Monday, October 20, 2014

The gift of life

The doctor’s facial expression was unsettling. “I don’t know how to explain this,” he began ominously. “You’re in perfect health.”

My wife Stacia and I blew a sigh of relief. “That’s good!”

“It’s very good, and it’s also very strange. I’ve never seen a man at your age this healthy, Mr. Beauchamp. You have the vitality of a 30 year-old! You’re aging at half the rate as the average person. Unless you go swimming in the Ganges River, or kill yourself, you’ll live to 140. Maybe longer.”

I recalled how my grandmother looked at 95. I think I would find a way to die sooner than that!

“How can you tell the rate he’s aging?” Stacia asked.

He presented a printed chart. “We used your blood sample to examine the state of your liver. Look at these levels. I won’t get into what each of them mean, but look. They’re green across the board. Actually, you’re out of range on a few of these metrics, and if I wasn’t standing here talking to you now, if all I knew was your age and these numbers, I’d have called EMS by now. But, as far as I can tell from the rest of the examination, you’re at peak health. My son is 28, and I would be thrilled if his liver looked like yours. Do you drink alcohol?”

I shrugged. “Two glasses of wine a week, if that.”

“What makes you say he’ll live to 140, doctor?” Stacia pressed.

“That I can tell from your husband’s telomeres, Mrs. Beauchamp.”

“What are telomeres?”

“They’re strands of DNA that get shorter as you age. When your chromosomes divide, the telomeres get cut in half. The older you are, the more your chromosomes divide, the shorter your telomeres get. We started gathering data on telomere length 8 years or so ago to measure how quickly the general population ages. You said the last time you saw a doctor was 2014?”

“Yes. I went in for a colonoscopy. I haven’t been to see a doctor since then.”

“As I’m required to do by law, I uploaded your DNA profile to the National Institutes of Health database, Mr. Beauchamp. Your telomere length places you 5 standard deviations from the mean. On the outside, you look 63, but on the inside you’re half as old.”

I wrung my hands. “I don’t want to live that long. I’m retiring next year. I’ll go crazy.”

The doctor turned red from laughing. “Good one, Mr. Beauchamp! With your permission, I’d like to forward your medical chart to Lazarus Whitaker at MD Anderson. He’s an authority in the field of longevity. He may find your case interesting.”

“I don’t want to be some mad scientist’s lab rat.”

“Not at all, Mr. Beauchamp. I’m not asking you to do anything. You’ll remain anonymous. Dr. Whitaker won’t know who you are. Your under no compunction, of course. But your case could help other people.”

I looked at Stacia, whose expression remained soft and calm. She nodded, her way of echoing my conscience, the voice inside my head telling me what I should do.

“Fine. Send it to him, if it’ll help other people.”

The ride in the car was quiet. When we got home, I went to my shop and toyed with some projects I’d been working on. The afternoon seemed to drag on and on.

We finally sat down to eat, and I thought I’d be able to relax, but I found that I couldn’t. I was as impatient for dinner to end as I was for it to begin. I cleared my plate and went back to my shop.

Stacia came downstairs. “Hey. What are you working on?”

“Nothing.” I was glad to see her.

She came up behind me and squeezed my chest. “What’s the matter?”

“I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do with all this time on my hands.”

“What do you mean?”

“You heard the doctor, Stacia. He says I’m going to live to 140. It’s not what we planned for.”

“So?”

“That’s too far off! What if I outlive you? What if I outlive the kids?”

“There was a chance that was going to happen anyway.” She let go of me and spun me around to face her. “When would you rather die?”

I scoffed. “Eighty.”

“So, at 80 years old, you’ll be done with life.”

“When you put it that way, it sounds ridiculous.”

“It sounds ridiculous no matter how you put it.”

The house phone rang. Stacia ran upstairs to answer it. “Len! It’s for you.”

I trudged upstairs. “Who is it?”

“John Whitaker.”

“The doctor?” I took the phone from her. “Hello?”

“Leonard Beauchamp? Dr. John Whitaker with MD Anderson here. I’m very excited to speak to you. I admit up front this a major breach in medical ethics, but I had to contact you personally about your longevity.”

“You mean my telo-whatevers.”

“Telomeres, yes. I’ve been studying your file since I received it this afternoon. I’d like to fly you into Houston to conduct some blood and tissue tests.”

I rolled my eyes. “No thank you. I released my file to you to help your research. I’ve done my part.”

“What does he want?” Stacia asked.

I covered the mouthpiece with my hand. “He wants to fly me in for testing.”

“Tell him yes.”

“What? Why? Hold on, doctor.” I lowered the phone. “Are you serious?”

“You just said you didn’t know what to do with all the time on your hands. Here’s your chance to help people live longer. What could be better than that?”

I wanted to tell her she was nuts, but the voice inside my head again told me she was right.

“I’ll do it.”

“Excellent! Thank you, Mr. Beauchamp. You’re very brave to take me up on this.”

“I have one condition, though.”

“Name it.”

“My wife gets to come with me.”

To be continued...

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