Marie Curie and a Broken Heart
Her apartment is in East Baltimore, a few blocks from the university and the hospital, but she rarely sleeps there. There is a pullout couch in the graduate lounge, and she falls asleep there more nights than not, though sometimes she stands guard over her heart cells until the sun comes up. Marie Curie exercised similar devotion, Claire knows, starved herself to pay tuition at the Sorbonne.
Arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia. It’s the disease Claire sees in her sleep, on the seminar room wall when she zones out during meetings with her supervisor, but still not in her Petri dish. She keeps hoping. She will inject her heart cells with sugar and chemical cocktails until the embryonic cells become sick adult cells that crave fatty fuel but can’t metabolize it. A disease in a dish.
Over-zealous, her mother calls her. Her mother calls once a week to make sure Claire is eating, that she’s depositing the rent checks her mother sends from Oklahoma. She complains about Claire’s sister, about Claire’s father, then admonishes Claire that she’ll never be happy so far from home. Sometimes Claire doesn’t answer. She hits ignore on her cell phone and stares at the Petri dish instead, at the heart cells that at some moment may seize and stop.
“This medicine is bad for you,” her mother says in a voicemail. “You don’t have to be so fanatic, you know.” Claire deletes the voicemail. Her work is not some blind religious devotion. Think of all the things she could do, the lives she could save.
Claire mixes chemicals in a glass vial meant to catalyze maturity in the heart cells, to force them from infancy to adulthood. The chemicals look innocuous, a quiet yellow. Nothing orange, nothing radioactive.
Marie Curie was so devoted it killed her. The radiation she studied seeped into her bones and changed her. Her own body turned against her, her marrow balking, refusing to follow the rules. If she had been squeezed into a test tube, red vials of blood and platelets under fluorescent lights, you could have seen that the cells stopped dividing. No new erythrocytes, no more little carries of oxygen to pulse through her veins.
Claire calls her mother back and holds the phone with her shoulder while she squeezes the yellow into her Petri dish. “I’m making it come alive,” she says, and she hangs up.