Short Stories About Diseases, Disabilities and Sickness: Pandemics, Epidemics and Plagues

The stories on this page will have characters with diseases, ones who are sick, or people with other health problems or disabilities.

Sometimes the effect of the condition on others is explored.

Some of the stories are about a widespread illness.

See also:

“The Long Road” by Heidi Heilig

A family rides camels through a desert in China. They’re headed for Persia. The daughter has bad fate and her secret is out. It brings shame on her and her family. She wears many amulets to help her. There’s a treatment in Persia. Her parents sold everything to make this journey.

This is the first selection in the anthology Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled TeensIt can be read in the Amazon preview above.

“The Dwarf” by Ray Bradbury

A dwarf has a nightly ritual of going into the mirror maze. He thinks what he does in there is a secret, but Ralph, the ticket attendant, has observed him. He tells Aimee about it. Ralph wants to show her.

This story can be read in the preview of The October Country.

Chickamauga | Ambrose Bierce

A six-year-old boy, who is a deaf-mute, wanders off one afternoon. He gets scared by a rabbit and then runs off and hides, falling asleep. He wakes up to an unusual sight.

This story can be read in the preview of The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs.

“A Medicine for Melancholy” by Ray Bradbury

Mr. Wilkes dismisses Dr. Gimp, fed up with his inability to cure his daughter. Camillia hurts all over and wants to be allowed to die in peace. Her younger brother, Jamie, has an idea that would harness the collective medical knowledge of the community.

This story can be read in the preview of A Medicine for Melancholy and Other Stories.

My Man Bovanne | Toni Cade Bambara

Bovanne, an older, blind man is a guest at a fund-raising event for an African-American political group. Hazel, a relative of one of the group’s members, dances with Bovanne, causing a stir at the event.

This is the first story in the preview of Gorilla, My Love.

“Call Me Joe” by Poul Anderson

Edward struggles through an ammonia storm and makes it to his small dugout. He wanted to do some work, but now he’ll have to wait until morning. Far away, the real Edward, a man in a wheelchair, takes off his helmet. He’s in the control room, not braving the surface of Jupiter. That’s being done by Joe, an artificial life-form, with whom Edward has a psionic connection. They’ve been experiencing some failures in the link lately. An expert, Cornelius, is assigned to the station to fix it.

This longer story can be read in the preview of Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the 20th Century.

“Morning Child” by Gardner Dozois

Williams brings John to the house they used to live in. It’s been destroyed in the war. John is happy there and like to play. He’s always full of energy early in the day. They hike back to camp. They aren’t the only people left, but they never see anyone.

This story can be read in the preview of Morning Child and Other Stories(41% into preview)

“Nimram” by John Gardner

Benjamin Nimram is sitting in the first-class section on a plane. He’s a renowned symphony conductor, with a good life and aware of his good fortune. A sixteen-year-old girl on crutches is seated next to him. She bears a remarkable similarity to his wife, Arline. She’s nervous about the flight. Nimram can see she looks unwell.

This story can be read in the preview of The Art of Living: & Other Stories(13% into preview)

The Eyes Have It (or The Eyes Are Not Here) | Ruskin Bond

A blind man is riding the train. A young woman joins him in his carriage. He tries to navigate the social interaction without revealing his blindness.

This story can be read in the preview of Collected Short Stories(32% into preview)

The Sacrificial Egg | Chinua Achebe

Julius Obi sits idle at his typewriter while his boss sleeps. They haven’t had a customer in a week. When he looks out the window at the Nkwo market, he sees it’s empty. An outbreak of smallpox has sent the people into hiding.

Read “The Sacrificial Egg” (The Atlantic)

Amazing Grace | Bradford Morrow

The narrator was blinded by an accident at work. After a period of despair, he decides to learn braille and improve his family’s life. He eventually writes an article for a newsletter about his experience, which leads to work for a newspaper and speaking engagements. He talks about the morning his sight was restored.

“Amazing Grace” is in The Uninnocent: Stories.

The Masque of the Red Death | Edgar Allan Poe

Prince Prospero and his nobles are gathered in an abbey to avoid a deadly plague that is decimating the general population. The prince holds a masquerade party to entertain his guests and pass the time.

Read here

The Sky is Gray | Ernest Gaines

James is an eight-year-old black boy in the 1930’s South. He has a bad toothache but didn’t tell his mother about it, not wanting to be a crybaby and knowing they can’t afford to have it pulled. After he tries  aspirin and a prayer cure with his aunt’s help, without success, his mother discovers the problem.

The Way We Live Now | Susan Sontag

An unnamed man is showing symptoms of a disease, which turns out to be AIDS. His friends visit him in the hospital. They try to cheer him up, and they talk about his progress and behavior among themselves.

Read “The Way We Live Now”

The District Doctor | Ivan Turgenev

A doctor makes an urgent house call where a beautiful young woman is in a bad condition. He tries to reassure her family even though a recovery is unlikely.

Read “The District Doctor”

Saboteur | Ha Jin

Mr. Chiu and his new wife are having lunch at a train station when a police officer throws some tea on the ground, getting some on their feet. A disagreement ensues and Mr. Chiu is arrested. He’s held in prison without his medication even though he tells his captors that his hepatitis could flare up again.

The Use of Force | William Carlos Williams

A doctor makes a house call to examine a young girl. He finds that she has hidden the severity of her illness and she resists the examination, leading to a battle of wills.

Read here

To Everything There is a Season | Alistair MacLeod

The narrator recounts a time when he was eleven, living on a farm, with Christmas approaching. His father hasn’t been well for over two years. The family is eagerly awaiting the return of the eldest brother, Neil, who works on a boat.

Silence | Leonid Andreyev

Father Ignatius and his wife try to find out what is wrong with Vera, their daughter, who stays in bed. She has recently returned from St. Petersburg, a trip her father didn’t approve of. Her condition has a powerful effect on everyone.

Read here

Souvenir | Jayne Anne Phillips

Every year, Kate sends her mother a Valentine’s Day card, timed to arrive exactly on February 14th. This year she has forgotten. She calls her mother that evening instead. The next day she finds out that her mother is in the hospital.

Cathedral | Raymond Carver

A woman and a blind man have kept in contact for ten years, mailing tapes to each other. His wife has recently died, so he’s going to visit her family. On the way, he’s going to spend a night at the woman’s place with her new husband. Her husband isn’t looking forward to the visit.

Read here

A Day’s Wait | Ernest Hemingway

A young boy has a temperature of a hundred and two. The doctor leaves three different pills and a schedule for taking them. His father attends to him while he stays in bed.

Read “A Day’s Wait”

A Man Who Had No Eyes | Mackinlay Kantor

A blind beggar comes down the street as Mr. Parsons comes out of his hotel. He feels pity for blind creatures and reflects on his own success. The man speaks to Parsons, and takes out an item that he’d like to sell.

“A Man Who Had No Eyes”

A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease | Jonathan Safran Foer

The narrator explains the meaning of many different unusual punctuation marks that are used in communication, mostly with family.

Read “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease”

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried | Amy Hempel

The narrator visits her friend, who is dying of cancer, in a California hospital. The friend wants to talk about trivial things. They seem to have lost some of their closeness.

Read “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”

One Reader Writes | Ernest Hemingway

A woman writes to an advice columnist about her husband. He returned from his military service with some kind of malady and she isn’t sure what to do.

Read “One Reader Writes”

Five-Twenty | Patrick White

The Natwicks like to sit on their veranda to watch the traffic. They are getting on in years. The husband, Royal, is in a wheelchair with a hernia, heart trouble, and severe arthritis. The wife, Ella, is still able to get around. They get used to seeing a man in a pink and brown Holden at five-twenty. We’re told about their earlier life, how they got together and the dynamic of their relationship.

Read “Five-Twenty”

You’ll Never Live to Regret It | Jeffrey Archer

David decides to leave everything to Pat. He plays it cool with the insurance agent so it won’t look suspicious. The insurance company requires a medical check from their own doctor.

Read “You’ll Never Live to Regret It”

Ghost Boy | Elinor Nash

Jake is a young teenager who is focused on the sounds in his home. He views his mother, father, and sister in an unusual way. He suffered a bike accident which has affected him a great deal.

Read “Ghost Boy”

Tenth of December | George Saunders

A young boy, Robin, gets his pellet gun and goes on a rescue mission. He suspects the Nethers, a species he’s had previous run-ins with, of kidnapping a classmate of his, Suzanne. Robin comes across a coat, still warm inside, on a bench. He sees a thin, older man in the distance, walking off in the cold. Robin knows something is wrong. He changes his mission.

Read “Tenth of December”

And Sarah Laughed | Joanne Greenberg

Sarah has been preparing the farmhouse for her son Abel and his new bride, whom the family hasn’t met yet. Sarah’s husband Matthew is deaf, as are all of their children. They didn’t learn sign language and their home has always been silent.

Read “And Sarah Laughed” (Pg 23 of document)

The Dark | Karen Joy Fowler

In 1954 a family disappears from Yosemite National Park. In 1960 and 1962 there are two other incidents in the area. Keith Harmon, a plague specialist, is called in to investigate after the third incident. He hears a story of a young boy in the wild.

Read “The Dark”

Speech Sounds | Octavia E. Butler

Rye is on a bus heading for Pasadena. She might have a brother there who’s still alive. Two passengers, young men, start getting hostile. When one inadvertently falls into the other, a fight breaks out. This leads to further hostilities. The driver stops the bus. There is lots of grunting and other sounds and many gestures, but no one talks.

Read “Speech Sounds”

I Want to Live! | Thom Jones

Mrs. Wilson finds out she has uterine and breast cancer. It’s also an irregular kind of cancer that will complicate the treatment. Her doctor is good but lacks bedside manner. She thinks about her options and copes with her ordeal.

Read “I Want to Live!”

The Not-Dead and the Saved | Kate Clanchy

A mother and son are in the pediatrics unit. He views people who are kept alive by technology as “Not-Deads”, because they’re alive but not in a full sense. He’s waiting for a transplant.

Read “The Not-Dead and the Saved”

Yeyuka | Greg Egan

The narrator spends his last day in Sydney at Bondi Beach. Many of the other patrons are getting solar tattoos—melanoma has been virtually eliminated. He wears a HealthGuard, a ring that constantly monitors his blood, then produces and dispenses whatever medication is needed. They’re expensive, though. He’s a doctor, headed for Africa as a volunteer to assist with the Yeyuka epidemic.

Read “Yeyuka”

The Unexpected | Kate Chopin

Randall must leave Dorothea, his beloved. He has necessary business to attend to and will be gone a month. The separation is a cruelty to both of them, and they can hardly bear the parting. They write to each other daily. As the month nears its end, Randall contracts an illness.

Read “The Unexpected”

Seven Floors | Dino Buzzati

Giovanni Corte arrives at a sanatorium on a spring day. He only has a mild case of a particular ailment, but this is the best place for treatment. It’s a pleasant place, seven stories high and like a hotel. He is shown to a room on the top floor. When he talks to a nurse, he finds out that the floors divide residents by the severity of their illness—mild cases on the seventh floor down to hopeless cases on the first floor.

Read “Seven Floors”

The Enduring Chill | Flannery O’Connor

Asbury, twenty-five-years old, returns home. He’s sick. His mother is surprised by how bad he looks. He’s in a bad temper and doesn’t want to talk. His older sister is the principal of an elementary school. His mother wants him to see Doctor Block, but Asbury knows he can’t be helped. He and his sister don’t get along.

Read “The Enduring Chill” (PDF Pg 364)

The Plague | Ken Liu

A girl, Marne, and her mother are fishing. A man in a protective suit falls into the water. He struggles to breathe. Marne wants to help, but her mother says everything is poisonous to him. He’s from the Dome. She goes over and untangles his tubes.

Read “The Plague”

“Father is Firm with His Ailments” by Clarence Day

The narrator’s father got annoyed with his family when they were unwell. He didn’t believe in the power of germs or diseases. When his wife was sick, he thought there wasn’t really anything wrong with her.

Read “Father is Firm with His Ailments”

“Fever” by John Edgar Wideman

There is a yellow fever epidemic in late 18th century Philadelphia. Allen, an African-American, chooses to stay in the city to help Dr. Rush find a cure and treat the victims. Popular opinion among the white population is that the disease was brought to the city by black slaves.

Read “Fever”

“After a Judgment Day” by Edmond Hamilton

Martinsen is looking at a monitor on a moon station. A tiny red star indicates that Charlie Sixteen is coming back. Cyborgs, nicknamed Charlies, are sent out in probes to gather data on other planets. Martinsen alerts Ellam, but there’s no response. He finds Ellam in a daze from taking tranquillizers. It’s his way of coping with the news from Earth—a devastating plague has broken out and survivors will be few, if any.