Patient H69 by Vanessa Potter is a sensory experience, which might surprise some. Losing the our most dominant sense, sight, gave Potter a whole new world to explore. With a form of synesthesia coming into play, readers are granted a whole new way to look at things. Potter noted down all these differences and experiences in her blog called Patient H69, which would eventually become this memoir.
One day in 2012, Potter — a very successful producer — wakes up and suddenly can’t see. Everything is dark. She’s taken to the hospital and, while waiting, she begins to feel her fingertips and toes go numb, and that feeling crawls up her limbs. This is the beginning of Potter’s extended stay at the hospital.
Potter is the type of patient that doctors hate and readers love to cheer on. Her inner producer demands everything be just so. She’s stubborn, frustrated, and determined to make a full recovery. She takes suggestions and runs with them to a thousand percent. She wears bright nail polish, a different color on each finger to see if she can convince her eyes to see them. She has everyone around her wear vibrant colors and bold patterns that she can see. She asks friends, family, and nurses to describe themselves and the room so she can create a mental picture. Even though she can’t physically see, she refuses to give up the idea of images. After days of not being able to see, she is able to make out shapes — not much, but it proves that she isn’t completely blind. But when she takes too long with a test, a doctor gets snippy and says Potter can’t see anything.
“‘No!’ I growl from the depths of my wheelchair, turning in her direction. ‘I can see something.’ I start point around the room. ‘There is a chair over there by the door, and there is a dark shape there on the wall that I think is a coat hook; and you are wearing a skirt.’ I breath furiously as the silence reverberates around me, but I haven’t finished yet. The fight is me is rearing up. ‘Five days ago I couldn’t see anything; but today there is something there. So don’t tell me I can’t see anything, okay.’” (77)
Potter is unflinching in her emotions and how the whole experience changed her. She cries, she screams, she gets angry. She’s awkward around people who make comments like she’s the mystery patient, one in a million, God has a plan for her. She is embarrassed by her lack of vision, ashamed she can’t get better faster, and self-conscious when she goes outside for the first time — she pictures everyone staring at her dark eyes that see nothing. She is vulnerable, and this is when readers feel closest to her. We can celebrate little joys with her.
“Squeezing my eyes shut I open them in the direction I think my arms must be. Incredibly, two silvery shapes appear. Is that an outline of my fingers? I wiggle them and see movement. There’s nothing else, no wrinkles, lines or anything identify them as even human, but that doesn’t matter. I know they are my arms. I exist and a sense of my own humanity hits me like a gush of fresh air.” (62)
While disjointed, the second half of the memoir is interesting. It goes more into the science of what happened to Potter and the brain itself. It can take a while to reorient yourself to see Potter as she once was: always moving, thinking, and creating impeccable things. After spending so mucht time following her while she’s down and out, it is confusing, yet exciting, to see her as a phoenix rising from the ashes of her illness. This is a totally different Potter, therefore a totally different voice. You can still see glimpse of that same determination, same persistence, but some of the closeness is gone. Instead of being in that hospital bed with her, we are a friend that she’s dragging behind her as she bounces from scientist to scientist. Potter does a good job breaking down complex ideas about the brain into bite-sized chunks that any reader can understand.
The memoir ends with Potter adjusting to her new life; her sight isn’t completely back, nor is it completely gone, either. She has 20/20 vision, but there are some colors missing and some haziness to her sight. She talks about . how she is one of many with an invisible disability, and how it’s hard to navigate this in society. She has to maneuver well-meaning but ignorant comments, deal with a bustling city life that moves too fast for her, and learn to find ways to feel fulfilled in this new life. While recovering, she mentions focusing on the series of tiny triumphs and this carries through all the way to the end. A lot changes for Potter, but her determination and persistence sure don’t.
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