Guest Blogger: James M. Tabor
I know that vampires and werewolves and zombies—oh my!—are all the rage now, but I’ve never felt the need to step over the line from reality to fantasy, or wherever those things live. Reality is plenty fantastic in its own right, as the real events that inspired THE DEEP ZONE prove. In 2003, military doctors began seeing an increase in “unusual infections” in soldiers wounded in Iraq. The pathogen responsible was a bacterium named Acinetobacter baumanii—ACE, as I call it in THE DEEP ZONE.
Acinetobacter Baumanii (AciNEETobacter BoughMANee), is a highly drug-resistant bacterium with a personality quirk that makes it inordinately dangerous. ACE may be the Great Communicator of all bacteria, able to pass on immunological mutations with speed that, in evolutionary terms, is lightning fast. In THE DEEP ZONE, when Don Barnard tells heroine Hallie Leland that geneticists found, in ACE, the greatest number of genetic mutations ever recorded in a single organism, he is speaking truth. They actually did, in 2005.
The Iraqi ACE, a new genotype variation, was even more drug-resistant than its predecessors. Authorities claimed it lived in dirty Iraqi soil and was being blown into wounds. Doctors were seeing so many cases that they began calling it “Iraqibacter.” By 2004, ACE had colonized one in three soldiers admitted to Bethesda Naval Medical Center.
That was all fantastic enough, but it gets better. Military damage control went into overdrive. Physicians were warned, “Don’t tell them [the press] any more than you absolutely have to.” Why the cover-up? It’s one thing for America’s warfighters to die from valorous actions in combat. It’s quite another for them to die from hospital-acquired infections, and, as it turned out, that’s exactly what was happening. Sadly, it took a grieving mother to bring out the real truth.
After a Marine recuperating in a Florida military hospital died unexpectedly, his mother was told that he succumbed to combat injuries. She suspected otherwise. An investigation by her Congressman revealed that ACE was responsible for his death. A thorough, if belated, Department of Defense investigation found no trace of ACE in Iraqi soil. Instead, the source turned out to be military hospitals themselves. The soldiers were being infected, and in some cases killed, by facilities that were supposed to be saving them. Even worse, it appeared that ACE could jump from wounded soldiers to unwounded civilians. A ranking government official said that “the potential consequences to health care and to the cost of health care are huge.”
I had just finished a best-selling book of narrative nonfiction, BLIND DESCENT, about the discovery and exploration of supercaves, when I learned about the Iraqibacter fiasco. Though my last two books were both nonfiction, I’d wanted to return to fiction for some time. Combining a superbug and supercave gave me the perfect launch pad.
When one of THE DEEP ZONE’s villains, Bernard Adelheid, says that hospital-acquired infections—“nosocomial,” in medicalese–have risen dramatically in the last decade and kill about 90,000 Americans annually, he’s speaking truth. When he says that the real total is undoubtedly higher (given hospitals’ tendency to cite causes other than infections contracted inside them), it’s also true.
During my research, I was shocked by how many people I interviewed had had experience with nosocomial infections. Have you suffered from any? Your family or friends? Please share your stories. Thanks!
James M. Tabor is an international award-winning and bestselling nonfiction author making his first foray into fiction. One reviewer said that THE DEEP ZONE was “THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN for the 21st century.” Tabor was the writer and on-camera host of the acclaimed PBS series, “The Great Outdoors,” as well as co-creator and executive producer of the History Channel special, “Journey to the Center of the World.” He lives in Vermont and is working on the next novel in the Hallie Leland series, due out from Random House/Ballantine next April.