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The Doctor's Siren
An article for Footprints Magazine by Cheeseburger Brown
The Doctor's Siren, an article for Footprints Magazine by Cheeseburger Brown - illustration by the author

House calls are rare in modern medical practice, but special cases do occur in which a patient's particular privacy needs leave little option. Such was the situation for the Widow F, a reclusive resident of Cookstown whose home I visited one night in the late summer of 2009.

Dr. Sidney Abrams from Royal Victoria briefed me on the way.  He told me he inherited this case from a senior colleague who had recently passed.  The patient was elderly and suffered from dementia, Dr. Abrams said, as well as a rare physical deformity known as Sirenomelia that severely limited her mobility. "Basically, it's an embryonic malformation of the intermediate mesoderm."

"Right, of course," I agreed. "I think I totally pulled mine once playing lacrosse."

Dr. Abrams narrowed his eyes dubiously. "It means her legs are fused together, Mr. Brown."


We pulled up into the driveway of a modest, ivy-choked cottage. A grandson or a teenaged neighbour had done a sloppy job of cutting the lawn.  An old fountain stood in the yard, a cake of old mulch filling the various bowls.  At its corroded crown was a statuette of King Neptune. Headlights swept over his trident as another car pulled in behind us.

"Isn't that Dr. Singh?" I asked, looking to Dr. Abrams.

He nodded. "Dr. Singh will be assisting."

I furrowed my brow.  "Yeah…but isn't he a veterinarian?"

Dr. Abrams turned away without saying more and proceeded to let himself into the house after a perfunctory knock. I waited on the stoop for Dr. Singh. We shook hands. "Good to see you, Mr. Brown. How is your cat's diarrhea?"

"Um, it's great. Listen: what's going on here?"

He held up his field bag. "Sid said we had a case of Piscinoodinium on our hands. Most likely an infestation of hostile dinoflagellates."

"She's infected by evil dinosaurs?"

"No, by aquatic parasites."

I cocked my head. "Aquatic? Do you reckon this old lady does a lot of lake swimming?"

Now it was Dr. Singh's turn to look puzzled. "Old lady?" he echoed, frowning.

Dr. Abrams called for us from inside the house. Dr. Singh and I looked at one another and then pushed open the front door.  It was dim inside. The air smelled like stale salmon and wet books. I am a gentleman, so I gestured gallantly to the good veterinarian and said, "After you."

Dr. Abrams and his patient were in the kitchen, silhouetted against a buzzing fluorescent light embedded in the grease-speckled stove. All I could see of the Widow F was a bramble of colourless, unkempt hair. In a paper-thin voice she whispered, "May I have a lollipop if I’m good?"

Dr. Abrams patted her arm tenderly. "You're always a good patient, Erzulie. Now hold still while I listen to your heart."

She was attached to oxygen. She sat in a wheelchair, legs covered by a quilt. The kitchen was in a profound state of neglect, with signs of severe water damage on all sides: splotch-stained ceiling, mildewed walls, green whorls of algae on the windows. I wondered why this poor woman wasn’t being cared for institutionally.

Dr. Abrams looked up. "You have the copper?"

Dr. Singh nodded, removing a vial of ointment from his bag. "Of course, Sid, but --"

"The initial application will sting a bit, so she's going to buck. Mr. Brown, I want you to secure the patient."

I gulped. "Um. Okay."

"Hold her arms. Don't worry. It isn't contagious."

I crossed the kitchen, eyes fixed on the sweater sleeves I was supposed to take hold of. The small, pale hands sticking out of the ends had blotches of velvety yellow growing across their backs, like some kind of vile fungus. Dr. Singh prepared an array of cotton swabs and cracked open the seal on the ointment. Dr. Abrams kept his gaze on the patient. "Erzulie, this is Sid. I want you to listen to me, okay? I'm here to help you. But I need you to hold still for me. Okay?"

"I'm so itchy," whispered the Widow F.

"This is going to fix that," promised Dr. Abrams. He gave me a nod. Approaching behind the wheelchair I reached around and put my hands on the patient's frail, bony shoulders.

She turned to look at me curiously. I gasped, "She's young!"

"Don't look at her," barked Dr. Abrams but I barely heard him because I was lost in her watery green eyes. Her skin, like white porcelain stained through with gold -- her lips, so full and pink and supple. The lashes of her eyes seemed to sparkle as she blinked up at me.

Dr. Singh started applying the ointment. She arched her back and howled, an unbelievable strength suddenly writhing beneath my hands. With great effort I forced her back into the wheelchair, clamping down on her arms so Dr. Singh could work. He dabbed at the yellow blotches on her skin, dodging sidewise as her quilted legs swung out viciously.

The worst part was the sound: the scream she let loose was not like that of a woman, or even a child. It wasn’t like anything human at all -- bubbling, wretched, shrill and yet somehow -- inexplicably -- it was also mesmerizing...

Dr. Abrams slapped me hard.  I blinked, shaking my head. "Snap out of it, man! I need you to hold this patient!" the doctor roared.

I did as I was told, gritting my teeth and wincing against this strangely compelling woman-thing's incredible strength. When Dr. Singh had applied the last of the copper ointment he fell back on his haunches, panting.  Dr. Abrams and I kept the patient in her chair until the last of the stinging had died away. Cautiously, we released our grip and stepped back.

"How do you feel, Erzulie?" asked Dr. Abrams.

She looked around. "Is that you, Dr. Peabody?"

"I'm filling in for Dr. Peabody. It's me, Sid."

She gazed at him with dreamy, careless eyes then licked her toothless gums. "I should very much like a glass of warm salt water, Sid."

"Right away, ma'am."

'And then, if you please, Mr. Eaton has sent me a catalogue: have it picked up at Perry's Corners, and don't spare the whip. I fancy a new shawl before winter comes and the road from York turns to mud."

Dr. Abrams smiled reassuringly. "Of course."

We left. Outside in the yard I caught Dr. Abrams by the elbow. "I need some answers, doctor. What's going on here? Did we just treat the world's youngest dementia patient for fin rot, or what?"

He shrugged, feigning nonchalance as he angled in his pocket for the car keys. "Looks can be deceiving. She's older than you can imagine. I appreciate your help here tonight."

"But what's wrong with her?"

"I told you," he said irritably, pulling open the car door.  "She has dementia. And Sirenomelia."

Dr. Singh nodded, his expression disturbed. "Sirenomelia has another name."

Dr. Abrams frowned. "Let's stick to medical terminology, Vikram."

The veterinarian chuckled humourlessly, eyes on me. "It's also known as 'Mermaid Syndrome.'"

"That's a ridiculous, misleading name," snapped Dr. Abrams, slamming his car door.

"Is it?" said Dr. Singh grimly. "I'm not so sure. You forget, Sidney: I've just seen her legs. You can pretend all you like, but…"

Dr. Abrams started to reply, stopped himself, then jammed his car in gear and peeled out of the driveway. With the light of his headlights gone it felt awfully dark. I looked to Dr. Singh's silhouette. "What about her legs?"

He cleared his throat. "A Piscinoodinium infection, such as the one we saw tonight, begins by taking hold in the gills."

"In the gills?" I repeated, mouth going dry. "It's seriously a fish disease?"

The veterinarian nodded. "Quite." He got into his car and started the engine. "Good night, Mr. Brown."

Sirenomelia. Mermaid Syndrome.

Feeling oddly numb, I started the long walk home.


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