The ISO Room

Only the worst cases ended up in the isolation room. Birds with contagious growths in their mouths forever gaped as if waiting to say something, birds with neurological conditions that left them unable to stand, their necks twisted under their bodies so that they looked at you upside down, and birds so sick that they didn’t react to your touch, just puffed up their feathers and closed their eyes, fighting back nausea. 

Each time you handled one of them you needed to change your gloves and spray down the exam table, and once you left the room, which was more of a small, windowless walk-in closet, you had to step in a bin of bleach and remove a paper overcoat that hung behind the door. And you weren’t allowed to go to the nursery afterwards, where the young, chirping faces with mouths wide open waiting to be fed were an antidote to the depressing sickness of the ISO room.

The staff was happy when I offered to treat the ISO birds. Gillian smiled and thanked me, but I was embarrassed by her gratitude and by my own judgment of her, that she was so willing to hand over the neediest cases to me, so I only looked down and mumbled a ‘no problem.’

Nystatin, Metacam, Baytril, Metronidazole, DMSA. Each ISO patient was on a cocktail of meds and since the birds were so contagious I would have to bring everything with me and do it all in one go instead of popping in and out and contaminating the med bottles. I pulled the brightly colored liquids into syringes and then labeled them with the names of the birds on pieces of Scotch tape wrapped around each plunger. I carried them upright, like a collection of chemical flowers in reds and blues, and stepped into the ISO room. 

The door shut behind me and closed out the din, leaving me in the calm quiet of a room filled with sick birds. I put the syringes down on the exam table and looked at each one through the small circular window that opened in the center of each incubator and sealed shut like a mason jar. The birds looked so small and vulnerable inside the white boxes, locking eyes with me when my face peeked inside, then trying to get away as well as they could, dragging themselves by their wings or simply looking away, tucking their heads against the plastic sides of the cages.

One bird was unable to stand and had fallen out of his rolled up towel donut. His head was squished between the towel and the side of the cage and his legs were up in the air, the small scaly toes curled around an invisible perch. I gave him his medicine and then set him back upright, but he flailed his wings helplessly and fell backward out of the donut so that I had to move him several times until he understood and stayed inside.

He accepted what was happening to him – they all did. They didn’t complain, and they were too weak to bite, so they just stared quietly at me, showing me how easy it was to achieve what meditation and yoga had always tried, and failed, to get at. Yesterday and tomorrow disappeared, and what happened outside, beyond the closed door, didn’t matter. It was only the four walls and the bird, nothing else.

I stripped off my blue gloves, peeled on another pair and reached into the next cage. The bird’s eyes opened when he felt my fingers wrap around his wings, but he didn’t fight me. His beak and puffy chest were covered in dried KT formula that he had thrown up and had caked onto his feathers. I sprayed a piece of paper towel with water and moistened the dirty spots until they softened and crumbled away to reveal the blue green shine of his plumage underneath. I carefully opened his mouth, sticky saliva stretching out across his beak, and inserted the syringes, one at a time, until he had swallowed everything. I set him back in his cage, immobile.

Death was close in this room and it brought me clarity. I knew what I had to do. Each moment I spent with the bird might be the last interaction it ever received, and it was important that it wasn’t ruined, that my actions somehow preserved the magic of being alive. I was elevated beyond simple day-to-day matters, crossing beyond deadlines and working lunches into something sacred, on the edge of existence, pressed so close that I could almost glimpse eternity.

Blue gloves off into the trash. Fresh pair on. The third bird was only a baby, and when I opened the cage door she ran toward me, squeaking for attention and flapping her wings for her mother. I placed her in my palm, her body warm and small, her face and mouth covered in sores so extreme that they had bent her beak. The growths extended down into her throat so that I had to use vegetable oil to grease up the syringes before they would go any further in. 

Years ago, when I had first started, they had barred one volunteer from working in the ISO room. She was getting too attached. I looked at the baby bird in my palm, so trusting, and so sick. I put her back in her cage and she stood chirping by the door, desperate for the attention of the only caregiver she had.

Gloves. Bird. Syringe. Spray. Gloves. Bird. Syringe. Spray. One after another I moved through the rows of birds until time dissolved and the walls of the ISO room gave way to a wide-open space, white with sunlight. I felt compassion for their suffering growing inside of me, getting stronger with each patient that I held in my hands until it began to drip from each of my pores and become a wave of love and empathy that soaked through onto everything I touched. 

By the time I had medicated the last bird, thrown away the last pair of gloves and sprayed the exam table for the last time, I had forgotten about my day at work and the million tiny annoyances I had brought with me. And when I left the ISO room and saw the clock in the hallway telling me that I had been in there for two hours I had to look again out of disbelief. 

It seemed unreal to come back to the loud sounds of volunteers and staff hurrying to clean up, their requests to wash dishes, mop the floor, to help as much as I could so they could leave. It was all so unimportant, whether we would finish on time, whether they would get paid overtime, whether I would have time to eat when I got home or if I would just collapse into bed.

None of it would make any difference to those birds in the ISO room. They would be there fighting if I was there or not. At night, when we had locked up and I was sitting in the subway car headed home, I couldn’t believe that the people around me were completely oblivious to the existence of the ISO room. I wanted to explain it to them, to show them the faces of the birds, as if by knowing they could take away some of the suffering. 

But I didn’t say anything; I just sat quietly on the train, not able to focus on anything that I had brought to read, just replaying the moments I had had with the birds in the ISO room over and over again. 

I slept badly, a heavy sleep of the overtired, my brain working all night flashing abstract images of feathers and beaks. My eyelids creaked open on the alarm, more tired than when I had gone to sleep, my irritability rising each time the elevator stopped on another floor on the way to work, each time the subway ingested more people off of the platforms and into my back, each minute a meeting went over time and each additional person I had to speak to. 

And I would try to remember the white calm of the ISO room, and how none of it really mattered, but each day would bring more budget requests and denied POs and emails stressing the importance of yearly performance reviews so that the blankness got pushed further and further away until a week had eventually passed. I was due to volunteer again. 

When Gillian smiled and thanked me again for offering to do the ISO room, I realized that she didn’t believe me when I told her I liked doing it, that she thought of me as selflessly doing what others were avoiding. She didn’t realize that I was doing this for myself as much as for the birds, that the work was meaningful and important to me, and it was my selfishness that made her gratitude embarrassing.

I prepped the syringes and stepped into the ISO room, but when I began looking in at the cages I saw that they were mostly empty. I leaned back out the door and called out to Gillian. 

“Where are all the birds from last week?”

“The vet came in this morning,” she replied, and I understood what she hadn’t said, that the vet had reevaluated the worst cases and that euthanasia had been the most humane option.

In the top cage I recognized the bird that had been in the donut last week, lying still. I opened the cage and touched him, but he was cold.

“Gillian, I think this one died.”

She peeked in through the door and shook her head. “No, he was euthanized. There’s just no room left in the freezer.”

His head rested against the soft towel edge of the donut as if in a dream, eyes closed, wings relaxed and drooping over either side. I touched his head for a moment in goodbye then closed the cage door. 

Then I put on a fresh pair of gloves and moved on.