A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Brodie Wilson's Blood
by Kim Burnham (Sep 2013)


A smallish five-year old boy named Brodie Wilson sat in the hospital lab chair beside his mother. He wore a faded yellow T-shirt and jeans with ragged knees. His dark hair was buzzed on the side and uneven in the front. His mahogany brown eyes shown wet from blinking but there were no tears yet. He held tightly to the white block Lego man in his right hand as the hospital tech prepared the needle to stick into his left arm. Brodie’s mother held an inflated surgical glove that the phlebotomist had given to Brodie and she waved it front of him and spoke in a falsetto voice.

“Mister Lego sir, what do you think? Do you think I look fat? Maybe I’m just big boned. Wait, I don’t have any bones. Maybe I’m just pleasingly lumpy.”

Brodie clenched his mouth and winced as the needle entered his left arm. There was not so much as a whimper from him, but a single tear rolled down his right cheek.

Brodie watched the test tube with the purple rubber top fill up with the red liquid until his mother distracted him again with Mrs. Surgical Glove. But the tube quickly filled and a short time later, they were allowed to go home.

Brodie’s parents, David and Sadie Wilson grew up in the same small town in southern Georgia and never left. They had three children, who all looked more like Sadie than David, including Brodie. Brodie had spent much of his young life dealing with painful joints. He was diagnosed at the age of two with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. This disease had brought him in and out of hospitals for two years. Now, the pain and swelling in his hips and knees was decreasing and he no longer needed a wheelchair. But the illness sometimes kept him out of kindergarten and occasionally took him back to the hospital for follow up appointments such as this one.

For most of his life, Brodie’s father, David, had been one big smile. When he had laughed, it shook his roundish bald head and reverberated through his substantial belly, all the way to his cowboy boots. But he seldom laughed or smiled anymore. It started in Bangladesh, then spread to India, then China. Now the virus was almost everywhere. And it had taken David’s baby as it had thousands of the very young and very old. The world was in the grips of a pandemic with no cure.

Before the death of their baby, David’s smile had been a mixed blessing to his wife, Sadie. His happiness was generally contagious, but she wished he would have done just a little bit of the worrying sometime. That always seemed to be her lot. And there was always plenty to worry about even before the virus, especially when it came to paying their bills. Now she missed David’s laughter more than anything. She was a little overweight and her dark hair was graying slightly but her brown eyes were deep and enchanting. And those eyes were always busy. Even when the TV was on, the eyes were busy with something else.

David ran his own home repair business. But he was not and never would be a businessman. He never cut corners on his work, but he often did on the price, when he felt his customers couldn’t afford more. And he never charged for wheelchair ramps, that he had done four of, in the past year. He built the first one for his own son and then he just kept on building them.

David pulled into the cluttered driveway of their smallish one-story brick home, locked his tools in the toolbox of his banged up Ford 150 and walked up to the door. Sadie was already in the doorway.

“You’re late,” she said, with her hands on her hips, pretending to be angry.

“I stopped by to check on Mrs. Saunders,” he replied. “I hadn’t seen her out lately.”

“Is she alright?”

“Just down with a cold, at least that’s what she said.”

“We got an interestin’ letter in the mail today from the hospital,” said Sadie.

“Another bill from the hospital for somethin’ Brodie didn’t use, like that breast pump?”

“No,” Sadie smiled. “They did some research on Brodie’s blood. Anyway, they found somethin’ they hadn’t expected, something akin to that virus that killed our baby.”

“What? somethin’ in Brodie’s blood? What is it?”

“I’ll have to find the letter. It was an antibiotic or somethin’.”

What Sadie called an antibiotic was an antibody. The hospital sent a small portion of Brodie’s blood to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. They were looking at blood samples from children who had family members that had been sickened by the virus. In others, they found antibodies to the virus that could neutralize it. But these were always specific to a particular variant. And the unstable genome of the virus meant that there were thousands of different variants infecting people worldwide. The only hope for a therapy or a vaccine would be to stimulate antibodies that would react with a conserved part of one of the virus proteins that could not vary because it was essential for virus function. The investigators at the Centers for Disease Control believed that Brodie, unlike many other young children, had been infected by the virus but had survived without even having any symptoms. The reason for this, they believed, was because of what they found in Brodie’s blood, an antibody that neutralized all of the variants it was tested against, the kind that hadn’t been found in any of the thousands of other blood samples tested.

“I think you better call Gerald,” said Sadie after reading the letter.

“What on earth for?” asked David. “If Brodie’s blood can help keep people from dyin’ then we are goin’ to help. Why do we need an attorney?”

“Of course we’re goin’ to help. But we might have rights that we don’t know about. I heard about some cells that came from some lady’s cancer. It was in a book. They were poor like us. The cells were used to help cure Polio or somethin’. Anyway, years and years later, the family is gettin’ some money because of the cells for a foundation to help the grandchildren and other poor kids git to college. And I sure would like to see our kids git to college.”

“I want our kids to git to college too. But I don’t want to have them do so because we were holdin’ the world hostage. If Brodie’s blood can help, then I don’t want no more babies or old ladies dyin’ because we were bickerin’ over money.”

“Just call him and see what he says. How can that hurt?”

David called Gerald and set up a meeting in his law office downtown.

The next day, they sat in the shabby waiting room of Gerald Mason, attorney at law. After a nervous fifteen minutes, the secretary ushered them into the office. It was obvious that the office had not been redecorated since the Nixon administration, not only because of the shag carpet, dark paneling and loud colors but also because it suffered from fifty years of wear and tear.

“Have a seat,” said Gerald with a smile, motioning to two weathered olive green plastic chairs.

Gerald looked to be in his mid fifties. What little hair he had left was gray. He had grey sideburns and a potbelly and wore an off-white shirt with a bright red tie and green suspenders. He got right to the point.

“I have already checked with the hospital. All you signed was the standard hold harmless form. You didn’t sign anything saying they could use your blood for commercial purposes.”

“Is that important?” asked Sadie.

Gerald smiled again. “In a court of law, it is everything. The laws have been changing a lot on this issue lately. I had to look it up. It used to be, anything taken out of a person was the property of the medical people and they could do with it whatever they darn well pleased. Why, I heard of one doctor that used to fertilize his orchids with human blood and they won prizes at the county fair.”

Sadie grimaced. Gerald’s story was only partly exaggerated and had the desired effect.

“But we don’t want this to go to court,” said David. “People could die while we go to court. Besides courtrooms scare the bejeebers out of me.”

“Don’t worry,” said Gerald. “An attorney’s job is to keep you out of court, if possible and I think I can do that.” Gerald paused for effect. “And I just might make us all rich.”

The Wilsons let the hospital take more blood from Brodie, a whole quarter unit against Gerald’s advice but they followed Gerald’s advice on one thing. They didn’t sign anything. The Brodie’s blood was sent to the Centers for Disease Control where the antibody could be further tested.

A week later, David and Sadie received a request for more blood that came from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. They set up a meeting and made the two-hour drive two days later. Sadie insisted that Gerald go with them to help them decide if Brodie should give blood and whether they should sign anything. They arranged the trip, including getting Sadie’s sister to pick up the other children after school. At 7:00 AM sharp, David, Sadie and Brodie picked up Gerald. David and Sadie sat in front and Brodie and Gerald in the back.

To David’s relief, Gerald was unusually silent on the trip to Atlanta. Sadie hoped it was because he was working up what he was going to say to the scientists. It was early October and Brodie stared out the window at the fiery red oak brush intermixed with the green pine trees along the road.

After finding the Center for Disease Control complex and parking, David, Sadie, Brodie and Gerald got lost three times inside the maze of adjoined buildings that made up the center. But they found a helpful receptionist and finally found the office they were looking for. Their wait was very short. They were greeted by a thin middle-aged man with an accent that meant he was not from around here. David thought he looked and sounded a whole lot like Hawkeye on Mash.

Once they were all seated and introductions had taken place, Dr. Streilein, a.k.a. Hawkeye, opened the conversation.

“I’m sure your son has always been something special but he is even more so now. His body is producing the kind of antibody everyone is searching for. We think it might have to do with his arthritis. His immune system is in overdrive and that might be why he produced an antibody that no one else has. We would like for you to allow us to take some blood from Brodie. But this time, not for the antibody but for the cells that make the antibody.”

“What are you going to do with the cells?” asked Gerald.

Dr. Streilein did not turn to look at Gerald, and he continued to smile at Sadie.

“We want to see if we can fuse some of the white cells from his blood that are making the antibody with cancer cells. This is so that the cells can survive. By fusing them with the cancer cells they can survive and keep on growing. And the hope is that the fused cells will keep making the antibody. Then we will have a continual source of lots of antibody to diagnose and treat other patients.”

“Then you won’t need Brodie’s blood anymore?” asked Gerald, his face scrunched up in concern.

“That is correct,” said Dr. Streilein, redirecting his gaze toward Brodie and smiling. “If this works, then we won’t need any more blood from Brodie ever again.”

Brodie raised his hand as if he were in kindergarten.

“What is it?” asked Dr. Streilein.

“That fusing thing, will it give me cancer?” asked Brodie. ”My Grandma had it and she died.”

“No,” said Dr. Streilein. “Your cells will be in a flask when they get fused to the cancer cells. “Come with me and I will show you where your cells will be.”

Dr. Streilein motioned for everyone to follow him and they walked into the lab next to his office. Dr. Streilein opened the door of something the size and shape of a washing machine.

“This is the incubator. We will fuse your cells and put them in here. They won’t ever go back into you. They will grow in here and other incubators like this one in large bottles and they will make something that will save many many children”

“That would be really nice,” said Brodie.

David smiled. Gerald frowned. And Sadie cried.

“Will there be a form to sign?” asked Gerald.

Dr. Streilein acknowledged Gerald for the first time by turning his gaze toward him. The smile left his face. “There will be a form. It will say something about waiving rights and allowing the cells to be used for commercial purposes – something to that effect.”

“They’re not going to sign it,” said Gerald flatly.

Dr. Streilein’s gaze shifted toward David. “Three hundred are dying every day and that’s just the children. Your son’s blood can help stop that. We can’t afford a delay.”

“He can give the blood,” said David, his jaw firm. “And we will sign.”

Sadie looked down at the floor and frowned, then slowly began to nod yes.

A few minutes later, just before the lab tech put the needle in Brodie’s arm, Dr. Streilein entered the lab and spoke.to Brodie..

“What is your favorite place to eat in the whole world?” he asked.

“Sonic,” said Brodie. “I always get a corndog.”

Dr. Streilein laughed a Hawkeye kind of laugh, then disappeared.

When they were all ready to go, Dr. Streilein reappeared and slipped something in David’s shirt pocket. David pulled it out. It was a Sonic gift card.

Gerald argued profusely with David and Sadie that they had made a terrible choice almost halfway home until Brodie, who was sitting beside him in the back seat, spoke.

“Mr. Mason would you play Legos with me?”

Gerald frowned at first and then looked at Brodie. Then a resolute smile of surrender spread across his face.

“Okay,” he said. “What you got?”

David and Sadie exchanged wide grins.

Dr. Streilein and his tech were able to generate immortalized cells that produced Brodie’s unique antibody in large quantities. And the Centers for Disease Control used it to save the lives of thousands of children and old people all over the world. Three months later, the antibody became obsolete. Dr. Streilein and his collaborators developed a vaccine that could stimulate the production of the same kind of antibody found in Brodie’s blood. The pandemic was over.

About five months after Brodie donated his white cells, another letter came in the mail. It was from the drug company that made and sold the vaccine developed based on the work of Dr. Streilein at the Center for Disease Control. Sadie saved it and she and David opened it together after David got home from work that evening.

Sadie motioned for David to read the letter out loud. It said:

“Dear David,

The kindness of you and your son, Brodie, has blessed the lives of thousands of others. We are so sorry that it wasn’t in time to save your own baby. We have no legal obligation to share the profits of the vaccine with your family. However, we wanted to do something. As per the request of your wife and that of Dr. Streilein, our board of directors voted unanimously to donate 0.5% of the net profits from the vaccine (which at present, is just over five million dollars) to set up a foundation.”

David shook his head and looked up from the letter. Sadie smiled. She had her hands on her hips and he knew what that meant. He looked back at the letter and started reading where he had left off.

“You can name the foundation as you please but we would like to suggest that it be called the “Brodie Wilson Foundation.” The purpose of the foundation, as we have set it up, is to fund the construction of wheelchair ramps for those who demonstrate sufficient need. We would like you to chair this foundation. As such, you may pay yourself a salary, not to exceed $45/hour. The foundation will also be authorized to purchase all the supplies necessary and pay for travel expenses for you to go to other communities to build ramps throughout the state of Georgia and beyond.”

David shook his head over and over again. Finally, he spoke.

“I can’t believe it. How did you keep it a secret?”

“It was hard. But I’ve only known it was goin’ to work out since a week ago. Now you can get paid for doin’ what you love, buildin’ those ramps and makin’ old geezers happy.

David laughed from the top of his head to the heal of his boots like he had before they lost their baby, and then he spoke again. “There will be some young geezers too - wounded warriors, children like Brodie, and the like. And our kids might git to college, after all.

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