The Twilight Zone

Invasive. Non-indigenous. Undocumented. Illegal. Foreign. Strange. Alien. Other. Allogeneic. Barbaric. Not from around here.

I first spotted the critter on a short break from the Transplant Ward of Seattle Children’s Hospital, while strolling with my wife along a dirt path through the stunningly beautiful marshlands of the University of Washington Horticultural Center.

I said it was a beaver, but Jody pointed to the tail, which was nothing like a beaver’s. She suggested it was a muskrat.

Both of us were wrong. The animal was a nutria, as I later learned from an NPR story on the voracious troublemaker wrecking the marshlands around UW. They’d apparently been released by a hack importer after his failed attempt to strike it rich on their pelts.

Nutria breed like crazy, and eat a quarter of their body weight daily. They love marsh grass as much as alligators love nutria, but there are no gators in Lake Washington. So the little guys just eat and reproduce like there’s no tomorrow.

On the Transplant Ward, where I hoped to find a tomorrow, a bag of allogeneic stem cells arrived  in a bag and flowed through a catheter and into my daughter. All sorts of extreme measures were employed to encourage her body to welcome the foreigners, which a body is not naturally predisposed to do.

That’s what allogeneic means: the cells were somebody else’s. A perfect stranger, you might say.

I learned a lot of new words when my daughter’s immune system inexplicably vanished in September 2005. One was idiopathic, meaning the disease’s cause could not be explained. Another was neutrophils, blood cells in their infancy, which my daughter couldn’t make anymore. This is what necessitated the extreme measure of transplant.

To get away from my neutrophil watch only to discover an unwanted transplant named nutria, who’d never asked to be there in the first place but seemed right at home, was more irony than I could bear.

(That’s an overstatement. I actually could bear the irony rather easily. Other things were near unbearable, but not the irony.)

I took the mysterious, unwanted nutria’s talent for reproduction as metaphoric sustenance, and before long the stranger’s stem cells were becoming my daughter’s neutrophils and platelets and red cells and white cells, and she was thriving like a nutria in the marshes of Lake Washington.

Or, these days, like the nutria of Delmarva Peninsula, where they now are messing with the ecosystem of the Chesapeake. The nutria aren’t from there originally, either. As reported recently in the New York Times, they were imported for their pelts, which proved to be not worth much, and they were let go.

The Times story jostled my memory, and reminded me of the sense of coincidence and wonder I felt at discovering the nutria at a time when I perceived the world in a strange way — a way that is difficult even to imagine anymore, as my daughter is long since cured and normal times have in many respects returned.

But at the time I was in a foreign, magical place that I had experienced through the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and since through Joan Didion. It is an existence with a view into a reality born of a heightened awareness of mortality — experiencing the death of children, and confronting the possible death of my own daughter. Over time, that view has slowly vaporized as I have come to trust the idea of “cure.” But trust is not the same as it was before.

One day on the Transplant Ward, with my daughter hooked up to multiple bags of medicines, nutrient-laden fluids and treatments that in another context would be avoided as poisonous, she and I watched reporters on CNN describe scenes in cities through the country where people had taken to the streets to protest efforts to crack down on immigrants.

It is a strange experience to be so desperately hoping, even praying, for one human’s tolerance of the foreign, which allogeneic bone marrow transplant requires, while the country is waging a version of that very battle outside the cocoon of Transplant. One of our doctors was late to work that day, stuck in protest traffic in Seattle.

On Transplant, and for a year afterward, we coaxed stem cells and hoped they’d stop being foreign and make themselves at home. We were isolated from the infectious world, with a lot of time to kill, and a lot of ways to kill it. One of them was watching “The Dog Whisperer.” We couldn’t get enough of Cesar Millan and the way he dealt with problem dogs by changing the behavior of the humans.

Cesar has a gift for getting dogs to, among other things, stop jumping fences, which struck me as funny because Cesar had jumped a fence, at least figuratively, maybe literally, in entering the United States in the first place. But Cesar has transcended the uninvited nature of his U.S. beginnings by providing something valued by all true Americans: something to watch on cable between the ads. You don’t get more American than that. Probably nobody but Joe Arpaio would want to send Cesar back at this point.

The transplant was in 2006. Six years later, my daughter has “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury as summer reading before she begins high school, when as a freshman she’ll get her own taste of being an oppressed minority. Such is the status of a freshman.

I had long ago read “Fahrenheit,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and some Bradbury short stories, and so I told my daughter about my favorite Bradbury story — only to discover it wasn’t a Bradbury story at all.

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is a Bradbury story only in the magical reality of my memory. “The Monsters” is a classic “Twilight Zone” episode in which foreign invaders watchefrom a hilltop as the residents of Maple Street destroy each other. Each other. The fear of aliens, and not knowing how to tell the good ones from the bad, got neighbors thinking about the odd behaviors of other neighbors, and, well, nobody escaped unscathed, except maybe the aliens up on the hill watching.

I’ve corrected the record with my daughter. The “Twilight Zone” host, in fact, wrote “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Rod Serling was a master of magical reality. I can only imagine the episode he’d have written about a nutria importer.

Once you’re watched foreign stem cells travel into your child, then sat there like a hilltop alien cheering section wondering how the neighbors would react, you tend to worry less about whether something’s indigenous or not, and instead try to give the neighbors reasons to tolerate you.

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout,” Serling said at the episode’s conclusion. “There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices—to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy. A thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own for the children … and the children yet unborn … and the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to The Twilight Zone.”

About paulcmclean

I'm a husband, father, and writer, which is another way of saying I have the best gig there is. I'm an accidental bioethicist, occasional children's chorus chaperone, a bit over the top in the Springsteen department, and have a daughter who was cured and a beagle with a story. Some call the beagle a rescue. What they don't realize is, I'm the rescue.
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