I watched the woman in the chamber.
She reclined on the leather chair, leaned back but not quite horizontal, her eyes squeezed shut. The pupils beneath her lids moved, agitated. Beneath her heavy radiation gown, only her feet stuck out, covered by fuzzy pink socks. Her hands had been cold, and I’d hoped the protective blanket would be enough to keep her warm inside the unit.
Now, the chair whirred as it leaned all the way back, bringing the woman parallel to the linoleum floor.
I stood behind thick glass in a closet-sized room. The case notes fanned out onto the simple card table in front of me. Lisa Arnold: her name was carved in black slashes by a nurse from the psychiatric ward. “Postpartum depression,” her transporter had said to me as he wheeled her into the room. I hadn’t asked for the information, and it was all right there in the fat folder he handed me, but I listened anyway. “That’s why she isn’t talking. Got it real bad.” As he stepped away, he looked back at her, his brow furrowing with pity.
I needed to make sure everything would work properly for the patient’s first time in our therapy program. Through the glass, I reviewed the setup one more time. I’d connected the leads to her forehead, and they’d resonate wirelessly with the touchpoints inside the tunnel. The hormone dispenser would activate as soon as she was settled inside. The vagus nerve stimulation patch was already active, positioned below her pelvis.
Lisa was getting the full treatment today. Normally I hoped that my patients would come out of the chamber refreshed, but Lisa needed more than a spa day. She’d gone into a deep, lingering silence, and her family was worried about her. Confronted by the lack of any other solutions, they’d turned to us, and the hospital had agreed to send the patient. They were normally quite suspicious of us - MindTech wasn’t a traditional medical establishment, and there were enough rumors floating around Northeast Ohio about our unconventional practices. We saw this as an opportunity to get some respect.
And, of course, Lisa’s care remained my priority.
Beside the card table, a computer console filled the far end of the room. The screen lit with a START button. I touched it.
Lisa’s chair moved on mechanical tracks, pushing forward into the DREAM machine. My fists opened and relaxed, as they always did, and my breathing slowed.
My computer screen lit with portraits of her brain as the imaging unit spun. It was too early to speculate; the machine needed to go through its entire cycle before I could make any judgments.
Inside, she relaxed. I felt it. My own chest opened in response. I couldn’t see her from my vantage point, but there was a camera inside the tunnel. I navigated to the footage screen, and Lisa’s face appeared. Her cheeks were slack, her breathing even. And I felt a surge of pride to be part of her solution.
When the DREAM rolled to a stop, I ducked into my office and snagged a plaid blanket off the back of my chair. Then I forged forward, into the chamber, and traded it for the radiation drape. “Are you okay?” I huffed as I hefted the drape into its cabinet.
I didn’t expect her to reply. But she was sitting up, reaching for the blanket at her feet. She tucked it around her legs, her pink toes peeking out.
I started to say something, then bit my lip. Resisted the urge to fill the space with my words.
When I met her eye, Lisa was smiling.
“This is amazing,” my boss, Helen, raved. “Do you know how great this is?”
We sat in the conference room at the end of the hall. Lisa was in the recovery room, sleeping while she waited for the transport to return her to the hospital.
“Sure,” I said, reining in my own elation. Emotion made Helen nervous, and I wasn’t about to mess with her good mood. “The patient is doing much better. I call that a win.”
“It’s more than a win. It’s proof that the machine is capable of doing great things. Brain-changing things.” Helen leaned across the table, clutching Lisa’s casework between her thin fingers. “This woman was in the trenches. The lowest point possible for humankind.”
I’d been at some lower points, but I chose not to argue.
“I’m assuming you’re taking the hospital partnership as seriously as I expect you to?”
I reached for my coffee, my security blanket. “Of course,” I said lightly. “I’m treating this case with all the care it requires. Like I do with every case.”
Helen’s mouth quirked. “Of course. Now, let’s talk about follow-up. What therapies have they already tried?”
I didn’t have to consult the notes. “EMDR, SSRIs. Only Zoloft is safe for breastfeeding, so they don’t have many options.”
“You know how I feel about that. It’s all useless. Need to get to the source. The brain contains the problems.” She laid the folder down on the table, stabbed it with her index finger. “So we fix the brain.”
I took a long swallow of French roast. “She hasn’t spoken since she came into the ward, but they’re still bringing her to group therapy. She listens.”
Helen nodded, waved her hand. Move along.
“The husband brings the baby to her in the ward, but she doesn’t want anything to do with it,” I finished.
“So, forget breastfeeding then. They could prescribe her anything. But you know how I feel about that too. Drugs are the coward’s way out.” Helen stood, drawing herself to her full height. She filled all five feet and three inches of her tiny frame, her chest puffing out with indignance. Our therapies are more advanced than conventional antidepressants. I could almost hear the script before she said anything.
I tapped my clipboard. “I went with a combination of deep brain stim and a serotonin-dopa mist. I’m hoping it’ll strengthen her connection to the baby.”
My boss was already at the conference room door. “She’s got to see pictures of the baby while you’re spraying the dopa or it won’t work.”
Another pull of coffee and I’d need to go to the break room for a refill. I stood up and crossed toward Helen, poking at the printouts from the live map of Lisa’s brain. “Look at the activity in her frontal cortex. Pictures or no pictures, this woman is waking up.”
“We’ll see when you write the case report. This will make or break the hospital partnership. I’m counting on you to do the right thing.” Helen didn’t look back. She was through the door and gone.
I retreated to my office and sat in the dark. My head pounded, and I rubbed my temples.
I could go home. I’d been here long enough. The night shift could help Lisa get settled back in the ambulance, and I could call the hospital the next day.
But there was nothing to go home to. Just my lonely house, with its cold floors and empty refrigerator. I might as well stay here and get more work done.
Or I could make things better for myself.
I left the case notes and slipped back out into the hallway. With the late hour, the lights were dimmed. Our basement lab was almost unholy. I’d gotten here at the top of the morning, as the sun was rising, and now it had been set for several hours.
No one was in the DREAM room - only a few therapists had access to it. Me, Helen, Diane. The new intern, Kaylee, was blustering about getting her own key, and I couldn’t help but laugh at her twentysomething overconfidence. I’d been here more than three years before Helen trusted me to run the machine.
Goosebumps rose on my arms as I turned the knob on the anteroom door. I approached the computer console, fired it up, and typed in the code I needed. This had been hard to figure out. As far as my colleagues knew, the machine required a human being to operate it while another human being was in the chamber. But in time, after learning all the commands, I’d developed a script that would activate a sequence on a delay.
I rushed back into the chamber and heaved the radiation gown back off its hook. Then I settled myself on the leather chair, sinking into its warm support, closing my eyes. I felt that familiar rush as my hips settled into the vagus nerve patch and my body relaxed.
The chair ratcheted forward into the machine. I knew my brain was showing up on the screen behind me, but no one could see it, and no one would want to. Not even me. I didn’t care about the information I could glean from this exercise. I only cared about the deep release as I inhaled the hormones.
I could rationalize it all away if I told Helen I was using myself as a test subject. But that wasn’t the truth.
When I closed my eyes, the world fell away. All the pain I pushed back daily – it melted here, as the DREAM darkened. I no longer saw the interior of the machine, its metal rising above me. I saw a new sky, broad and twinkling overhead. I smelled vanilla and lavender, and my thoughts disappeared. I wasn’t Miranda. I almost wasn’t human, bound to my anger and shame.
In the tunnel, I saw stars. I felt like I was rising, moving among them, far away from the world, the life I should have loved but hated.