The sociological concept of the “sick role” may absolve patients of responsibility for causing their illness. But it does not protect them from the stigma often associated with illness. Nor does it protect them from their own feelings and thoughts. My poem, Ode on a Styrofoam Cup, imagines the moment when a patient is given an uncertain diagnosis. In that moment, the patient may suddenly see the world as an indifferent, chaotic, threatening and unreal place since an uncertain diagnosis raises the traumatic possibility that the world will go on even though he or she may no longer be in it.
My poem can be read in tandem with Veronica Tomasic’s brilliantly documented and achingly evocative “In the Far Canada of a Hospital Room: The Loneliness of Dying” (Intima, Fall 2014). Tomasic’s focus is on the sense of abandonment experienced by many seriously ill hospital patients:
“Facing death transforms a dying patient’s experience so that he or she will forever occupy a separate psychological reality from those who are not dying. This separate reality may be bridged somewhat by the presence in the hospital room of family and friends. Many hospitals have revised their visiting hours, allowing nearly unrestricted time for family members to sit by the bedside of dying loved ones. But even if your friends or family have spent the day with you, it must be very difficult when they leave, if you are remotely conscious or in some fashion aware of them. You may imagine that when they turn the corner down the hall their pace may pick up, they may start to think ahead to their afternoon or evening activities, and to the routine of daily life that they can take for granted and you cannot. Visitors have time at their disposal, which to them is easily expendable, but to you consists of precious moments you will not have for much longer. Being ill, when all around you are in health, brings with it a psychological exile from the “sun’s kingdom,” as Thom Gunn beautifully phrases it in his poem Lament.” (2)
Tomasic’s analysis of the contributions that filmmakers, poets, novelists, psychiatrists and philosophers have made to our understanding of the anguish that patients experience in hospital should be required reading for students in both the sciences and the humanities. Her essay leaves us wondering how modern medical care, inescapably technical and bureaucratic, can comfort the ego-centered human mind distraught by thoughts of death.
Christopher Adamson is a sociologist and a fiction writer. His essay, “Existential and clinical uncertainty in the medical encounter: an idiographic account of an illness trajectory defined by inflammatory bowel disease and avascular necrosis,” was published in the Sociology of Health and Illness (Volume 19, March 1997). He is also the author of a novella, The Road to Jewel Beach (Exile Editions, 2004). His short stories appear in Ontario Review, Exile Literary Quarterly and Hart House Review.
© 2017 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine