Saharra, whose father is a Baptist minister, saw the program as a sign from God. She called Fred and Larry and then spent the night surfing the Web, reading everything she could find on phage therapy. She contacted Betty Kutter, a phage biologist at Seattle's Evergreen University who maintains close ties with Tbilisi. Kutter warned Saharra that the process of treatment was lengthy and that it did not work for everyone. When Saharra insisted, she put her in touch with the microbiologists who had prepared Gertler's phages. They were from Tbilisi's G. Eliava Institute of Bacteriophages, Microbiology and Virology, established in the 1930s by the French-Canadian discoverer of bacteriophages, Felix d'Herelle and his close friend, the Georgian bacteriologist Georgi Eliava. The treatment, Saharra was told, could take as long as 30 days and would cost $2,000.
At first, Larry Bledsoe resisted the idea. "You know your sister, she'll try anything," he told Fred. But, prodded by Saharra, he did some of his own research. He learned that bacteriophages exist naturally in the soil, in tap water, in lakes and rivers, even in people's intestinal tracts and nasal passages. After speaking with Kutter, Larry determined that the treatment, even if it didn't cure his brother, most likely would not hurt him. He gave his consent.
The last step was raising the money. The family, which lives in one of the poorest areas of Fort Wayne, pooled its resources to buy the plane tickets, and the Eliava Institute agreed to let them pay for the treatment in installments. Fred and Saharra packed their bags.
At 5 a.m. in early November, Saharra and Fred touched down at Tbilisi's international airport, unsure of what to expect. Georgia, which had been independent from the Soviet Union for more than a decade, was at that time one of the most impoverished and unstable of the former republics. Wracked by a conflict over two breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and Ossetia, it faced a refugee crisis and mounting crime.
Zemphira Alavidze, a woman in her sixties who had treated Gertler and who runs one of the oldest phage therapy labs at the Institute, met them with her husband and an English-speaking friend. Together they drove from the airport along unlit roads, headlights occasionally illuminating a dead dog or a street vendor sleeping beside his fruit stand. When Saharra spotted a curious looking billboard with the face of a middle-aged man staring out beneath Georgian lettering, Alavidze explained that it was a missing person's announcement. Not long before the Bledsoes arrived, a British banker had been kidnapped from downtown Tbilisi in broad daylight. Fred turned to Saharra: "What have you gotten me into?"
The next day, Alavidze drove the Bledsoes to Republic Hospital, a large cinderblock structure with knocked-out windows and stray cats meowing in a small weedy yard outside. Inside, Alavidze showed them to an elevator that would take them upstairs. It was operated by an old man who made his living off the meager fee he charged per ride, the equivalent of about 2 cents per passenger. Because the call buttons were broken, the shaft reverberated with the sound of people banging on the doors and yelling out their floor numbers.
Fred was admitted to the hospital, where Saharra was allowed to share his room. Soon, their doctor, Chief of Surgery Gouram Gvasalia, arrived and explained that his hospital would attempt to heal Fred's whole body—not just the infection in his foot. His circulation was poor and his blood sugar was high, so they would put him on a diet and try to wean him off the massive doses of insulin he had been taking. Meanwhile, Zemphira would take a bacterial sample from his foot and test it against the phages in her lab to see which ones would work.
Under an electron microscope, bacteriophages look like insects from outer space. Most have a rounded, polyhedral head, an elongated body, a tail, and spindly, spider-like legs. They are just one-fortieth the size of a bacterium and eviscerate their prey in a meticulously choreographed operation: they start by clinging to the wall of a bacterial cell and, like a syringe, injecting their DNA inside. There, the DNA particles operate with stealthy efficiency, shutting down the cell's reproductive machinery and reprogramming it to make phages instead of bacteria. In the span of about 30 minutes, the phage produces hundreds of offspring inside its unwilling host, creating a brood of new "daughter phages" that burst from the cell, destroying it and scurrying off in search of more prey.