Rooms with a viewpoint: The metaphorical power of hospitals and medical complexes in illness narratives By Priscilla Mainardi, RN

PRISCILLA MAINARDI, a registered nurse, attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Rutgers University. She joined the editorial board of the Intima in 2015.  

PRISCILLA MAINARDI, a registered nurse, attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Rutgers University. She joined the editorial board of the Intima in 2015.

 

Rooms can confine us or give us a special place to inhabit.  Hallways and corridors can lead us where we want to go or lead us astray.  Two works in the Fall 2016 Intima, one fiction and one nonfiction, use these physical spaces to represent the emotional struggles that come with severe or mysterious illness.  Jodi Paik’s story “The Room” presents the perspective of a dying child and the last room he inhabits.  The nonfiction narrative “Medical Maze” by Josephine Ensign explores both the vast University of Washington medical complex in Seattle and the complicated and arduous process of diagnosing a rare disorder.

In the latter essay, Ensign searches for a diagnosis for frightening and mystifying neurological symptoms in the “medical maze” of the UW medical complex.  The term “maze” refers not only to the medical complex, but also to the labyrinthine path to diagnosis.  She recounts a day when she tries to find her way through this maze:  “I suddenly found myself locked inside a 10’x10’ barren cement courtyard that was surrounded on all sides by six stories of brick walls.  I stood there for several minutes, gazing up at the walls, contemplating possible escape scenarios, contemplating the possible deeper meaning of this space.”  Confinement within the “medical maze” takes on a nightmarish quality when, after a woman opens a door and she escapes the courtyard, she writes, “I have never been able to find that courtyard again—it doesn’t exist on any map.” 

Ensign quotes surgeon Richard Selzer, who writes that a hospital is alive: “The walls palpitate to the rhythm of its heart, while in and out the window fly daydreams and nightmares.” 

This description also fits the boy in Paik’s story, who sees his hospital room as “full of things that looked like things you knew but were different.  It was supposed to make him comfortable but instead it felt strange.”  This nightmarish view of the boy’s hospital room is the flip side of his daydream-like vision when he looks down at the staff and visitors moving below his window:  “When he felt better he liked to squint out one eye and hold the people between his thumb and forefinger.  He sometimes cackled and called them his ant army and that always made his mom laugh.”

The difference between the two points of view in these pieces is striking: Ensign is still moving through the maze, while the boy in Paik’s story has already arrived in his room, the final space he inhabits and where he dies, leaving his family to find some comfort in remembering his “ant army,” which becomes “a family talisman.”  Paik uses the metaphor of the room to present the boy’s consciousness of his fatal illness, and to relate the illness narrative from the perspective of a young boy who would not otherwise have a voice. In both pieces, however, the physical space is a fitting metaphor for the confines of the body, made more confining by illness. 


PRISCILLA MAINARDI, a registered nurse, attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned her MFA degree in creative writing from Rutgers University.  Her work appears in numerous journals, most recently The Examined Life Journal and Prick of the Spindle. Her short story, "Pretending Not to Know," appeared in the Spring 2014 Intima. Mainardi, who teaches English Composition at Rutgers in Newark, New Jersey, joined the editorial board of Intima in 2015.