Medical Fiction: Bruce and the Sterilization Step

This is one of a collection of stories that are like “Final Destination” meets “The Monkey’s Paw” (WW Jacobs, 1902). As such, they are tragedies more than either mysteries or horror, and would appeal most to readers who enjoy the inexorable pull of a story arc that leads to doom. In each story, a protagonist makes a wish that comes true with fatal results for someone, often the person making the wish. Nothing supernatural, but just how things work out. (Or is it?) The technical details surrounding the fatal (or near-fatal) event are drawn from real cases in the US OSHA incident report database or similar sources and are therefore entirely realistic, even if seemingly outlandish. The plots draw lightly from cultural beliefs around actions such as pointing at someone with a stick or knife, wishing in front of a mirror, or stepping on a crack.


Sheila was a quality and safety officer for a teaching hospital, and she felt strongly that either she was an imposter, or that, simply put, she had a nonsense job. It paid reasonably well, and she was always busy, but she had a nagging sense of futility. Reading a book by anthropologist David Graeber, she knew she wasn’t a “goon” or a “flunky,” but looking at the description of nonsense jobs in the book, she felt that her role certainly qualified as either a “duct taper” or a “box ticker” or both. She knew from bitter experience that most problems she fixed were superficial and temporary, and that the real root causes were often beyond her grasp of her. She also knew that management mostly just humored her and that many members of staff only intended to go along with quality improvement. Most of all, she knew that a toxic culture of bullying ran throughout the organization, starting at the top.

Sheila put a new safety sign up on the notice board outside the management conference room: “A Nervous Worker is a Dangerous Worker.” She read her slide deck to talk about bullying to the department heads. The first slide got straight to the point. Citing a study by Edmonson and Zelonka from 2018, she stated that a culture that tolerates bullying has a poor clinician work environment, sees increased risk to patients, has lower Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems patient satisfaction scores, and experiences greater staff turnover . She added that higher turnover was costing their own hospital between $4 million and $7 million a year and an additional $350,000 in absenteeism. She looked over the faces of the management team and saw mostly disinterested expressions of people tapping away on their phones.

Samantha was a paid graduate student researcher and worked in the biochemistry laboratory. Today she was going to be performing alcohol sterilization in preparation for plating bacteria. She would pour ethanol from a 1,000 ml bottle into a Petri dish and then place several glass slides in the alcohol bath. To dry them immediately prior to use, Ella Samantha would burn off the alcohol in the flame of a Bunsen burner. She was working at the front bench of the right row of the classroom and felt tense. The teacher’s assistant (TA) set a fast pace and had very high standards, but was also caustic and often bitingly sarcastic.

Bruce wasn’t happy doing the TA work and it showed. While he maintained an obsequious appearance to the professor, he was ruthless with the students. This morning was worse than usual; he had just found out that there was a flaw in his data cleaning for his own research project. The professor had been condescending and vitriolic in that oily practiced way that some professors acquired after years of experience. Bruce could just abandon the project and maybe get another, the professor had said, or he could work weekends and late nights and deliver the project results on time. It wasn’t really a choice, though, and Bruce bitterly accepted that he would have to take the pain, sacrificing what little leisure time he had.

His next class as a TA was one of his least favorites. That is not to say that he liked any of the classes, just that he disliked this one more than most. For one thing, it ate up time that he couldn’t spare, especially now. For another, the students irritated the heck out of him. They were a mix of different years and levels. Some were fresh-faced 1st years who were mostly bright little brains fresh out of some advanced placement program at West-Podunk High. Those students usually rode the Dunning-Kruger effect like a circus horse: They were filled to the brim with confidence in their own knowledge and abilities, but were about as knowledgeable about real lab work as one of the rats.

Some of the students were doing a research unit to satisfy their medical training, and since it wasn’t a core subject and they were already in medical school, they did exactly the minimum work and usually ignored his advice. Another group were the highly-strung paid research students who desperately needed to keep their grades and reviews in the gold to avoid losing their funding or not being accepted into one of the highly competitive research programs. This course was often a make-or-break situation for them, and they were so earnest and eager, it made him irritable. The last group was usually a mix of mature-age students doing it for professional advancement or personal interest, and the occasional auditor. The last auditor was some person from Quality and Safety, who had given him a poke in her eye in her review of her because a student had forgotten to put the stopper in a bottle of acid before doing the next step in a practical.

Bruce was late because of the bad-news session with the professor and was feeling particularly irritable. He tore the “Are you a nervous worker?” safety flyer off the notice board as he entered the biomedical wing. He despised the quality & safety department for its overall uselessness, though it somehow still had the power to criticize people like him for any old silly reason. He crumpled up the paper and tossed it in the bin as he walked into the training lab where 12 students sat at their individual lab benches waiting. Well, some were at their benches. The med students were either talking gross shop or sleeping, the AP brats were gossiping and bragging to each other about how smart they were, and the paid student researchers were feverishly going over their projects.

Bruce had to do a walkthrough of each of their projects to establish that they understood their research question, knew what their project was to achieve, and had a firm grasp of the current step. In particular, he would demand to see them actually perform enough of their current step to show they had it all together. He remembered one AP brat a year back trying to sneak in someone else’s completed experiment as their own, so now he checked competence more closely. He started with the front bench in the left row, and as he expected, the AP 1st year student had almost no understanding of their research question; their synopsis was a tangled scrapyard of jargon and flowery phrases that in sum meant nothing. I have asked them if they thought their work was good and what grade they would currently give their project. Although expecting it to be outrageously high, hearing that they felt this shoddy mess was an “A” just made him want to see them cry. After a few choice remarks, the overconfidence predictably collapsed into snot and tears. The next student was also a “bright young thing.” Bruce dispatched him to remove the piercings, necklace, and hand adornments. The quality folks would write up a ream over jewelry in the lab, and he really didn’t need the hassle. By the time Bruce got to the first of the paid student researchers, he was in no mood for her overager and stress-laden status report on her.


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Bruce circled round and stood in front of Samantha’s bench. She was unnerved by his sarcastic and vitriolic treatment of the younger students, and could almost feel bile rising in her throat as he reached her bench with an imperious “Well?” Samantha explained the purpose of her experiment, her research question, and then described her set up and process. She felt her confidence rise slightly. Although she fumbled the wording of the research question slightly, she knew her set up and process well, and she had rehearsed the walk-through many times. She explained that she was now sterilizing fresh slides in alcohol. He had smirked when she mangled her research question from her, but now he had spotted a laughably simple error. “… So what dish of alcohol would that be? The one in your dreams, maybe?” He pointed down at the empty Petri dish. Her mouth dry with panic, Samantha glanced down at the dish, and sure enough, she had forgotten to fill it with alcohol. Fumbling the screw top off the bottle, and with trembling hands, she sloshed alcohol into the dish. Some splashed onto the bench top, and she hurriedly wiped it up as Bruce folded his arms, “Don’t worry, princess, I have all day. By all means, take your time. It’s not like your grades depend on this!” She hurriedly put away the cloth and lit the Bunsen in front of her. “Top!” he yelled, gesturing with a finger. Samantha was briefly confused, thinking he had commanded her to stop, but then realized she hadn’t screwed the top back on the alcohol bottle. Her heart sank and she knew this was going to cost her. She grabbed for the white plastic top, but her fingers de ella felt like someone else was trying to use them, and the top slipped, spun briefly on the bench like it was possessed by a mischievous spirit, and rolled off, bouncing on the floor . “Oh, you are shitting me!” Bruce spat out as Samantha scurried around on the floor after the hopping, spinning top. At last, she straightened up with the top now gripped firmly in her hand and she reached for the bottle. In her rush, she knocked the bottle over, and things rapidly went from nightmarish to catastrophic. The fluid gushed out and ignited, and flames fanned out across the bench in a rippling blue haze. The vapor path back into the bottle ignited and expelled a bolus of alcohol from the bottle with a loud pop. The spray of burning alcohol jetted out of the bottle and engulfed Bruce like a flamethrower.

It didn’t take long for Samantha to grapple the fire extinguisher from the side of her bench and start fanning the flaming bench top with white plumes of dry chemical powder. Before she had gone very far with putting out her burning bench, the lab fire system triggered, and the ceiling sprayers drenched the entire lab. The flames were out in a few seconds, and the students and lab techs dutifully filed out.

Soaked through and dripping wet, they headed for their designated assembly point along with the rest of the building. It wasn’t until they noticed the other groups calling roll that they realized that their own TA wasn’t there with his clipboard and list of students to check. Bruce was lying on the floor of the lab, waiting very patiently and still for the emergency services crew to find him where he lay and zip him up in a sturdy white plastic bag.

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