Three very strong main characters live what appears to be completely separate lives. Over the course of this story, their lives become intertwined in dramatic and tragic ways. What’s the connection? In short, it has something to do with organ donation.
The Fifth Vial has a rather large amount of characters in it. I suspect Game of Thrones has way more characters than this book did. If you could keep track of all of them, you will have no difficulty with The Fifth Vial. For me, the book was easier to comprehend once I’d managed to figure out which characters were the most important.
Natalie Reyes is a medical student who is trying to finish her education. She used to be an athlete with a certain amount of fame. She was a runner who was asked to try out for the Olympics. An injury forced her to give up that dream.
When the book starts, she is struggling with a cantankerous surgical senior resident who doesn’t seem to give a damn about the patients who come in. Natalie makes the mistake of questioning a decision made by her superior (in a very public way) and she ends up getting kicked out of the program. Obviously, that changes her life. It takes a while before the reader (and Natalie) figures out the full impact those few moments had on what happens next in her life.
Ben Callahan is private eye who is working in Chicago. He’s not very good at his job. Ben has the skills that are required to get the information that his clients ask him to uncover. The problem is that he sometimes has moral issues with the work. There is an example early in the book where he tells a client he didn’t find anything she asked him to. In reality, he uncovered something that would cause great harm to the client’s husband if Ben allowed her to reveal it.
As such, he is broke and struggling to pay the bills. He laments that his life is not matching up to the detective novels that he read (and loved). At a low moment, he gets a phone call. A woman from an organization called Organ Guard wants to hire Ben to check out something very suspicious that a coroner found on a body. Having nothing left to lose, Ben takes the job. What he finds turns out to be the tip of the iceberg in a much larger, truly evil, plot.
Dr. Joe Anson is a scientist who is working in Africa. He has developed something called Sarah-9 (named after his daughter). It appears to be very effective at helping people to recover from diseases and conditions that once were a death sentence. The serum, for lack of a better term, is kept in vials that are closely monitored. Soon, he will need to hand over his work to the Whitestone Foundation, a company that funded his work.
The problem is that Dr. Anson has been suffering from primary pulmonary fibrosis for the past seven years. He is getting worse and needs a lung transplant. No one is certain if he will finish his work before a good match can be found. Will he be able to complete his work before he dies?
While all of this is going on, there are labs, all across the world, that are quietly collecting vital information. The labs are sent the “fifth vial” from blood tests (without the patient’s permission or knowledge). From this, they can find out the blood type and tissue type of millions of people.
The Fifth Vial forces readers to think about organ donation. To be clear, the book is a work of fiction that is not based on specific real life events. Instead, it gives an extremely unsettling look into how a system of illegal organ trade could function. Little hints reveal a group that is making decisions about the value of a person’s life based upon the occupation and amount of wealth that person has. It is incredibly disturbing to consider.
At the end of the book, author Michael Palmer discusses the importance of making sure you are signed up to be an organ donor. He answers some common questions people have about how that works.
Did you know that some organs can come from live donors? Did you know you do not have to have health insurance coverage in order to donate? Organ Donor is a website run by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Start there to learn how you can help save lives through organ donation.