I looked out over the tarmac from the launch platform. There were a lot of people. I found my parents down there, waving up at me. My mom was wearing a black dress, and from that distance I couldn’t tell for sure whether she was crying, but I know she was. I could almost make out a handkerchief. My dad stood next to her in a black suit, with his arm around her. I liked to imagine that he was being strong and stoic, but I’m sure he was crying as well. I couldn’t see my brother or sister. They were probably with Grandma and Grandpa.
A nurse walked over to me and turned my wheelchair toward the door. I looked back one more time and waved at my parents, but then I was moving, and I couldn’t see them anymore. There were six other young people in wheelchairs being pushed by nurses ahead of me, and five more behind me. Some of those kids looked really sick. Lots of tubes and masks and wires and tanks. I wasn’t sure whether we were a triumphant parade or a funeral procession.
My nurse wheeled me through a narrow hallway that ended with an elevator. The elevator took us up two additional floors to a circular room with twelve pods arranged like the numbers on a clock. My nurse helped me stand up and climb into pod number 7.
Three months ago my doctors had told my parents that I was rejecting my kidney transplant. I had only had it for a year. Soon I would have to be on dialysis again. I remember sobbing when they told me that. I didn’t want to go through that hell again. The swelling and the nausea and the somnolence. The itching. The shortness of breath. Trips to the emergency room for peritonitis from my dialysis catheter. Nights in the intensive care unit for hyperkalemia and pericarditis. Generally feeling like a zombie. I got my new kidney from my dad, and my mom wasn’t a match. Neither were my siblings. My chances of getting a new kidney in the near future weren’t great. Not that I was a great transplant candidate anyways. I had the heart of a 75-year-old, I was slowly going blind, and I couldn’t even swallow food safely without aspirating.
I told my parents there was no way I was going to go through kidney failure again. I told them I loved them, but I was sixteen-years-old and they couldn’t make me. I’d rather die. They cried a lot. I don’t know whether I actually had the legal right to decline treatment as a sixteen-year-old, but my parents knew I had been through a lot, and they wanted to respect my wishes. That’s when the doctors told them about Panacea.
I was glad the lights in the shuttle were dim. My nurse gave me some special goggles to wear during hibernation. Images of lions hunting gazelles, children walking into a cathedral, and a decades-old football game flashed before my eyes. Who knew we would get an inflight movie? The nurse put an oxygen mask on me, and I suddenly felt very relaxed. It occurred to me that as a child I had at different times wanted to be a firefighter, cowboy, policeman, doctor, even veterinarian, but I had never really wanted to be an astronaut.
Panacea was colonized in 2031. It’s a planet in another galaxy. The government was looking for a hospitable alternative planet to Earth, in the inevitable event that we Earthlings depleted all our natural resources and cooked the planet with our carbon dioxide emissions. Panacea was similarly positioned to Earth with respect to its star, and it had a comparable atmosphere. The miraculous thing about Panacea was that people become healthier there. Not just healthier – they were cured.
This discovery was made by Jorgen Ericksen, a Danish physician who had traveled along with the crew to study the effects of deep space travel on healthy humans. Ericksen had a limp from his childhood and walked with a cane. Dr. Ericksen was astonished to find, on his second day on Panacea, that he was able walk without his cane. He made the completely irrational postulation that something about Panacea’s atmosphere had caused his body to heal itself. He began to interview the military crew, and found a similar pattern. One soldier reported that his frequent migraines had gone away. Another told about his post-traumatic nightmares ending as soon as they landed. And another hesitantly admitted that he was having erections again. Dr. Ericksen was pretty sure he was going to win the Nobel prize for Medicine, and he did, in 2037, although it seemed more like dumb luck than the work of a genius. Kind of like giving a Nobel prize to Columbus for happening upon the West Indies. No one had actually worked out how Panacea cured people.
Four years after this initial discovery a military base had been built on Panacea, and medical trials were underway. Wealthy adults with terminal diseases were able to fund their own travel to this exotic sanatorium, and the reports consistently showed miraculous healings, patient after patient. But those healings only persisted as long as the person lived on Panacea. It was another five years before the government approved trials for pediatric patients. At that time the waiting list was longer than the six months many terminal kids had to live. But I was the first patient with my disease to apply, and one of my doctors had some connections and was able to get approval for a voyage in three months.
And now I’m here, in this hibernation pod, getting ready to travel to another galaxy. It sounds ridiculous. But I’m hoping when I get there my kidneys will start working again, my corneas will get clear, and all the muscles in my wasted body, including my heart, will be repaired. I won’t have to take medications around the clock, and I’ll have energy to be the active teenager I’ve always wanted to be. Who knows, though? I’m the first patient with this condition to travel to Panacea, so there are no guarantees. Most of the people who have gone have had emphysema, strokes, heart failure and cancer. Lots and lots of cancer.
I don’t know what is on the other side of this journey. I am looking forward to being healthy, to being whole, but I am terrified of the unknown. I’m not talking about the unknown dangers of space, like being hit by a meteor or getting sucked into a black hole. I’m referring to the general unknown layout of the rest of my life. Most kids grow up knowing the basic path their life will take. High school, then college (or not), probably get married somewhere in there, find a tolerable career, have children, some kind of mid-life crisis, eventual retirement with sunny beaches and golf, grandchildren. You know, nothing crazy. There will surely be some surprises, but most people end up leading pretty predictably ordinary lives.
My life, on the other hand, has heretofore sucked, and now I’m getting a second chance. But even though I probably have many years of healthy living ahead of me now, I can’t help but feel that my life is being cut short. I will never see my family again. I won’t get to go to senior prom. No summer job as a lifeguard. College parties are out. College in general isn’t going to happen. Maybe I’ll find a sweet girl miraculously cured of her leukemia, and we’ll settle down in this distant space colony. I don’t know whether the military performs weddings up there yet. I really don’t know anything about what it was like up there. There might be some jobs up there, but I imagine most of them involve menial labor. Definitely not going to be a lawyer. Slim chance I’ll play professional basketball. Maybe they’ll let me live like an independently wealthy person.
A voice came over the speakers. “Prepare for departure in five minutes.” Although whatever they were misting us within our oxygen masks had a wonderful calming effect, this announcement made my heart start racing, and I suddenly felt short of breath. I’m not ready to die! I thought. I felt like I was drowning. Don’t be ridiculous, I told myself. Stop panicking. You’re not going to die. You’re going to live!
The nurse closed the lid on my pod. My eyes filled with tears. Did I mention I’ll never see my family again?