In his final flash of freedom, Henry Mullins saved the life of his three year-old niece, Caroline. A little-known fact about Parkinson’s is that rarely—and for only a moment—the pressures of life can make the disease disappear.
Over eight years Henry's body had gradually become a prison. His walk shrank to a pitiful shuffle, and his face froze into expressionless mask. After several falls Henry’s sister Alice took him in, because otherwise he would have gone to a nursing home. Alice had never liked her older brother much, but couldn’t bear the thought of her flesh and blood in one of those places. She even felt something like compassion seeing Henry locked in his shriveled body.
On his one glorious day, Henry sat in the sunroom as Alice and her friends chatted over brunch. They socialized around Henry in his wheelchair as if he were nothing but a potted plant. Several of Alice's friends mentioned how sad it was that her brother had such an awful disease at such a young age. One muttered that Alice shouldn't bring him out with guests since he smelled like urine. Alice smiled graciously and reminded everyone that even though Henry's body was frozen, his mind and hearing worked just fine. "..and he's still the asshole he’s always been," she thought to herself.
Henry only stared blankly out the window.
As Alice sipped her mimosa, she noticed a curious thing. Henry's flat, cadaverous expression was gone. His eyes blazed with concentration. Hands that had shaken ceaselessly for years were still.
The long-dormant body sprang out of its wheelchair, and a voice Alice hardly recognized bellowed, "She's not coming up!"
Henry threw open the door and bounded down the stairs, leaving the stunned brunch. They all stood to watch the emaciated man sprint down the hill like the athlete he had been thirty years before. Only when he dove into the pool did Alice recognize an object at the bottom about the size of her daughter, Caroline.
Henry carried the girl out of the water screaming, "Alice, call 911!”
He dropped the limp girl on the grass. His hands began to shake again, but for a moment before his face returned to a frozen mask it wore a beaming, self-satisfied smile.
By the time the ambulance arrived, Caroline was breathing again, Henry had fallen twice trying to get back to his wheelchair, and Alice realized from the smell that Henry had soiled himself.
"Parks Phenomenon really is impressive if you ever see it. The patient can be disability-free for up to several minutes," said Dr. Lewis in his lecture to the medical students that same day. Dr. Lewis was Henry Mullins' neurologist and an expert on Parkinson's.
"It was described by Doctor Edmund Parks in 1933 after several Parkinson's patients escaped a fire in the neurology ward by climbing out a window. Afterwards all the patients resumed the exact stage of the disease they had before. Parks thought the event was quite singular, however, it may be more common than once thought. Physicians often dismiss this phenomenon as exaggerations by family members hopeful for recovery."
Dr. Lewis pointed toward a diagram of brain pathways projected above him, “Parks Phenomenon is caused by an adrenaline surge in moments of extreme stress. It shows that even in advanced Parkinson's the movement system remains capable of high-level functioning. New dopaminergic neurons could potentially reverse even severe Parkinsonism. My own research on midbrain embryonic stem cells shows..."
Dr. Lewis droned on for another hour as the medical students in the back nodded off to sleep. They were exhausted from a grueling pharmacology test earlier that morning. All their dreams of healing grateful patients had smoldered out within their first year of medical school. They just wanted the dull neurologist to stop talking.
Alice's husband Ronald rushed home. He ran into the yard and hugged Henry. It was the first time Ronald had hugged another man in years, and he knocked Henry out of his wheelchair.
The ladies from Alice's brunch helped Henry up. They had made a huge fuss over him since Alice had left with Caroline in the ambulance, feeding him one powdered donut after another. Henry's stomach was full of donuts and pool water. His body was moving even slower than usual.
"Thank you so much, Henry," Ronald said. "Alice called from the ER. Caroline is going to be okay."
Henry's stomach churned. He vomited all the donuts. His soiled pants now stank quite badly. Alice's guests saw an opportunity to leave and walked back up the hill to their cars, waving to Henry as they left.
"Ronnnnnald,” Henry spoke in his flat voice, "can you help me change my clothes?"
"Sure Henry,” said Ronald, realizing how disgusting cleaning Henry would be. “Anything you need."
That night Alice spoke to Ronald on the patio so Henry wouldn't overhear.
"I knew he could do more." Alice's sharp voice cut the darkness. "He isn't as paralyzed as he acts. He just sits in that chair all day so no one will ask him to do anything."
"He saved Caroline’s life," Ronald replied
"I'm not saying I'm not grateful. I'm just saying this is like him. Never lifted a finger or offered a dollar to help out around here, then jump up to be a hero when everyone's watching. Now we’re indebted to wipe his ass for him for the rest of his life while he bitches about everything. He's my brother. I know how his mind works."
Alice went silent. Her brother’s stern "Go home, Alice" still echoed in her mind after many years. Alice was seventeen when she went to her only brother, a dozen years her senior. It was easy to spot Henry's broad-shouldered fame standing on a crane as he directed men on the site. The tie and hardhat gave the impression of intelligence interwoven with strength. Henry looked as though he could fix the whole world. "I'm pregnant, Henry," Alice whimpered when they reached his office. Their hash father would not forgive such a humiliation. Her brother's steel gray eyes never left the blueprints on his desk. "Go home, Alice. I'm behind schedule and don't have time for a knocked-up kid sister."
Alice's sense of safety in the world never recovered from Henry ordering her off the construction site as she choked back tears. When he saw her a year later he didn’t bothered to ask what had become of the pregnancy. Either Henry had forgotten or he didn't care.
At his next appointment with Dr. Lewis Alice told the doctor what Henry had done. "Impressive." Dr. Lewis stroked his beard. "Parks Phenomenon proves that your nervous system is functioning. It is only in need of potentiation." He spoke as if Henry or Alice might comprehend what had befuddled the medical students. "You would be the perfect candidate for a study I am doing. It’s experimental. We transplant fetal dopaminurgic cells directly into your brain stem. Given the right growth factors, they may reactivate your movement. You could potentially regain lost function. There are no guarantees, but it may be a step towards curing Parkinson's."
"I might walk again?" Henry mumbled. The tremor in his hands even slowed for a moment.
"Potentially," answered Dr. Lewis as he shuffled through Henry's chart. "Experiments in rats with fetal transplants show a lot of promise."
"Fetus means child in Latin." Henry remarked.
"Yes, it does," said Dr. Lewis without looking up.
"Henry was an engineer." Alice explained, "He's always showing off how smart he is."
"Where do you get the fetus?" Henry asked.
Dr. Lewis paused and looked up from the chart, "Well, we obtain fetal brain tissue from abortions. So... some people have ethical reservations, but I assure you that these are unwanted fetuses that would be terminated anyway. Women are glad to know that the tissue goes to help people with Parkinson's. So you meet all the criteria for the study. Are you interested?"
Henry was quiet for a moment. Alice could never tell what he was thinking behind his blank expression.
"Excellent. My resident will get you the paperwork." Dr. Lewis checked Henry's reflexes again before leaving. "So you were an engineer?"
"I built this hospital."
The next day was bright and windy. Henry rolled his chair out to the patio. The yellow leaves were just beginning to fall. The wind blew across his face and he smiled. For a moment his disease couldn't make him sad.
Alice brought Caroline out with some of her toys. "Henry, please keep an eye on her for a while. I have to do some vacuuming."
So now I'm a babysitter? Henry thought. I can't move. What could I do if she needs me? Henry had tried to recreate his moment of freedom several times. He had only fallen. He couldn't force his body to do that again. Alice cares more about her nice house than her own daughter. That's how Caroline nearly drowned in the first place.
"Look at me, Uncle Henry," Caroline yelled as she jumped from chair to chair on the deck furniture. Her brown hair blew recklessly in the wind. She flailed her arms. Henry worried she might fall. He recalled how cold and limp she had felt as he lifted her from the water. Her tiny body looked so fragile as she jumped. Henry never had children. He realized that he loved Caroline more than he had ever loved anything in his life.
He thought about the papers he had signed the day before. Doctors would take a fetus and use its brain cells to cure him. A sacrifice. A fetus no one wanted for the life of a grown man, or perhaps even saving many grown people. Is it fair? Henry didn't know. The fetus wasn't even born yet, too little to survive outside its mother. He looked at Caroline who was now playing with her toys. What was her life worth? Was a three-year-old worth more than a fetus or an old man? Was he worth more than other dying men because he had money to see a famous Neurologist? Henry wondered how he could calculate the value of lives. What is a human life worth? His engineer’s mind sought some equation that would show how many adult lives are worth a fetus. No good formula came to mind.
Alice came out to get Caroline. "Thank you for watching her Henry." She spoke warmly. "I'm not going to do it," he mumbled.
"Not do what?"
"I don't want the treatment. It's from dead babies."
"Don't be silly.” Alice wore her best smile. “You know they’re dead anyway. We aren't causing anything that wasn't already being done. Since when are you a bleeding heart? This could make you walk again."
Henry took a long time to cross his arms to show some defiance. "I won't."
"Fine suit yourself. Caroline, come in now. Henry, get inside before it starts raining." She slammed the door.
Henry didn't come in.
"Asshole," she muttered. Henry had always been a misanthropic bastard. He ran off three wives with his meanness and worked his employees like slaves so he could drive a Jaguar. He hasn't suddenly become a conscientious objector, she thought. He likes having Parkinson’s so I'll do everything for him.
Henry stayed on the patio too long and got stuck in the rain. He soaked the carpet as he slowly rolled his wheelchair in.
"Look Henry," she said as she dried him. "You are being stubborn. You could walk again. Get the treatment. Ronald and I can't keep you forever. We aren't as well off as you. We never asked a penny for you to stay here. You're fussing about dead fetuses while taking care of you is draining Caroline's college fund. Don't you care about your own niece?"
"I changed my will last month. Caroline gets everything."
"I'm sorry. I didn't know." Henry's estate was worth several million and he couldn't last much longer without the treatment. She would not ask again. For a moment Alice even looked at Henry with an expression that might have been mistaken for admiration.
Henry grew worse. There were days that Fall when he didn't move at all. He was hospitalized with pneumonia twice.
In December Henry was trying to get to the bathroom and ran his wheelchair into Ronald's new theater screen television, knocking it off its stand. Caroline was playing nearby. The 62-inch screen could have crushed her if she'd been in front of it. Henry couldn't stay. Alice reminded him that some nursing homes are very good.
Henry had enough money to get an excellent one.
Oak Stone Manor took fine care anyone fortunate enough to be disabled yet still rich. The food was good. Henry's room had a view of an empty garden, which would bloom when spring came. He thought all the nurses were better than Alice.
In February Henry developed a severe urinary infection. Oak Stone Manor sent him to the hospital. He had a high fever and his blood pressure was dangerously low. The doctors started antibiotics and IV fluids.
Henry convinced the ICU nurse to call Alice for him.
"Do you know what time it is?" Alice groaned.
"I... I'm in the... ICU," Henry's speech was even more flat and disjointed than usual. "I have a fever... come bring Caroline and Ron. A fever... I feel very... very sick."
"Henry." Alice spoke to him like a naughty child. "We'll come tomorrow."
"No! Come now."
"Henry, you need rest."
Henry's head ached. The fever made everything spin. "Dammit, let me..." he paused to catch his breath, "Let me talk to… Caroline."
"Henry, Caroline is asleep. You're sick and not thinking right."
"No... I... gave you everything... you're not..."
"Goodnight, Henry." Her voice rang with the finality of "Go home!" spoken decades before.
"Alice?" The line was dead. "Bitch!"
He wished he could throw the phone across the room, but he was too weak to even turn off the receiver.
He was shivering violently when the resident came in. The young doctor appeared tired and thin. "Look he's awake," the resident remarked to the nurse, "Amazing with a blood pressure that low!"
"I said he was on the phone.” The fat nurse rolled her eyes. “Unconscious patients can't talk on a phone."
The resident flipped through the chart as Henry lay shivering beneath him. "End-stage Parkinson's, coronary artery disease, diabetes, pyelonephritis, renal insufficiency, and now septic shock. Shit."
"...Hello. I'm Doctor Adams, Dr. Lewis' resident. You have Urosepsis. Do you know what that is?"
Henry didn't know, but before he had time to say so the resident continued, "The infection spread to your blood. You're on antibiotics, but your fever is still 104°. We're supporting your blood pressure to prevent cardiovascular collapse. The next few hours should show how you'll do."
Even Henry could tell that didn't sound good.
"The nursing home record shows you are DNR right?"
"Huh?" Henry moaned
"D-N-R. Do not resuscitate. If your heart stops you don't want us to try to restart it. Your records say you prefer that. Considering your chronic medical conditions, I don't think it would make much difference anyway if it goes that far. That's what you prefer, right?"
"Yes." Henry had never thought much about death.
The resident looked relieved. "Okay, let's see how the antibiotics and pressors work. I'll be back in the morning." He turned and left, followed by the nurse.
Henry lay alone, surrounded by tubes and flashing lights. He heard the resident talking to the nurse in the hallway. "Titrate the Levophed for a mean pressure of seventy. Look, if he arrests can you wait till five am to call me for the death pronouncement? I have to get a couple hours sleep. Poor guy. Only fifty-six years old. He looks eighty."
Henry's mind squirmed like a can of worms. He hadn't expected this. He felt cheated. He wished he had never pulled that bitch's baby out of the pool. He wished he had kept running and never stopped. He wished he hadn't left his money to Caroline. He wished he had taken those fetus brain cells. He wished he could crack open little Caroline's healthy brain and take it. He wished he could wipe out everyone on earth to make them pay for his pain. For a moment Henry imagined himself a merciless tyrant with Alice, Ronald, Caroline, his ex-wives, his doctors and nurses, everyone cowering before him.
Only when he felt the tears running over his face did Henry realize he was crying. Henry hadn't cried since he was a little boy. He felt like he had as a child—desperately lonely and afraid.
He didn't want to hurt anyone, he didn't want to steal anyone's life. Henry just wanted someone who loved him to hold his hand, but no one was coming. He had pushed them all away. He would go through this alone.
Terrible chills roamed across his body. The body that had slowly frozen for years was burning up. The alarms were going off, but no one seemed to be coming. Henry's brain reeled with fever. His mind fixed on the question he had asked himself watching Caroline playing on the deck. What is a life worth? The question repeated itself and echoed around his fading consciousness as his fever rose and his nurse adjusted his drips. The fever didn't feel so bad anymore. It felt like a warm embrace. Henry closed his eyes to rest.
He never opened them again. It took thirty minutes for the resident to arrive to pronounce him. He found Henry perfectly still in the dim room, like a forgotten embryo in a womb of blinking lights.