Testing Times

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As Sarah stepped off the podium, a big round of applause broke out amidst the audience. Shouts of ‘Go Sarah!’, ‘Well done Sarah’, ‘We are with you’ filled the air. Beaming, she huddled together with a large group and posed for selfies, smiling into the camera all the time.

Her mobile rang as she walked back to her office perched atop the scenic valley. 

“Richard! Hey, it’s great to hear from you.”

As Richard spoke, a nervous sweat broke out on her face, inspite of the central air conditioning, but she gave him a patient ear.

“No, no, I am working on it. We will surely unveil the new machine soon,” she reassured him.

Hanging up, she felt anything but confident as she watched the people milling about in the building. Her company was hosting a party for employees and clients.

Nanosys had started out small five years ago and had soon grown into a multi-million dollar private venture. She had done it! She recalled how hard she had worked to put it all together. Dropping out of college, she had slogged 18-20 hours a day to turn her dreams into reality. 

Of course, it had helped that there were enough venture capitalists like Richard who had the money and were willing to dole it out easily for a good cause!

She recalled her first pitch to the investors. With jittery nerves, she had addressed the stern-faced men dressed in dark suits. Powerful men with the right connections in the government, they had asked all the relevant questions, of course! And she had had all the answers then. She had been so excited about the lab machine. 

As soon as she got the first ‘Yes’, she had balled her fist, punching the air in jubilation.

And then there had been no looking back. Aiming to make affordable blood work available to the common man, she relied on rich and influential investors to fund it. Even if she had to lie through her teeth for it! The lab machine although a prototype then, sounded like it was a fully functional, professional set up. The investors had visited the unit too which boasted of biometrics and restricted personnel. The samples were taken with the prick of a needle on their finger. The vials were then shoved into the machines, promising results in an hour. 

But it didn’t work that way in reality…

As soon as they had left to view the rest of the premises, her dedicated team went to work. The tests were carried out manually and results were printed and ready in waiting. No one ever asked to check the machine on the inside. If only they had! Truth was, the vials broke every time they moved from one section to the other, a mechanism fault. The technical team had been working out the kinks and Sarah had believed that she could get the funds allocated in the meantime.

Her vision was that people wouldn’t need a doctor’s prescription to get their blood tests done with Nanosys coming to their rescue. All that they would have to do is walk into one of the dedicated centers to get their tests done without any questions. And healthcare in America was so expensive. 

The idea had taken seed, when as a teenager, she had lost her grandmother to cancer. With expensive tests and an equally expensive course of treatment, her parents had scrapped through their last resources and tried their best. But they had failed to save her grandmother. It was then that she had decided to bring about a revolution in the medical field in whatever way she could, so that people would have the chance to save their loved ones.

The tests costs by Nanosys were much lower than the market rates. Add to that, the amount of blood taken was miniscule. It was a win-win situation!

And they had managed to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes for years now.

In truth, the machine had never been completely functional. There had been too many flaws and the technical team had gone back to the drawing board many a time. The first machine had managed to do a limited number of tests. This success catapulted them into the limelight and as they tied up with more and more powerful investors, Sarah had quickly risen to the top. Featured on the cover of all top business magazines, she was soon seen sharing the podium with top CEOs and Directors of billion-dollar ventures and Nanosys was pegged as “The Most Promising Start Up” in recent times.

Over the years, the lists of tests that could be handled by the machine had grown, looking impressive on paper. Although the truth was something else. Only some tests were done on the machine, the rest was all eyewash…

Nobody spoke about it. She made sure that all employees of Nanosys signed an NDA when they joined the organization. And the actual workings on the lab floor were only known to a select few. She made sure that they were well compensated for their efforts.

Only Richard had started getting antsy lately! Earlier, all she had to do was ask and more money poured into her coffers. She had started out being passionate about helping the masses, yet somewhere along the way, money had taken precedence. 

Even now, whenever she addressed the employees of Nanosys, she sensed that they were in awe of her. The women especially came up-to her and told her how they felt relieved that they could opt for blood works without visiting a doctor anymore. The kids were also easier to handle, since it was only a tiny finger prick. 

Guilt hit her at times. A niggling voice of late asked, ‘What am I doing? Am I not conning them, these women with families who seem to rely on Nanosys and me?’

Yet she felt powerless to stop. Nanosys was too big now to pull back. All they had to do was get the damn machine to work!

Floating out of her reverie, she picked up the phone and dialed. It was answered at first ring.

“Kyle, my office. Now!”

Kyle was the brain behind the machines. Officially the COO, he was the tech genius with ugly, horn rimmed glasses that Sarah relied on. 

“Kyle, what’s the update on the new machine?” Sarah asked as he walked in.

“Geez, we had this discussion two days ago,” he replied in an exasperated tone. “Status Quo has not changed, Sarah. I will let you know if I get a breakthrough.”

“Well, you better hurry. We have limited time to deliver the machine, Kyle. Richard is getting fidgety and I can’t keep stalling him forever. Either you deliver…Or I throw you to the wolves,” she said fixing him with a steely glare.

Kyle’s expression froze. A nerve pulsated in his temple and without a word, he stormed out. 

The next morning as she parked her car in her private parking space at Nanosys and alighted, Sarah felt her hand being tugged. She turned around to face a woman who was clearly a Nanosys employee. Her name tag read ‘Marge’. A white woman in her early forties, Marge looked furious. Wailing, she thrust papers into Sarah’s hands and cried, “My child died because of you. You killed him, my Rob!”

Taken aback, Sarah glanced at the papers. They were test reports. Conducted one year ago by Nanosys for Blood Cancer. She didn’t get the connection until she looked at the other papers underneath. Conducted at a different lab, the test papers confirmed that the patient Rob had been suffering from Acute Myeloid Leukemia while Nanosys results tested negative for the same. 

Turning defensive, she turned to Marge and said, “This doesn’t prove anything.”

“I trusted you Sarah. I did my boy’s tests here because as Nanosys employees, you promised us free testing. Because I believed you every time when you said you cared and wanted healthcare in America to be available to people like me. Your machine gave out wrong tests reports and by the time we decided to check again, the cancer had spread extensively. Thanks to you, my boy never had a chance. You are to blame Sarah, only you! You and your stupid Nanosys!” she cried, choking on a sob. 

Sarah felt gut punched. She was reminded of her grandmother all over again. Chastised, she asked, “Why didn’t you reach out to me before? I could’ve helped…”

Marge scoffed, “Do you think I didn’t try? But your bodyguards never let me through. Especially …that dork, Kyle.”

“I can’t tell you how sorry I am Marge and I promise you that I will look into it personally,” Sarah mumbled.

Furious and seeking answers, Sarah turned away without saying another word and walked into the premises. Intent on confronting Kyle, she headed to his office. The door to his office was ajar and she heard his voice on the phone.

“Yes. Of course, she doesn’t suspect anything. You know how she is, Richard. Completely one–track mind she has! Nanosys has grown to the level it could. The machine is never going to work the way she wants, she is living in a fool’s paradise. And we can’t run this forever. We both realize that we are running out of time. The press is already sniffing around and it will only be a fortnight before the FDA smell something fishy too.”

Shocked, Sarah held her breath waiting to hear more.

“Yes, it’s credible info, I am absolutely sure. And someone will have to take the fall for it. Who better than her, I mean this is her baby, right? When this whole thing blows, what you need to remember is that you are only the investor, clueless about the actual running of the organization. I’ll handle everything, all the paperwork is ready to lay the blame at her door. Don’t worry, I’ll get her signatures. She trusts me,” he added with a throaty laugh.

Sarah staggered back to her office.

“Anne, hold all calls,” she informed her assistant in a curt tone.

Settling on her desk, she replayed what she had just heard in her mind. She was having a hard time processing it all. Betrayed and panicked, she picked up the intercom.

“Anne, cancel all appointments for today. I am going home.”

As she lay in bed that night, she recalled when Kyle had joined her. Enthusiastic about her plans, he had worked hard on the first lab machine and soon it had all worked out. Money had flowed into all their bank accounts. Life was one big party, living the lifestyle of the rich and the famous. They owned rich, ostentatious houses in America and St. Tropez. Private yachts and charters, they had explored it all. 

She remembered that she had heard Kyle mention that the press were snooping around. And the FDA was about to come down hard too. But how? When had that happened and why hadn’t she been informed? And they intended to make her the scapegoat? Richard and the other investors were the ones who had benefitted the most from this venture. 

Kyle had started out just as passionate about Nanosys as her, but she now knew that he had gotten greedy and cut a deal with Richard on the side. 

She realized that there was never going to be a new machine. Marge’s grief flashed in front of her eyes. And the niggling voice spoke up again, ‘Where do you go from here? How do you set this wrong right? And more importantly, is there anyone you can trust?’

She spent a restless night, tossing and turning. Her conscience had spoken up and she knew there was only one way to go. There was hardly any time, but she would make sure that she took them down with her too. 

As the day dawned, she picked up the phone…

*Two weeks later, Nanosys Annual Meet

Dressed in her trademark all black attire, Sarah was the picture of calm and composure. She was scheduled to speak on ‘The Role of Technology in the Future’. All the employees from various parts of the US had gathered at the headquarters in the valley and there was anticipation and excitement in the air. There had been rumors that the company would be going public very soon and the presence of the press could not be missed.

Sarah walked in, to a resounding round of applause. It died down after a minute and Sarah smiled and took the mike. She saw that the investors and senior management of Nanosys was also seated at the front.

“Hello everyone. Great to have you all here. I know you guys are anxious because you have been hearing some news going around. So, without much ado, let’s begin. Nanosys started out as my baby and over time, it became yours too. I am thankful for the support that I have received from you all as my team, the investors and the management members. But there comes a moment when you have to make a choice. The choice to grow further or to take a step back, reassess or maybe even stop…” she paused. The silence in the auditorium was deafening.

“Well, Nanosys unfortunately has grown all that it could. There are some grave issues with the new machine and the reality is, we can’t deliver,” she looked at Kyle and Richard as she said that.

“So, we will need to take some tough business decisions. Nanosys will be closing doors and it is all being worked out as I speak with the lawyers. I sincerely apologize to all of you, as I bit off more than I could chew. I have been in tight discussions with HR too for the last few days and reassure you that everything including severance pay and employee references is being spoken about. I am sad to let this all go, but I will ensure that you all are taken care of.” 

She quelled the agitated murmurs that broke out. As she stepped off the podium, she caught Richard’s confused expression. Kyle just sat dumbfounded. They had not anticipated this at all.

‘Touché’ she thought.

She knew that both the press and the FDA would soon be knocking on her door. But instead of fear, what she felt was – relief.

***

Author’s note:

This story has been loosely inspired by Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, a now-defunct company which claimed to revolutionize blood testing in America using very low volumes of blood. The story and all names are a work of fiction. The happenings bear little resemblance to actual facts.

Blood testing without prescription from doctor was legalized in the state of Arizona (Ref: https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/author-john-carreyrou-how-theranos-scammed-arizona-10477429  )

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Photo By: Pixabay

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(This is an entry in ArttrA-4, a room8 writing game at ArtoonsInn. We’d much appreciate you rating the story and leaving a review in the comments.)

 


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