Saturday, October 22, 2011


Suppose one day you were to walk upstairs to the second floor of the Clinical Science Building of the medical school near you, one hurried step behind your new boss, Dr. Harris Green, Chairman, Department of Medicine.

You pass down a corridor wide enough to allow five or six people to walk comfortably abreast, except where lockers or freezers or gas cylinders or temporarily unused centrifuges jut into the hallway. The walls are a light lime green on top and amber ceramic on the bottom; the floor is white and gray chipped marble inlay, common in public buildings of decades past. The odor in the hallway is disturbing - rich and slightly fetid - like a mixture of sour cream and decaying seaweed.

You turn to the right abruptly as Dr. Green takes you through a door, then you walk down a narrow inner hallway and through another door into a quiet internal room. There, three young women are working, surrounded by racks of test tubes filled with a rose-colored fluid. You're in a laboratory catacomb; you could never have guessed its complexity from the corridor outside.

"This is the tissue culture womb," you hear Dr. Green say, then realize he meant  'tissue culture room.' "This is where we grow the cells."

The young women look up from their work with expressions ranging from disinterest to hostility. Dr. Green scans the scene and says, "Girls, introduce yourselves and show her what you do." Then he walks out abruptly.

"Hi, my name's…," you begin. As you say it, the young, dark-haired woman sitting at the bench nearest to you twists the cap on a tube forcefully and snaps the glass with a sharp crack, gashing her finger. She cries out, and her blood and the rose­ colored fluid begin to mingle and spill onto the lab bench and onto the floor as she rushes to the sink. The others stop their intense activity and gather around her, like bees around a wounded hive-mate, as she runs cold water over her finger until the bleeding stops. Your presence is eclipsed by the episode. It's not the time for introductions.

"Ooh," shudders the woman with the bleeding finger. "I hate that. It's one of the things about this job that makes me want to quit."

The other girls go back to their tubes and begin working once more with silent speed and agility in an assembly-line rhythm. The dark-haired woman says, "I'm Carolyn, and that's Betty and Marie. I'm sorry I got so upset when you came in. It's just that it frightens me to cut myself when I'm changing the tubes."

"Why's that?"

"We work with HeLa cells. They're cells from the uterus of a woman who died of cancer a long time ago. I really don't like to get them on me, and especially not in a cut."

"What do you use the cells for?"

"We grow viruses in them."

“What will I be doing in the lab?"

"I don't know, for sure. At first you'll probably just feed the cells. You can watch the rest of us for a day or two, then take over some of the routine jobs yourself. I do tissue culture—grow the cells and make up the medium. That's the pink fluid in those tubes.

"I'm planning to quit work in two months. If you're good at the job, Dr. Green may want to train you to take my place and do the tissue culture. Betty does most of the virus titrations, and Marie takes throat swabs from clinic patients and inoculates the swabs into the tubes."

For the rest of the day, with the exception of lunch and coffee breaks, you watch the others change the medium in the tissue culture tubes. Dr. Green comes into the lab twice during the day; on neither occasion does he speak to you, but he says a few curt, incomprehensible words to Carolyn and Betty.

On the second day, the technicians show you how to set up a sterile syringe, and you change a rack of tubes. The test tubes are set at an angle in aluminum racks—15 tubes in a row, five rows of tubes in each rack, each tube tilted up slightly from the horizontal so that the pink fluid forms a small pool at the base and along one side of the tube. The cells can be discerned, barely, as a faint, whitish streak—a mere apostrophe—at the bottom of each tube.

The racks are set from top to bottom and front to back on one side of a large, walk-in incubator, its temperature set to match the warmth of the human body.  When you take the racks out of the incubator, the fluid in the tubes is a muddy orange like a mixture of blood and urine. When you bring the racks back after changing the medium, the fluid in the tubes is a delicate rose color.

Day after day, you change row upon row of tubes in rack upon rack. You take a tube out of a rack, take off the cap, flame the top, empty the tube, squirt medium into the tube from a syringe, flame the top to sterilize it, and cap the tube ­over and over for unending racks of tubes, each tube containing perhaps a million cells.

As the days bleed into weeks, you pick up the rhythm and perform it mindlessly. The tubes, the cells—you could change them, feed them if you needed to, in your sleep.  And as time goes on, the other technicians become less aloof, and you begin to make friends with Carolyn. Dr. Green has decided that you should learn to do the tissue culture, so you begin to follow Carolyn as she works, and you ask questions. As you pick up the details of her techniques for growing cells, you also discover that Carolyn is having marital problems.

"Every married woman who has worked in this lab has had marital problems, especially if they do tissue culture," Carolyn says after she has hinted that her husband wasn't always coming home at night. "He says he's on call a lot and has to stay at the hospital at night, but I don't really believe him. When I told him I had trouble sleeping when he wasn't home, he gave me a prescription for sleeping pills."

She takes a stack of bottles out of the incubator. "It's like it's something with the cells. They get to you after a while. That's why I'm going to quit.  I may have been here too long already."

"That's pretty hard to believe. How on earth could such tiny things as these cells influence a person's life?"

"I don't know. All I know is that Lillian was doing the cells when I first came. She left her husband after she'd been doing them for two years. And Denise—she did tissue culture after Lillian—broke up with her fiancĂ© after only three months on the job. She quit work, and they got back together. Then I took over."

"But those are just coincidences," you say. Yet you feel an odd chill in the warm laboratory. You ask yourself, 'Could some glass-encased fragments of life really upset a stable marriage?'

"Maybe. I wanted to have kids, but Andy wouldn't hear of it until he finished medical school," Carolyn continues. "Then he wanted to finish his internship. He said we couldn't afford children on an intern's salary. Then he started his residency, and he asked me to work a while longer so we could get ahead. Now I'm sure he's got a girlfriend."


"I even know where she lives," Carolyn says as she turns back to the incubator and lifts out another stack of bottles. "One night, when he didn't come home, I went out driving around and found his car."

"No kidding! Did you wait there for him to come out?"


"Did you go up to the house and knock on the door?"


"Well, what did you do?"

"Nothing. I drove back home. It wouldn't have been very civilized to go knocking on some strange woman's door looking for my husband."

"It wasn't very civilized of him to leave you stewing at home all night, either."

Carolyn smiles strangely. "The car was there another night when he didn't come home, too." She turns back to her bottles of cells. These are large bottles that lie on one of their flat sides, millions of cells growing on the inside, covered by a thin layer of the pink liquid. She flames the top of one of the bottles, gingerly removes the stopper, flames the top again, and pours off the fluid.

Into the bottle, she pipettes a solution containing trypsin, an enzyme that causes the cells to come up off the glass. She waits for a few minutes, and then begins to pipette the solution up and down, rhythmically, to lift the cells off the side of the bottle so that she can transfer them to other bottles and tubes, where they will continue to grow, divide and multiply.

That weekend, you invite Carolyn to play tennis with you. You urge her to stay and have dinner with you and your husband. The evening is pleasant enough, but Carolyn doesn't talk much. You're aware of tenseness, a distance that you have felt before with her, particularly when you imagine she is preoccupied with thoughts of her husband. She is self-conscious and self-contained, as though her inner life and this outer one were only tenuously connected.

A few days later in the lab, she remarks: "Why do you have everything—a happy home, a husband who loves you—and I have nothing."

"In two years, Carolyn, everything will have changed. Either your husband will be back with you, or if you two separate, you'll find somebody else you'll be happy with."

"I don't think so."

"Look, this weekend is the lab picnic. My husband has a friend, a fellow named Ron.  He's quite attractive. Why don't I ask him to come along to the picnic?  We can go as a foursome."

"I don't think I should. How would it look? After all, I'm a married woman."

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Carolyn, you might as well not be. Besides, almost everybody in the lab knows what a louse your husband has been. No one would think twice about it. Come on, it would be good for you. You'd probably enjoy it. He's really a nice guy!"

"I don't think it would be a good idea."

You ask Ron to come to the picnic anyway, thinking you'll surprise Carolyn. When you phone her apartment Saturday morning, you get no answer. You and your husband stop by her place on the way, but no one seems to be there. She's not at the picnic when you arrive. In some vague way, you're almost glad that she isn't there, because you're annoyed at her stubbornness. Besides, your husband's friend seems to enjoy your company very much, which pleases you more than it probably should.

Monday morning, Carolyn is not at work at the usual time. An hour later, Dr. Green comes into the small tissue culture room and says, "Carolyn is dead. She apparently took an overdose of sleeping pills over the weekend."

That's it; that's all he says. For a long, slow, bewildered moment, no one moves; no one speaks.  Everything in the lab stops; the restless, directed activity is stilled; the click-clack of tubes going into and out of the racks is silenced.

You are stunned almost as much by the cold-blooded, matter-of-fact manner of his announcement as by the news itself.  Finally, you open the tissue culture log book and see the entry: 'Saturday, July 20. Changed medium on HeLa cells."

You open the shiny, stainless-steel incubator door. In it are 24 large, rectangular bottles, lying on their sides, stacked three deep, a thin layer of pink fluid covering the almost invisible, slimy film on the bottom of each bottle. The cells—millions of them—are warm, nourished, growing, dividing and very much alive.

"From now on," says Dr. Green, looking toward you, "it's going to be your job to keep the cells alive."

[This was a winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project in 1986, and was published in the State Magazine (Columbia, SC)]