Vital Signs Excerpt

The Baxter Series #3


The hall clock chimed three times. Blake Thomas lay in the dark, fever scalding his face, sweat soaking the sheets. He felt worse by the minute and dreaded the thought of spending even one day of his furlough laid up with the flu. In spite of feeling exhausted, he had held up well during last night’s “welcome home” reception at the church.

Blake had so looked forward to returning to the love and fellowship he remembered as the preacher’s kid at Cornerstone Bible Church. He and Melissa had spent the past two years on the mission field in a remote area of the Amazon basin, and had rarely made contact with the outside world.

But they were expecting their first child in a month; and as much as they embraced the formidable challenge of sharing the Good News in one of the most isolated places on earth, they had no desire to entrust the birth of their child to the uncertain skills of the village women.

Blake stared out the window at the moon beyond, and realized his eyes were not focusing. He tried to ignore his aching muscles and turned his attention to the sound of Melissa’s deep sleep. The trip home had been wearing for her, especially the arduous river journey back to civilization. He knew that after their baby was born, sleep could not be scheduled. Right now, he was glad she could rest, and was becoming increasingly concerned that he couldn’t.

Blake kicked off the top sheet, and felt the air conditioning sweep over him. Yearning for cool weather, they had planned their trip home in the fall. But after Melissa became pregnant, not even the sticky Baxter summer could dissuade them from returning to share their baby’s birth with the church family that had so generously supported them.

Pain shot through Blake’s head, causing him to wince, sweat rolling into his eyes and ears. He decided to wake Melissa, who kept a stash of natural remedies and always had a better sense of what to do. He turned on his side and gently shook his wife. “Melissa…? Honey…?” He pressed his hand to her cheek. She was burning up!

Blake fumbled until he found the lamp switch. He turned on the light and noticed red spots on his pillow. He wiped the perspiration from his face and saw blood on his fingers! He tried to stand up, but his legs gave way and he fell against the dresser, then onto the hardwood floor. The fever’s heat turned to chills and his body shook.

The room felt as though it were spinning. Blake dug his fingers into the floor and retched until he vomited blood. He tried calling out to Melissa but the words were caught in his throat the way they were in his nightmares. Lord, take care of her…

Suddenly, it seemed as if one side of the floor had been raised at an angle, and he was slowly sliding off, everything turning to gray fuzz—and then nothing.

Chapter 1

Jed Wilson sat in the waiting room of Baxter Memorial Hospital, his fingers tapping the arms of a chair that had ceased to be comfortable hours ago. He heard the sound of a baby crying. His daughter Jennifer was the only one in delivery tonight and he wondered why no one came to get him.

He picked up the remote and started to channel surf, then turned off the TV and began thumbing through stacks of magazines he’d already looked at.

He counted baby carriages on the wallpaper, teddy bears on the carpet, and tiles on the ceiling. His eyes glanced at the waste can overflowing with an empty pizza box, two candy bar wrappers, two Coke cans, and a crumpled package of Cheetos. He popped two Rolaids into his mouth and started pacing.

How was Rhonda doing as Jennifer’s labor coach? Though he had no desire to be in the delivery room, after hearing a baby cry, he was flooded with excitement. How long before his wife came rushing through the double doors, announcing the birth of their first grandchild? Jed looked at his watch, feeling a twinge of regret that pacing had also been the full extent of his participation the night Jennifer was born.

Jed heard a baby cry again. Why didn’t someone tell him what was going on? He sat down and heaved a heavy sigh. What did he expect at 4:30 in the morning? The place was practically deserted.

But he noticed a flurry of activity at the other end of the hall, and flashing lights of an ambulance outside the emergency room door. He got up and peeked through the glass on the swinging doors that led to the delivery room. No sign of Rhonda or Jennifer. He decided to walk down to the emergency room and investigate.

Two people, blood-soaked gauze wrapped around their heads, were being removed from the ambulance. The EMTs seemed to be in a big hurry. They pushed the gurneys through the emergency entrance then disappeared through another door. He wondered why they were wearing surgical masks.

The other set of double doors burst open, and a familiar voice called from down the corridor. “Jed! Come see,” Rhonda Wilson said. “Hurry!”

Jed rushed toward her. “Well, what is it?”

Rhonda smiled, then turned and began walking briskly the other direction.

“Come on, babe, at least give me a hint.” He moved faster, until he caught up to his wife.

She took his hand and pulled him quickly down the hall.

“Can’t you just tell me? What’s the big mystery?”

“Oh, Jed, they are so cute!”

They? he thought before saying it. “They?”

“Look!” She prodded him into Jennifer’s room.

After exchanging glances with his daughter, his eyes zeroed in on two blue caps.

“Surprise! You have twin grandsons. Identical!” Jennifer said.


Jennifer smiled. Rhonda shrugged.

“Why didn’t Alex tell us?” Jed asked.

“Well, Dad, my insurance wouldn’t pay for those tests that tell you everything. Do you want me to give one back?”

Jed was vaguely aware of something said over the speaker system and hospital staff scurrying outside. “What are you going to name them?”

“I don’t know. I was so sure it was a girl.”

“Jen, may we hold them?” Rhonda said, sounding almost giddy.

“Sure. Here…”

Rhonda took one of the babies and put him in Jed’s arms. “There you go, Grandpa.”

“Uh, remind me what to do.” He laughed nervously. “I haven’t done this in a long time. As I recall, I wasn’t very good at it back then.”

“Well, it’s a whole new day,” Rhonda said.

Jed studied the child he was holding and shook his head. “Jen, he’s perfect. I can’t get over it—twins?”

“Yeah, Dr. Harmon gave me such a hard time about my weight, I think he felt bad.”

Jed lifted his eyebrows. “Isn’t batting a thousand, is he? Maybe that’s why he’s hiding from us.”

Dr. Harmon breezed through the door. “Now, Jed, who says I’m hiding? The way I see it, I delivered twice the goods. Pretty exciting, I’d say. Though the credit goes to Jennifer.”

“I’m still in a state of shock,” Jennifer said.

“I think you were supposed to be surprised.” Dr. Harmon avoided eye contact. “Here, let me snap a few pictures for you.” He picked up the camera on Jennifer’s nightstand.

“I got several of Jennifer and the babies earlier,” Rhonda said. “How about getting a shot of all five of us?”

Jed got up with one baby and sat next to Rhonda on the side of Jennifer’s bed.

“Hold it right there…smile…” Dr. Harmon snapped the picture. “One more…perfect.” He handed the camera to Jennifer. “That’s the second time they’ve paged me. I’d better go see what’s up. Congratulations, Jennifer. You did well. Your coach didn’t do too bad either.” He smiled at Rhonda.

“Alex, can I see you outside for a minute?” Jed said.

The two men left the room and stood facing each other in the hall.

“How long have you known?” Jed asked.

“About a month. I heard two heartbeats.”

Jed threw his hands in the air. “Then why didn’t you tell her? Jen’s been struggling with whether or not to raise one baby as a single mom. How’s she going to deal with two?”

“Did Jennifer seem upset to you?” Alex asked.

“Well, no. Not really, but—”

“Listen, Jed. I’ve been your family physician for twenty years. This was a tough call…”

“Meaning what?”

“I prayed about this long and hard before I decided not tell her.”

“That’s a copout.”

“Jed, all of us at church had been praying for Jennifer to decide what the Lord wanted her to do. Had she known she was carrying two babies, she might’ve closed her mind, so I kept quiet and decided to let God handle it. I think it was the right call.”

Jed sighed. “Alex, if I didn’t know you as well as I do, I’d probably punch you in the nose.”

“And I’d probably understand.”

Jed raked his hands through his hair. “We’re not set up for twins.”

“I know. No doubt the church will throw another baby shower and make sure Jennifer has everything she needs. Listen, Jed, I really need to answer that page. If you want to talk some more, call me tonight at home.”

Jed looked at the door to Jennifer’s room, and then at Alex. “They are cute. It’s not like you withheld news of some terminal disease or something…”

“They’re fine, healthy boys, Jed. A double blessing.”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Jed extended his hand and shook Alex’s and then embraced him. “Let’s pray Jennifer sees it that way.”

* * *

Dr. Sarah Rice backed her Cadillac Deville out of the driveway and drove toward Baxter. She turned on her cell phone, looked up the home number for county health director, Dr. Ivan Roesch, and pressed the button.

“Hello,” said a sleepy male voice.

“Ivan? It’s Sarah Rice. Did I wake you?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Well, here’s a wake up call for you: Two patients were admitted through emergency forty-five minutes ago with symptoms of hemorrhagic fever.”

“Hemorrhagic fever? Who?”

“That missionary couple. You know, the pastor’s son and daughter-in-law from the Bible church—the one Ellen Jones did the feature story on?”

“The ones who just came home from the Amazon?”

“Yes,” she said. “They’re starting to hemorrhage. Burning up with fever.”

“Who treated them?”

“Two EMTs, two ER doctors and a few nurses. The EMTs weren’t immediately sure what they were dealing with. They answered a 911 call from Pastor Thomas’s home. Apparently, the couple is staying there. The pastor said he heard a loud thud and ran upstairs to see what happened. His son had fallen. Vomited blood. He thought the bleeding was from the fall.”

“What about his daughter-in-law?”

“Semi-conscious. Same symptoms. It’s not good, Ivan. I’m on my way to the hospital. Meet me in my office as soon as you can.

* * *

Jed studied Jennifer’s face as she held one of the twins. She looked tired, but the glow was undeniable.

“I had blond hair when I was born.” Jennifer brushed her fingers gently through the baby’s hair.

“Not this much,” Rhonda said. “Yours was like peach fuzz.”

“Hey, Pastor Thomas just went by,” Jennifer said. “I’ll bet he’s looking for us.”

Jed poked his head into the hallway. “Bart? Hey, Bart…we’re down here…” Jed turned around and stared at Rhonda. “He rushed through the double doors. Guess he didn’t hear me. I can’t imagine he’d start his hospital visits this early after being up late at the reception. I’m sure he was there long after the three of us left.”

“I didn’t know anyone else from church was in the hospital right now,” Rhonda said.

Jed shrugged. “I saw two people being admitted through emergency. Looked like a car wreck.”

“I hope it wasn’t someone we know.” Rhonda turned to Jennifer. “Honey, you look tired. Why don’t you take a nap? I’ll get the nurses to take the twins to the nursery for a while. Your dad and I can come back later.”

“Thanks, Mom. I really am tired.”

“Besides, I’m sure your dad can’t wait to tell that macho crowd at the highway department you had twin boys. The testosterone level should be off the charts.” Rhonda carefully put the babies in Jed’s arms and then hit the call button.

Jed looked at one twin and then the other. “Okay, guys, what are we going to call you?”

“Later, Dad. We’ll name them later…please…just let me crash.”

“Go ahead. I’ll just play with Bert and Ernie here.” He expected to evoke a round of protest, but Jennifer was already out. “Poor kid. She is exhausted.”

The nurse walked through doorway and over to Jed.

“One nice thing about bein’ here is the mothers can decide when they wanna rest. It doesn’t work that way when they go home.” The nurse took the newborns from Jed with skilled ease. “Come on, baby boys, let’s give your mama a break. She’s not gonna get many of those for a while.”

* * *

Dr. Sarah Rice arrived at the hospital just after 6:00 a.m. and found a bearded man dressed in surgical scrubs, gloves, mask, and goggles, pacing in her office.

“For not being a morning person, Ivan, you certainly rose to the occasion.”

“For your information, I’ve already initiated barrier nursing procedures and called state epidemiology. You’ll notice the protective clothing on your desk.”

“I’m impressed,” Sarah said. She put on the gown over her clothes, then the mask, goggles and gloves. “All right. Let’s go see what we’re up against.”

They walked to C Corridor, and stopped outside a glass room where a hand-written quarantine notice was posted on the door. Two young patients lay on the other side, hooked up to IVs. A small staff of medical personnel, donning protective gear, worked to stabilize them.

A gray-haired man leaned against the glass, looking dazed. Sarah recognized him from the newspaper story.

“Pastor Thomas? I’m Dr. Sarah Rice, the hospital’s chief of staff. And this is Dr. Ivan Roesch, Director of the County Health Department.”

“How could this happen so quickly?” Pastor Thomas said softly, his eyes fixed on the two patients.

“We’re doing everything we can to make them comfortable,” she said. “It’s important we find out what we’re dealing with.”

Pastor Thomas turned to Sarah, his eyes vacant. “Melissa’s pregnant. Our first grandchild.”

She touched his shoulder. “I know.”

“Pastor, we need to find out who they’ve been in contact with,” Ivan said. “Especially from the time they became symptomatic.”

“We never noticed any symptoms until we found them half delirious.”

“Didn’t they mention feeling achy? Hot? Tired?”

“Those kids never complain about anything. They did seem washed out, but we thought it was from the long trip home.”

“Did you say there was a reception?” Ivan asked.

“Yes, all evening. Over two hundred people.”

“Was there a reception line?”

Pastor Thomas nodded, then sighed and leaned on the glass. “Our church family is close, and many have known Blake since he was a little boy. There was a lot of hugging and kissing and tears of joy. If only we’d waited a few days…”

Sarah felt a cold chill. She looked squarely at Ivan and didn’t say a word.