A light dusting of snow covers the playground adjacent to the emergency room. In the six months I've worked here, I've never seen children playing—just an old man smoking a Marlboro on the blue swingset. Maybe the cancer kids are too weak to run around and play.
I begin my day on the second floor in Neurology. Since I work in research, I test subjects who've experienced some kind of brain injury: stroke, head trauma, encephalitis. Today I'll be seeing Elizabeth J., a forty-two-year old woman with severe amnesia. She was normal for the first three decades of her life, until she developed herpes simplex encephalitis, a rare type of brain infection. Her file says she has a working memory of approximately three minutes.
When I greet her geriatric parents in the waiting room, they want to take a picture of Elizabeth and me, so maybe she'll remember me when they come back next year. Elizabeth smiles, the Polaroid camera clicks, and Mrs. J. shakes the photograph. If Liz has to go to the bathroom, Mrs. J. says, go with her and stand outside the door because she won't remember where she is.
I lead Elizabeth to a testing room, my office really, a plain room with two desks, two chairs, and two fluorescent lights. Thick neuroscience books line the overhead shelves. There's a shaded window with a view of more windows and a small courtyard below. I begin with some preliminary questions.
"What year is it, Elizabeth?"
"1991? I have to warn you, my memory is very bad." Elizabeth fidgets with the buttons on her pale green cardigan. Her champagne blond hair is bobbed. I wonder if her mother takes her to the salon and specifies the haircut.
"Where are we?"
"Can you be more specific about city and state?"
"Illinois somewhere? This hospital looks nice, so maybe Chicago." Her parents live in central Illinois, and they drive here for her annual research visits. To Elizabeth, it doesn't matter—she could be in any hospital. It happens to be the largest teaching hospital in the world, with excellent patient care and groundbreaking research. But there's nothing we can do for her.
"Who's the president?" I say.
"George Bush, I think," Elizabeth says. She studies my white coat. "Doctor, your hair is very pretty."
"Thank you," I blush, "but I'm not a doctor. Please, call me Kodi."
"Okay," she says. Her memory problems point to a damaged hippocampus, a small part of the brain shaped like a seahorse. Scientists believe the hippocampus helps us learn new information and make permanent records of it. There's no clinical treatment for Elizabeth's condition.
"How have you been feeling?" I ask.
"I'm well. Sometimes I get anxious because I can't remember anything. I won't even remember this conversation. Ask me questions faster."
"What have you been up to? Any hobbies?"
"Oh, I don't know. Next question." Elizabeth glances out the window. The snow falls in heavy flakes, drifting to the ground.
"Can you think of anything you like to do in your free time?"
"Oh, yes," she straightens in her chair, "I like to play the piano. I play in recitals sometimes." She hums a tune I'm not familiar with and plays an imaginary piano. Her fingers are agile.
I realize I've forgotten a data sheet in another testing room. Since I can't continue without it, I have to leave. Three minutes, I remind myself.
"I'll be right back, Elizabeth," I say. "One minute."
"Be quick," she says.
When I return with the paperwork, she doesn't recognize me. I'd taken too long—the file cabinet had been locked and I had to track down the key. I've failed her. I wonder where she is now, in any hospital, any doctor's office. The place you go to get better.
"Hello, Doctor," she says. "I'm Elizabeth."
"Hi. I'm Kodi."
"Nice to meet you. I have to warn you, my memory is very bad." She begins to hum the same melody, the song I couldn't place, but that I now recognize.
We finish testing about two hours later. For Elizabeth, that's one hundred twenty minutes, forty new beginnings, or maybe forty lifetimes. We return to the waiting room and I tell Elizabeth's parents about the grand piano in the lobby. They're thrilled.
I stand near the railing on the second floor to watch. Elizabeth sits down to the piano and plays the song with gusto, never faltering. She remembers every note.
About Iowa Writes
Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.
In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.
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Kodi Scheer, an Iowa native, received her B.A. in Literature, Science, and the Arts from the University of Iowa. She is currently a Colby fellow in the M.F.A. program at the University of Michigan. "Three Minutes" is based on her experiences as a research assistant in neurology at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.
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