Magnetic resonance: a case story in the making - Yasmin Gunaratnam

A digital case story

Magnetic Resonance is a story that I have been developing through workshops and in consultation with those working in palliative care. It is part of my British Academy Fellowship project on social pain and transnational dying in the UK that is based upon approaches developed in narrative medicine.

Please read the story and write a short paragraph to finish it off (using the 'Comment' option at the end of the post). The ending that I have written for the story is 5 lines long and I will post it in the New Year.

Plot summary

Magnetic Resonance is about how illness, care technologies and dying can bring up complicated memories and emotions for migrants, perhaps experiences that they have not talked about before. This story takes place in a London teaching hospital and is told from the perspectives of a dying woman and the radiographer who carries out scans using Magnetic Resonance Imaging. MRI uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body. The story is based upon qualitative interviews with a woman who was a hospice day patient. Some of June's thoughts and quotes are verbatim extracts from two interviews and all the biographical events are taken from her life story. The encounter between June and Gita is fictional.


June Alexander: June is 63-years-old and was born in Jamaica. She settled in London in the 1950s and has multiple myeloma. June spent most of her working life as a hospital ‘domestic’ (a cleaner). She received her diagnosis, treatment and much of her subsequent care in the same hospital where she had worked. June is an active member of her Pentecostal church and finds spiritual meaning in her pain, believing that suffering brings her closer to god.

Gita Johnson: Gita is a radiographer who has worked in the hospital for ten years.

multiple myeloma.jpg

‘Mrs Alexander?’ The radiographer’s voice smiles through June’s concentrated reading.

June pushes the leaflets back into her bag and follows the young woman along a startlingly bright corridor, deeper into the hospital. June has seen her many times before. She had a baby two years ago and returned to work six months later with a short, no-nonsense bob.
The radiographer explains what will happen during the scan and takes June to see the scanner. The giant white capsule stands alone in the room. A small dark portal in its very centre is the only clue to its use.
"It’s like a sepulchre" June murmurs under her breath.
As Gita leads June to the small changing room, June wants to ask her about her baby. Did she have a boy or a girl? How is she finding motherhood? But she knows that she cannot ask. Gita is seeing her for the first time.  
Undressed and wearing a pale-blue cotton gown, June lies on the platform at the entrance to the scanner with Gita standing by her side. Her nervous laugh echoes throughout the room.

I am here. I am still here.  

I’ll be all right. Although I did make mention to the doctor, that I don’t like
feeling closed-in.

I know Mrs Alexander. I saw that in your notes. Let’s just start and see how we go,    OK?

All right Dear. Let’s see.

June closes her eyes and prays as the machine swallows her headfirst. She knows that she will have to learn to live in this new place of morbid sensuality, until the uncertainty, fear and unrelenting intrusion feel like home. She fights to control every instinct in her body that wants to expand, flail, scream, anything that will reclaim some movement and space.
Her ability to repress any outward signs of resistance and to push them deep into the very marrow of her bones is far from new. It is more of a habit that has become deeply ingrained, almost natural. It is how she has survived, although June has never been entirely sure of its worth. In these tight moments she wonders what happened to the hard balls of fear, anger and hurt that she has buried deep inside.

Dear, sweet Jesus, Lord, I am relying upon you alone for my deliverance.
Whatever is your will let it be done. I am in your hands Lord. I am prepared.

As June adjusts to the darkness inside the machine, shafts of purple and red noise hammer their way through the chamber. Her senses flounder. She becomes disoriented, disassembled. Entombed with no place to run, her thoughts begin to spin. Just underneath the surfaces of her skin, displaced fears are pulled into alignment.

Daughter. Niece. Cousin. Aunt. Wife. Mother. Believer. Migrant. Cleaner. Patient.

June races through a lifetime of disjointed events and comes to rest on a journey.
She had been a bright, hopeful twenty-seven when she had left Jamaica. "It were rough. Very rough" is all she has ever told her children when they had asked about this time in her life. She remembers the bus when people would get up and sit somewhere else if she sat next to them. Some would even alight and wait for the next bus. She remembers the long search for rooms, the doors that were closed in her face. And she remembers going to a church.

It had been her first Sunday in England. After the service, the minister had approached her with a warm smile and asked her questions about herself, her family and where she had come from. He had seemed genuinely interested in the newcomer. And when the last of his congregation had left, he had continued to smile.
June was unprepared when he said, “Please, don’t come back. It’s nothing personal, believe me, but if you keep coming I am sure that some in my congregation will go elsewhere and I will lose them.”  
“Beg pardon?” is all June could say, but she did not need a reply. With a bow of her head she found her legs and managed to walk away from the church with her head dizzy, but held high. It would be months before she went to church again.

All through those times, she had not fought back or shown her anger. She was to become agile in the silent erasing of hurt and of self. As the cold shock of attack turned to hotness in her cheeks, June learned to focus her attention on a distant horizon. Perseverance was everything. She had a family back home, people who had worked hard to raise the £24 for her boat ticket and who were looking to her with hope. She had to press along and wait for better days. There was no going back and so she had leaned on her father’s words, “When you are stuck in a hole, pray.”
Now, despite her efforts, June cannot concentrate or distract her mind with prayer. She has been taken on another unexpected journey. It is as if she is seeing herself for the first time and she feels a painful tenderness for the newborn hurt that has been pulled to the surface.

Far removed, in another room, behind a computer screen and a white coat, Gita’s thoughts move between the illuminated surfaces and textures inside June’s transparent body and the barest biographical details of June’s life, summarised purely for medical purposes in her case notes. These movements between image and fragmented story touch the radiographer, even when she has tried to stay focussed upon the technical details.

As Gita images different slices of June’s body, looking at it in cross-sections, lengthways and in horizontal cuts, she cannot stop herself from thinking that which ever way you look at it, six children will soon be without a mother.


What happens next? Over to you......

Here's my ending to the story - 1 January 2014

June takes her time in getting dressed. As she puts on her coat, Gita knocks on the door and enters the room. She is clutching something against her thigh that is stretching her long, slender fingers to their limit. She moves towards June, reverses her hand and holds up the image up for Jean to see.

“This is my little boy, Amrit. Beautiful isn’t he?”