Time: 6:42 am
Location: Intake, CHRISTUS St. Vincent Regional Medical Center
One thing that sucks, big time, about being an emergency room tech, Mike Ranft thinks to himself, is that you never know what’s going to come in the door when you’re trying to walk out of it.
Standing at the sign-in counter is a large man in his 50s. With one arm, he holds up a smaller, blood-drained patient by the waist. His other hand is clamped around the patient’s mouth. A pinkish foam runs over what looks like some sort of falconer’s mitt.
“Hey, hey, I got him” Ranft says, lifting the patient’s arm over his shoulder. “You’ve got to let go of his face. You’re going to dislocate his jaw.”
“Not until you strap him down,” Vasquez says. “Twenty minutes ago, he was as peaceful as a corpse. Stiff as one, too. Now if I let up, he’ll try to bite your face off.”
Fair enough, Ranft thinks. Together they drag the patient down the corridor toward the first open gurney.
“What’s your tattoo?” Vasquez asks, gesturing with his nose at the back of Ranft’s hand, which dangles in front of his face.
“That one’s a goat’s head,” Ranft says. “My other hand has an angel’s face.”
“Times have changed,” Vasquez says. “No way we could get away with visible tattoos at the Department of Transportation when I was your age.”
Vasquez keeps his suffocating vice grip on the security guard’s pallid face until an orderly delivers a set of leather straps. Ranft hears Vasquez mutter something about leaving for Chama.
That’s cool with Ranft—the patient’s flailing is increasing and he needs the elbow room for his examination.
Time: 7:27 am
Location: Nurses’ station, St. Vincent
The incident commander, Rick Kessler, RN, runs over Ranft’s initial observations: “Cool, cyanotic skin, no palpable blood pressure or pulse, raspy, crackling respirations at 12 per minute, O2 sat. of 50. Leg wound coagulated without assistance. Does not answer questions appropriately, responds to verbal stimuli with eye contact—‘No palpable blood pressure?’ You gotta be kidding me, Mike.”
“I would’ve written ‘zombie-like symptoms,’” Ranft says, running a hand through his spiked hair. “But I’m not sure how that would play with his insurance.”
Kessler chuckles. “There’s some kind of nasty rabies outbreak up in Rio Arriba County and Los Alamos. Two ambulances are en route here right now. Where’s the guy who brought him in?”
Shit, Ranft thinks, and races down the corridor, soles squeaking on the tile. Vasquez’ truck is still parked in the drop-off lane. Ranft spies Vasquez off in the distance kicking bushes in the parking lot. Ranft waves.
“I’ve lost my cock,” Vasquez hollers back. “You haven’t seen it, have you? It’s about 3-feet-tall standing straight up.”
Ranft stifles a smile. “The guy you brought in didn’t bite it off did he?”
“What’s that?” Vasquez asks, huffing as he stomps back up the hill. “My rooster burst clean through the side of his crate like it was crepe paper.”
Ranft dreads this part of the job, informing patients of the blood-urine-saliva-spinal tap regiment it takes to identify rabies and how even those are not 100 percent conclusive. But as he begins to speak, he’s drowned out by the Doppler effect of two wailing Los Alamos ambulances careening down St. Michael’s Drive.
The ambulance in the lead swerves wildly into the parking lot and hovers on two wheels for a long silent moment and then the second slams into its side, rolling it over. Ranft breaks into a sprint, then stops on his heels abruptly as several figures emerge from the empty windshields: hunched, limp-twisted humanoids as pale as the poor soul strapped down in Trauma Room 1.
George Romero’s entire film catalog flashes before his eyes as Ranft recognizes them for what they are: zombies. A platoon of doctors, techs, nurses and waiting-room gawkers rush blindly past him toward the crash. Ranft realizes he’s not going home this morning. He may not go home ever.