Dr. Lentz dropped his head for a moment and I realized that whatever it was he was trying to tell me, it was just as difficult for him to say it as it was going to be for me to hear it.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized. “I don’t mean to put more pressure on you.”
He glanced at me, patted my hand and nodded. “The only way you can remove this is by going to South America and finding the area where these things exist. This is their mating season and it needs to find a mate. Once it does, it will leave your foot. At that point, the toadstool will begin to die and then we can remove it. During the mating season, however, the toads are very dangerous and very aggressive. They also contain some type of poison that they can administer through their saliva and that’s why we can’t even attempt to remove it now.”
Somehow, whether from being in shock; stunned by what he said; pure amazement and disbelief; or numb from being so panic-stricken, I remained calm. I took a sip of water and just stared at the wall above his head.
“What if it doesn’t find a mate?” I heard myself asking from some distant place and wasn’t sure if I had actually voiced it aloud or if it was just in my mind.
He rubbed his face with both hands and replied, “We just don’t know. There haven’t been enough cases to formulate any concrete evidence or to even postulate what could happen and without something to go on, we can’t risk your life.”
“Can’t you just kill it or knock it out or something?”
“We might be able to if we could get at it. The problem with that is if we fail to catch it right away, it could poison you knowing it’s being attacked. I’m afraid to say it but we all agree that the only way to do this is the way I explained it to you.”
He took a long pull on the water bottle, nearly emptying it before he spoke again. “I want you to think hard before answering. Have you told anyone about this?”
I thought that was a strange question, but I sifted my memory and responded, “No, I haven’t told anyone but you.”
“Yes, I’m positive. Why?”
He cleared his throat. “Ellie, what I’m about to tell you next is extremely important that you follow it to the letter. You cannot and I repeat, cannot tell anyone about this, including your niece.”
I started to say something but he shut me down with a wave of his hand.
“Here are the reasons why. Firstly, if word of this gets out and the right people hear about it, you could find yourself being an unwilling guinea pig for experimental purposes and your life would be the least considered element. Secondly, you would not be able to leave the country. And lastly, if left untreated, you will probably die like the others.”
He took both my hands in his. “The good news, if it can be labeled as such, is that Tim Hastings, my colleague with whom I was speaking with on the phone, will be going with you to South America. Tim knows more about this than anyone else. You will be escorting him as his student under the presumption you are there to study some of the fauna and amphibians of the region. If you agree to this, your plane leaves at 2a.m. tomorrow morning. Tim will pick you up and on the way to the airport he will brief you on what to expect and what to say to whomever.”
“Now, do you agree?”
Tears trickled down my cheeks and all I could do was nod my assent.
Dr. Lentz stood up, helped me from my seat and pulled me toward him and gave me a hug. “You’re a courageous woman Ellie. Remember that. Tim’s a very gentle, compassionate person and very capable of taking care of you so trust him.”
He stepped back and stared down at me. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Yes,” I whispered.
“Any questions you want to ask before you go?”
I forced a little smile to my lips.
Dr. Lentz smiled and said, “Probably a million of them I suspect.”
When I didn’t say anything, he added, “Well, if you think of any you want to ask, don’t hesitate to call. I’ll be here for the rest of the day and I’ll give you my cell number in case you can’t reach me here.”
He leaned over the desk, tore a page off the prescription pad, wrote his number and handed it to me. “When you get home, try to relax. Hold on.” He took the paper from my hand. “I forgot to give you Tim’s number.” A moment later, he handed the paper back to me and escorted me to the outside door. “Don’t forget; call if you need me, even if it’s just to talk.”
Impulsively, I rose up on my toes, kissed him on the cheek, then turned and left the office. The drive home was a big blur and I was rather thankful for not having added any extra stress on my mind.
In the house, I moved about like a robot mechanically gathering things to wear for the trip. I located a pair of hiking boots which were ideal for hiding my foot and for the façade of being a student on a field trip through the jungle. When I placed the last article of clothing in the suitcase, I zipped it up and plopped down on the couch. I was exhausted.
I heard the phone ringing and realized I had fallen asleep. I glanced at the clock. It showed 12:45. The number on the caller ID was unfamiliar and I was about to ignore it when I remembered that Tim was supposed to call.
“Hello,” I said in a muzzy voice while still trying to clear the cobwebs from my mind.
“Hello. Is this Ellie?” the voice asked.
“Yes it is. Is this Tim?”
“Yes, I’m sorry to wake you but I wanted to let you know I’m on my way to your house now. We have to get to the airport earlier so we can go through the scanning and whatever other nonsensical thing they do.”
“I’m all packed and ready,” I replied.
“Good, I’ll see you in a few,” he finished and hung up.
The airport wasn’t crowded when we arrived and everything went smoothly and quickly, including the boarding. Neither Tim nor I said much in the car on the way to the airport and I was appreciative of his letting me absorb things without distraction.
The flight to South America was uneventful and Tim spent almost the entire flight explaining to me what I needed to know if asked any questions by customs officers or other officials. He stressed how imperative it was for me to be prepared so that it wouldn’t raise questions about our intentions or alert anyone by my uncertainty. We went over everything again and again until he felt satisfied that I would handle it okay. He also assured me that he would do most all of the talking and would try his best to deflect the attention away from me.
Waiting in line at Customs, I could feel the butterflies frolicking in my stomach as though they were on holiday and no matter how hard I tried to quell them, they persisted entertaining on center stage. As it turned out, my concerns and worries were unwarranted because the officer who checked my luggage looked as though he didn’t want to be there and passed me right on through.
Outside the terminal, we were greeted by two young men and a young woman. Tim introduced them as, Mike, Fernando and Carlotta, three graduate students working in a lab not far from the area we needed to go. Fernando pointed to what looked like an extended jeep and he and Tim climbed into the front while the rest of us took the seats in back.
The ride from the airport was fairly smooth until about forty-five minutes into the trip, where Fernando turned onto a dirt road. It didn’t take long before I was being bounced around and had to tightly hang onto one of the bars so I wouldn’t be thrown from the vehicle. I glanced at the others and saw them doing the same thing and I didn’t feel so bad, that is, mentally because I was certain my buttocks and thighs were going to be black and blue before we reached the lab.
We drove for another two hours through and around large puddles, and then Carlotta finally pointed to the front of the jeep. Without letting go of the bar, I turned my attention to the front. In the distance, I could see a clearing with what appeared to be a small building. I looked back at Carlotta and we exchanged smiles, both happy and relieved the torture was over. The lab was much larger than how it appeared from a distance.
“You do this everyday?” I asked Carlotta as we climbed from the jeep.
She laughed. “God no, I wouldn’t be able to tolerate it. We pretty much limit our traveling to when we need supplies. During the rainy season, we hardly go anywhere because the road floods and some spots are just too deep to try to get through.”
Chelle Munroe ©
January 29, 2014