Fred worshipped a frog. He had always been spiritual rather than religious, and after misunderstanding an Amazonian documentary on PBS, he went on a quest to discover the frog goddess. He instead found the ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Roman Goddess Heqet: she of magic, witchcraft, the night, the moon, and ghosts, but also of generation, birth, and fertility.
Although he surfed the wellness sites daily and was firmly opposed to big medicine in general, he was not taken in by scams related to hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, or azithromycin in the slightest, and firmly rebuffed those making stupendous claims about them. He was not swayed by their anecdotes, their links to websites claiming efficacy, or their earnest appeals or vituperative scolding. He did not budge 1 inch. This was not him adopting scientific perspectives, or accepting CDC guidance, or reading the Cochrane Medical Library or UpToDate. It was simply that he distrusted big medicine, and nothing said big medicine quite like big pharma. He knew that Sanofi, Pfizer, and Merck were behind these products, and they were about as big pharma as you get. He was therefore pretty sure that anyone pushing those products was either a pharma shill, a nut, or just a dumbass. He told them as much and was as adamant as reinforced concrete and as stoic as weathered granite.
For much the same reason, Fred had no time for commercial so-called vitamin and mineral food supplements. Again, it didn’t take much effort to see that many of the big brands and chains were owned by the same conglomerates and bankers as the big drug companies. In his book, the manufacturers of vitamins, mineral supplements, and many “natural” or “organic” products were just big pharma in a tatty bathrobe and shiny slippers instead of a three-piece suit. They didn’t fool him for one moment. He did very much agree with natural remedies that were home grown and with the old religions that came before religion became a product of industrialized churches. One look at the fancy men and grotesque women on the TV evangelism shows, and Fred could see big pharma in pajamas. They all had that slick, oily, monied look about them, but behind all the smooth talking and babbling, they had handouts or were selling some useless gimmick. He knew they were all just heretics, blasphemers, and con men, and he wanted nothing from them. Fred had fallen for a fair number of scams in his day, but he learned from each experience. Recovering from them was sometimes more difficult, though. He had invested in cryptocurrency on the argument that no bank or government agency was involved, it was held communally, and could help people in the developing world to trade without involving big corporations. In practice, though, his money evaporated after a brief period of thrilling him with fast growth. The exchange crashed, mystery people cashed it all out, and suddenly he was left with no savings, huge debts, and bitter regrets. To help him save the house, his sister moved in with him and shouldered the mortgage and most of the running costs.
As his older sister, Emily despaired over Fred, but he at least seemed immune to most fads, and his pigheadedness seemed protective in a perverse way. He had the same cockeyed basic views and was just as prone to confirmation bias and fundamental attribution error as all the others peddling quack cures. But in his case, the fact that they all pushed industrial products made him dismiss them, and in turn anything else they promoted and anyone else who quoted, supported, or even followed them. It was oddly pleasing for Emily to watch as Fred blocked a guy promoting herbal cures because it was made and marketed by a big corporation that mass-produced an array of vitamins, herbals, and essential oils. Then Fred blocked anyone that agreed with the guy, anyone that followed him, and then anyone who liked or retweeted the tweet. She was actually stunned by how effective his incredibly biased attitudes were at protecting him from … bias.
Emily worked as a travel nurse, which meant living out of a suitcase for 3 months at a time, uncertain shifts, and leaving just as soon as she got comfortable. Typically, she got a week or two at home to sort out repairs, do maintenance, and find out how many of her friends were still around before it was time to pack and scoot. In theory, she was only working four shifts of 10 hours, but in practice, there were too few nurses, too many patients, and not enough money. So, she typically worked 6 days, of which 3 days were 10 hours and 3 days were 16 hours; then she got paid for 60 hours out of the 78 each week. It was exhausting, and some nights she got back to her dismal motel room so tired she was crying. She had not planned to be working like this at the age of 58, but when the pandemic hit, she was astonished to be laid off. In the midst of a nationwide crisis and extreme bed shortages, her rural hospital had closed down. It was all a matter of money; most of the care they provided was to people who were on Medicare, Medicaid, veteran’s benefits, or some sort of installment plan. Most of the money, however, came from discretionary and elective surgeries, and those were halted as the pandemic washed across the country. The hospital had enough reserves to last 3 weeks. By week 6, they started closing departments and selling off assets.
Emily had expected the situation to be temporary, but pretty soon the bills were mounting, her savings were dwindling, and there was no call to come back. When she drove to the hospital to see if she could get someone to answer questions, she found the surgical wing empty: not empty as in few people around, but stripped bare and echoing. The OR was just a shell, and the recovery rooms were filled with light fixtures and piles of doors apparently waiting for collection. The hospital was quite clearly never going to be calling her to come back, and the stark emptiness was her answer. By the next afternoon she had signed up as a travel nurse, and by the weekend, she was on a plane, wearing an N95 mask, and feeling bewildered.
On her return, Emily had noticed changes in Fred. He seemed agitated and more forgetful than usual, so she gave him as much of a physical as he would allow and checked all his herbals. She had thrown out some that looked like they may be mildewed. She thought he looked like he had fine tremors, and he complained of headaches, so she looked a bit closer at caffeine intake and sleep. Sure enough, he revealed that he was having difficulty sleeping, and his kombucha was laden with caffeine. The lack of sleep was easily explained by overuse of social media late at night. She suggested he cut back on late-night use of Facebook and Twitter, and instead meditate before bed. By the time she left for her next trip, he seemed to be getting more sleep, so she felt confident that they had turned a corner.
Emily kept in touch by phone and text message during her trip, and Fred assured her that everything was fine, but when she returned after her 3-month gig, she was alarmed by his state of health. He was still not sleeping well, and now she saw emotional changes in her brother. He had mood swings, elated one minute and then, seemingly without cause, tearful, lamenting over trivial problems. The first morning she was back, he burst into tears when he slightly burnt the toast and was almost inconsolable when the blackened crust on one slice had to be cut off. When she went through his herbals and daily routine with him to see if anything other than lack of sleep and caffeine could explain his nervousness and tearful episodes, he quickly became irritable with her and flew into a rage. The rage melted into a prolonged bout of sobbing after a short while, and for the first time, she noticed that he was twitching.
Fred absolutely refused to go to the clinic, and she could see that pushing the issue just made him dig in his heels and become stubborn and suspicious. He also refused to let her take blood or urine samples. She again went through his daily routine, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary, for him. He was praying three times a day to an Egyptian goddess and had a statue carved out of a translucent red stone, which she thought was plenty weird, but par for the course for him. He used incense, to which she was opposed because of the fire hazard and the potential for indoor air pollution. He took herbal tea three times a day from a pretty red stone cup, which seemed fine to her. As a precaution, though, she quietly sent samples of the herbals, tea, and his dried fruit and nut snacks for testing. They had come back clean.
Taking stock of the situation and the clear drop in his health, Emily canceled her next trip. She could do a few shifts at a local clinic and pick up some telehealth sessions, which would at least bring in enough money to pay basics. The thing that clinched it for her was the fact that Fred was being secretive. That made her suspicious, and she again had things tested. This time, when she sent samples of his herbal and foods, she also sent a lock of his hair. When the results came back, there was something to see. The hair sample was positive for high levels of mercury.
Emily pleaded with him to go to the clinic, but he was adamant that doctors were poisoners, and that the Goddess would see him through. Although he was steadfast in his belief, his condition developed regardless. The twitching had evolved into spasms, and he was becoming physically weak, unable to grip things firmly, and yoga was becoming impossible. When Fred had painful urination, and it was as red as his frog goddess statue, he finally consented to go to the hospital.
Although chelation therapy and supportive care were initiated immediately, it was, in the end, Emily’s burden to see to his funeral, wrap up his affairs, and sort through his meager belongings before returning to her schedule as a travel nurse. She kept the stone goddess and the ruby-colored cup because they had seemed so dear to him.
It was years before a chance remark at a dinner party with colleagues had cleared up the cause of Fred’s death. It was a toxicologist who commented that the bright red and orange stone was cinnabar. Emily came to understand that Fred would have picked up significant amounts of mercury from the red cinnabar stone statue every time he fondled it, pressed it to his lips, or licked it (he had misunderstood a story…). It was, however, the astronomical amounts of mercury he got from the stone teacup that killed him… and his stubborn refusal to listen to his big sister.