The next morning, Ayden and Katey arrived at the lab early. Evo was already there, sitting at his desk, and beaming with the excitement of discovery. He summoned them into his office.
“Have a look at this!” He pulled up his chair so the students could stand behind. Evo’s new video equipment projected images from a microscope onto the computer screen. Several white fluffy balls danced across the screen, each one a bacteria surrounded by a thick coating of slime. “It’s pretty obvious what this is.”
“That’s one slimy bugger!” Ayden nodded.
“And very nasty,” Katey added.
“It’s nasty all right!” Evo remarked, sneering at his arch enemy. The clinical lab identified the offender as Klebsiella pneumoniae, the king of slime. It was a common cause of pneumonia, urinary tract infection and sepsis. But this strain was faster and slimier than any Kleb Evo ever witnessed. Like cotton seed in a wind storm, bacteria ricocheted wildly on the screen.
Aghast, the apprentices looked to Evo for instruction. “Ayden, run a genetic analysis. Katey, run serological testing for slime type. Tomorrow we’ll know for sure.”
“Yes sir!” The diminutive, slightly crippled Ayden limped away to begin the assignment. Katey proceeded to her work station, her ponytail waiving rhythmically as she exited Evo’s office.
“We need answers!” Evo shouted from his office. “This thing is terrorizing Brookstone.”
Nothing looked quite like Kleb. The shiny, runny colonies on Petrie plates eventually coalesced into one slimy mass as the culture aged. Its fluffy appearance under the microscope also gave it away. But, since many Kleb species made many different types of slime, they had to do the genetic and serologic testing to make the link between cases. They had to prove, down to molecular makeup, that isolates from all over the hospital were from the same source.
After an overnight incubation, the results were in. As expected, all Kleb samples from the various wards were from the same strain. Ayden projected an acetate film on a light box, showing genetic fragments from various samples. The ladder-like pattern of DNA bands–each strain’s signature–lined up perfectly, row by row. Serotyping data showed identity of slime type. But, something was eerily different about this highly pathogenic strain.
Looking for clues, Evo returned to the hospital to collect samples from patients and hospital personnel, including the kitchen help. Eventually, the riddle was solved and the computer report sent to Dr. Wally. Evo called his office on speakerphone so his students could listen in.
“Check out the email I sent, Chief. This is a superbug of a different kind.”
“No wonder it got around so quickly,” Wally quipped, as he viewed the video on his computer. Bacteria were flying all over the screen. Wally planned to use it as a screen saver.
“Kleb usually isn’t this motile.” Evo declared.
“How about: ‘Kleb with legs’?” Wally suggested.
“Not very scientific,” Evo countered.
“No matter what you call it, this needs to be written up and published. We need to be the first to report this phenomenon.”
“The story gets better. Wait till you hear where it came from.”
“Who’s the Typhoid Mary?” Wally asked.
“Believe it or not, we sourced it to the hospital cafeteria. The Kleb was traced to iceberg lettuce imported from South America.”
“I didn’t know Kleb was a vegetarian,” Wally joked. “That seems like a strange reservoir for a human pathogen.”
“There are precedents,” Evo responded. “Remember the Pennsylvania restaurant that fed their customers tainted Mexican scallions? That hepatitis virus killed several people.”
“So the cheap lettuce we imported turned out to be expensive after all.” Wally had a weird sense of humor.
“That’s what happens when corporations cut corners, Chief.”
Ayden chimed in: “This could also be the work of terrorists.” The room fell silent.
Katey glanced at her notes, “We can’t be sure if it’s intentional. So much of our food is imported, and so little is inspected. It’s more likely from a manure pile used for fertilizer,” she cautioned. The two students acknowledged each other with an approving nod.
“Why the NICU?” Wally asked. “Babies don’t eat lettuce.”
“No, but nurses do,” Evo responded. “They carried it to the NICU from the cafeteria. We found it on their hands and clothes.”
“Excellent work, Dr. Lucio. You’ll be rewarded for this.”
“I already have, Chief, with this opportunity to serve.”
“Nicely said, and well done, all of you.”
And so, the riddle was solved. Evo and company were meticulous in their efforts and rightfully proud of their work.
By phone, Dr. Wally notified Infection Control: “There’s a sanitation problem in the cafeteria. All produce needs to be destroyed. The entire cafeteria needs disinfecting. Cafeteria personnel need to wash their hands more frequently with anti-bacterial soap, and clothing washed in hot soapy water. Put them all on antibiotic prophylaxis.” It was a good start.
“Anything else, sir?” asked the Infection Control nurse.
“Tell them to buy local produce, for God’s sake!” Dr. Wally got back on line with Evo.
“That bug has come a long way, Chief.”
“And so have you, Professor. So have you.”