Sarah stood over the frail body of her comatose son. She had lost her daughter Emily to the sugar sickness two years ago and now it had come for Billy. With Emily they had been in a private room in Toronto General Hospital. They had money then. But that was all gone now. Her husband, William, had lost his job. The grief had incapacitated him. The company he worked for was compassionate, but even that had its limits.
Now they were in a ward with two rows of children lying on beds, wasting away until death finally claimed them. Emily had gone quickly. They didn’t know what they were doing. But with Billy they had followed a special diet invented by a man named Frederick Allen. Billy could barely eat anything, especially things with sugar in them.
Who knew that bread had sugar in it?
On his last birthday, May 21, 1921, Billy had weighed 185 pounds. He was tall and strong and at fifteen probably would have had more growing to do. Now, a little more than a year later, he weighed barely 70 pounds. Sarah could pick him up herself. Every time she did she could feel the bones underneath his thin flesh.
She looked down at her husband, praying by the bedside. William slowly lifted himself off of his knees. They must have been aching something awful. He had been praying for more than an hour. “It’s God’s will,” he said.
“For our children to be taken,” he said. “There’s a divine purpose above our understanding.”
It was the only way he could reconcile the horror that had been visited upon them with the God he loved. Sarah didn’t see it that way. Sometimes bad things happened and there was no reason. Or rather the reason was something ordinary, not part of God’s plan, just the flow of the natural world. And nature could be cruel.
But if he wanted to think that, then let him. If he found comfort in thinking that their children’s death was preordained, then she was glad for that solace. It made no difference in the inevitable outcome.
“We were wrong to try to delay it,” William said. “Emily went quickly, with little suffering.”
Emily had suffered, but William’s memory didn’t seem to be clear. He was believing what he wanted to.
“Now look what we’ve done to Billy,” he said.
“We tried to give him more life.”
“You call this life? We put him through hell and now he’s just this empty shell.”
“It’ll be over soon,” Sarah said. They couldn’t feed him anything now. He would slip away from them in a few days. She hoped that he wasn’t in pain.
Sarah didn’t know what they would do when Billy passed. She would have to get a job until William recovered. If he ever did. He made it seem like he had grieved more. That he loved his children more because he was so stricken by their deaths. She was their mother. It tore her soul in pieces. But they had to keep going. Billy had needed her after Emily died and he had needed her through his sickness.
Two young men came into the ward. They were dressed like doctors but barely looked old enough. They spoke to one of the parents of a girl whose bed was nearest to the door. After some discussion, the girl’s father gave a resigned shrug and one of the doctors gave the girl a shot.
The same thing happened at the next three beds until the young men reached Sarah and William. It was probably another experiment that a doctor wanted to conduct on someone who was bound to die anyway. When the parents agreed, they would test a drug on a child and watch how they reacted to it. Even if the drug hastened the end, most parents wanted their child’s death to have meaning, even if that meaning came from something as insignificant as advancing science.
He extended his hand to William who stared at it for a long moment and then shook.
“We have a medicine that we think may be very effective for those with diabetes mell—”
“We don’t want any medicine,” William interrupted. “We’ve tinkered with God’s plan long enough. Let us be.”
“But sir,” Charles said.
“I won’t hear of it,” William said. “Now move along.”
Sarah made eye contact with Dr. Banting and gave him a look that said he shouldn’t try anymore. They moved on without giving the shot.
It didn’t bother Sarah. In the past years she had read plenty of medical journals. All experimental medicines began with small progress. Tiny little refinements over years eventually led to something effective. The children in here might have a slight response. A lowering of their elevated blood sugar levels. That would give the scientists another data point and maybe something could be done for others many years from now. But it wouldn’t help William. It was too late for him.
Like fools the other parents stared at their children who had just been given the shot.
Sarah realized was being too harsh on them. Their hope might be foolish, but she couldn’t fault a parent desperately clinging to something.
She was exhausted and sat down on a hard wooden chair by Billy’s bedside. She put her hand on his head and closed her eyes.
She awoke to a shrill scream.
How long had she been asleep? She looked and the two doctors had just made it to the end of the first row of beds. It had been only minutes.
The mother of the girl by the door was yelling something over and over.
“She’s waking up!”
The girl’s father sat on the bed and lifted his daughter, cradling her in his arms. And then the girl’s eyes opened. She looked right at Sarah. Not with lifeless eyes. But alert. Thinking. Alive.
“I’m hungry,” the girl said.
The mother ran into the hall and screamed for a nurse to bring something to eat.
It was a fluke. A brief respite before death. Sarah’s father had done the same thing hours before finally passing. He woke from a weeklong sleep and talked clearly with everyone in the house. And then he passed, having made his peace. William said it was a kindness God offered to some.
As a nurse came in to see what was happening, the father of the boy in the next bed yelled, “Danny!”
Danny struggled in the bed, thrashing, seeming to be unaware of where he was. His mother held him and got him calmed down, just as the boy in the third bed opened his eyes. The nurse called out for more help.
It was moving down the row of beds, a few minutes in between each awakening: the amount of time it had taken the doctors at each bed to talk to the parents and give the injection.
Sarah stood up and watched the girl in the fourth bed, the one before Billy’s. She looked at her closed eyes and could almost predict when they would open. Following the invisible schedule, the girl’s eyes fluttered. Her parents weren’t even here, having stepped out right after the injection to go get something to eat. A nurse came running into the ward and began attending to the weak little girl.
Sarah and William turned to their son, but she knew the awakening would skip over him. The minutes passed and the boy next in line began to stir.
Sarah ran over to Dr. Banting, but a mother stood in her way, blocking her. He was giving the shot to her daughter, working his way down the rows of beds on the other side of the ward.
“Dr. Banting!” Sarah cried, “Give Billy the shot!”
Dr. Banting stood up, but the parents of the last three children in the row pulled him over to them. Sarah could hardly contain herself, but she understood their emotion. They might actually attack her if she tried to break the order.
Her Billy would be back in just a few minutes after he got the shot.
Dr. Banting finished the other three quickly, since he didn’t have to stop and discuss with the parents, waiting for them to consider giving consent. He walked back over to Billy’s bed.
“No,” William said, stepping between Dr. Banting and Billy’s bed.
What was he doing?
“This isn’t God’s will,” William said.
His broken mind had backed into a corner that it couldn’t get out of. “This will bring Billy back to us,” Sarah said.
“He belongs with God. With Emily,” William said. “What they’re doing is unnatural.”
Sarah turned back to Dr. Banting and whispered, “Give him the shot.”
“I have to have his father’s consent.”
“I’m his mother,” Sarah said and almost cursed, something she had never done in her life. “You have my consent.”
Doctor Banting didn’t finish, but she knew what he would have said. Legally, William’s consent was the only one that mattered.
William looked at her and said, “No.” Then he walked out of the ward.
Sarah thought about grabbing the shot and running to stab it into Billy herself. But she needed to have William on her side. She had heard Banting talking to the other parents. Billy would need the shot every day, for the rest of his life. If she defied her husband now, it would poison any chance she had of persuading him.
She watched the other parents, holding the children that had been returned to them. She hated to leave Billy’s side. She kept thinking he would wake up like the others. But he wouldn’t. Not without the medicine.
She stepped out of the ward, pushing her way through the ever growing crowd of doctors and nurses. She knew where William had gone. He would be in the chapel, smoking a cigarette.
“You’re not going to change my mind,” William said as she sat down in a pew behind him. He faced the front and kept lifting the cigarette to his lips.
“Don’t you want to see Billy?”
“Not at the cost of his soul,” he said. “We’re his parents. We have to do what’s best for him. No matter what. No matter how much it hurts us.”
“Why do think this isn’t God’s will?
“He showed it to me when I was praying.”
“But haven’t you prayed for Billy to be healed?” Sarah asked. “What about those prayers? Isn’t this an answer to those prayers?”
William didn’t answer.
“Let’s do just one shot,” Sarah said. “At least we can say goodbye.”
“That’s just how Satan works. One little step at a time. You know I couldn’t stop if I saw him awake. If he talked to me.”
That’s exactly what Sarah knew. But she wasn’t trying to tempt him like Satan. She was trying to give him what he wanted most. She wasn’t mad at William. He loved his son. He wanted to do the right thing. He just couldn’t see clearly through the pain.
She had to present this in a way that he could deal with. “What was it you said about what those doctors were doing?” Sarah asked.
“I said it was unnatural.”
“You’ve got it almost right”
“Have you ever heard of a medicine working like that?” she asked. “Healing in minutes?”
“No. That’s why it’s unnatural.”
“The word is supernatural.”
William turned around and looked at her.
“There’s no way a natural medicine could do that,” Sarah said. “It has to be a miracle of God.” Sarah didn’t say this to trick William. She didn’t know if she believed it or not. The doctors had worked through science, but maybe God had added His power. It almost seemed like the only sensible explanation for something so miraculous.
“When Jesus healed people, he didn’t use medicine,” William said.
“Once, He healed a blind man, but made him put mud on his eyes first,” Sarah said. She hadn’t studied the Bible like William had, but she had heard the stories in thousands of endless sermons. “God told Elisha to have Naaman bathe in the Jordan seven times and his leprosy would be healed. Sometimes we have to take a step of faith. A physical action.”
William was silent for a long time. “So he’s testing my faith?”
Sarah didn’t respond. He had to take the last steps himself.
“And like Naaman, I’m refusing to accept His gift because it seems too simple? Too ordinary a way to deliver a miracle?”
William stood and took Sarah’s hand.
They walked down the hall, back to the ward. Dr. Banting and Best were just leaving, with a trail of other doctors behind them asking questions.
“We’re ready,” Sarah shouted out above the noise.
Banting turned back and looked at William. He nodded and Sarah’s heart leapt.
They stepped back inside the ward. All of the children were sitting up, supported by their parents or nurses, slowly slurping soup from white bowls. All except Billy. He lay still, unmoving.
Dr. Banting took a syringe out of his medical bag and drew a clear liquid into it from a vial. He injected into Billy’s arm, releasing the medicine in one smooth motion.
Sarah waited through agonizing minutes. How long had it taken the others? It had seemed so fast. Was Billy even breathing? She put her hand to his chest. He felt cold. She looked to Dr. Banting, who shook his head.
And then she heard the most beautiful word.
The characters of Sarah, William and Billy are fictional but the other people, places and events in this story are true. Dr. Frederick Banting and medical student Charles Best really did administer some of the first insulin injections to children in diabetic wards in Toronto General Hospital in 1922. And, as in the story, the children first injected started to wake up before Banting had finished giving insulin to everyone in the room.
The first administration of insulin was one of the most dramatic stories in all of medical history. Whereas most fictionalizations of true events over-dramatize, this story probably does not fully capture the drama of the miracle of science that the people there experienced.