in his fifties, his eyes were like little bullets, and they darted all the time. He was dressed smartly in a well-tailored suit.
"You the on-call physician?" His voice was raspy but when he spoke, it was with authority.
"Yes," I said hesitatingly. To my eyes, the man did not appear like a patient.
"This is a mental hospital?" he demanded.
There had been instances of City or Health care officials and more importantly, enterprising reporters getting admitted to hospitals by pretending to be ill and then write a scathing report on the terrible conditions there. I was on the alert. He did not look like any psychotic I had ever known. Was he a reporter? He looked more like he belonged to the Mayor's staff.
"What can I do for you?"
He reacted as if I had asked him something obscene. "This is certainly not a barber shop! You cannot do anything for me, young man. Shouldn't you say what's wrong with you?"
"Is there?" I asked challengingly. I was becoming more certain of my original hunch by this time.
He shot me a look, as if discharging a firearm.
"You think I am crazy to be here?"
What a question!
I smiled and said nothing. Let him hang himself!
"Young man," he said, "I am Dr. Meta. Robert Meta. I work in the Rolls Springs Research Institute. I am, or used to be an oncologist." Here he paused and gave me a look of doubt, "You do know what that is, right?"
I inclined my head, totally bewildered as to what was going on.
"Cancer," he said, "kills more people than any other illness. Not only kills them but robs the victims of the last dignity. The dignity of a quiet respectable death. They die screaming with pain."
I stayed silent. I was revising my opinion. No, this was not a man masquerading as a patient. He had some deep-seated problems. What were they?
"Let's sit down," he said with a sigh. He appeared to grow old suddenly in front of my eyes. His shoulders drooped, his arms lengthened and his eyes went blank.
"My last patient," he said, "was a six year old boy. That was about, oh, ten years back," he said, his eyes glistening with memory. "He was fine, going to school and his parents doted on him. One day, he complained of fever and weakness. A touch of the sore throat, the parents thought and gave him some penicillin left over from a previous illness. This time however, he did not respond. They took him to a doctor. He reassured them, continued on a different antibiotic and took a blood test.
"The next day the doctor called them and said there was bad news. The blood test showed immature cells. Too many of them. More tests and they found the boy had leukemia. Every treatment available at that time was tried. He was taken to the best physicians and admitted to the best hospitals. Fate was watching this scurrying back and forth with a twisted smile of pleasure. He was like a transplanted flowering tree. Nothing helped. Within six months, he was dead.
"He was my son!" His eyes softened for a moment, before regaining their fierce look.
I continued my silence.
"He was our only child. Since that time, I have devoted all my time to research. My wife has devoted herself to god and rarely goes anywhere except to Church or religious gatherings. I don't know what kind of salvation she is looking for in the house of God. I am trying to best that bastard and find a cure for leukemia in my laboratory."
He looked all around him, stared straight into my eyes and said, "I have a problem? I am near a solution!"
My only thought was why was he in a mental hospital in the middle of the night if he had made such a momentous discovery? Was I going crazy?
He said, with a frown, "Yes, I am sure, I am on the right track! Certain things are happening which have led me to come here! Do you know what I am talking about?" His eyes bored into me, as if seeking to search my innermost thoughts.
I shook my head.
"The C.I.A. agents are bugging my phone. Or, is it the F.B.I? They have me under constant surveillance! I have complained to the lab security people. Spoke to the director. No one believes me! Some actually think I am crazy! Do you?"
I said clearly. "It is rather an absurd idea, sir." Reality. Keep in touch with reality! "Why would they do that?"
"Are you stupid? They want to maintain the supremacy of the United States in the world. Every time a child shows promise, they get him. They have all kinds of bacteria, viruses or radiations at their disposal!"
"I cannot believe it!" I said firmly.
"You are like all others! No brains, no thinking power. Talk to the Blacks in the States. The C.I.A has experimented on them so many times. The government is ruthless." His eyes were fanatic. They were sparkling like they had caught fire. "I am originally from Greece. Do you understand? Do you understand?" He repeated himself with urgency in his voice.
I shook my head.
"A little knowledge spells out danger, Dr. Martin, doesn't it? You have to know that I am right?"
"You cannot seriously mean what you just said, Dr. Meta?"
"Yes, I do. You have to hide me. They are after me and this is the only place they'd never come to. No one would think of me being here. Since most of my colleagues think I am crazy, I am safe here in the crazy hospital. The Poe technique! The most obvious place!"
Thus began one of the most interesting of my cases. The next day confirmed all of Dr. Meta's early story. He indeed was one of the leading cancer specialists. Yes, he was carrying on with research day and night. His papers had shown promise of a cure. He was pushing himself at an inhuman pace till the paid the price with his mental breakdown. What an irony of fate. A great researcher probably on the verge of breakthrough of one of the worst scourges on mankind, admitted in a hospital for the mentally insane!
Cautiously we tried medications. Psychotherapy. Nothing worked. Most of our senior staff worked on the case. Giving me advice, that is. The top consultant, Dr. Portnov and I discussed the case on a daily basis.
There was no improvement.
Dr. Meta sat in his little cubicle, took whatever we gave him, talked to any one who would, and repeated the same things. He told us not to let anyone at his laboratory know! For all the phones were bugged and for all he knew, one of his friends was in cahoots with the C.I.A. agents! His wife came to see him everyday and brought prayer books and blessed rosaries. The moment she left, he threw them out.
He asked for no special favors and ate with the patients. In fact, he was strangely fascinated by his fellow inmates. His only request to us was that he be allowed to receive his journals. Most of the night, he did not sleep. He pored over the thick journals, national and international from all over the world on hematology, oncology and immunology.
That was what inspired Dr. Portnov to come up with his unconventional treatment plan.
Dr. Meta had plenty of grant money. After twisting some administrative arms, we set up a laboratory for him at the Davies! In one corner of the huge patient complex, he worked, dressed in hospital patient's clothing. He insisted on total secrecy. No one, except a few top-level people knew of the arrangement. Soon he became immersed into his work. Treatment did nothing to lessen his delusions. Every morning he spent hours searching for evidence of spying by the C.I.A. before he went on with his work. An assistant, a colorless Ph, D student, with thick glasses and unkempt hair, came and transcribed his notes into legible papers every morning. He insisted they not be published under his own name! Still they kept getting published in the most prestigious journals. Rumors were that his work, anonymous though it was, was going to be nominated for the Nobel Prize. He refused the discuss that; he thought it was a C.I.A. plot to get him out of the hospital and kill him.
The situation continued on for months. Finally the Board of Directors had a meeting with all the clinicians involved in the treatment. Dr. Portnov said, "It is an unique experiment, nothing like this has been done before."
One of the Board Directors, "Is he paying for his rooms and treatment?"
"Oh, yes, there is fund worth millions, drug company monies, patents and awards. There will never be a shortage of funds to pay the Davies."
"How about notoriety?"
"Can only be a positive break for the Davies if he comes up with something."
The meeting broke up and no action was recommended.
Meta's life at the Davies went on. The four rooms in the West Wing became a full-fledged lab. Dr. Meta soon stopped emerging from there. As I moved on to new responsibilities, another person took my place and Dr. Portnov directed the treatment from his plush Fifth Avenue office. Dr. Meta's delusions, if they were so, did not change.
For all I know, since Portnov is no longer associated with the Davies, Dr. Meta is still working away in his remote lab of the existence of which most people have forgotten.