Early this year, when life in the isolation chamber got really bad, Robert Daniels realized that he could no longer call up a mental picture of his own face.
He hadn’t seen it for months. He didn’t have a mirror in his hospital room, and because the guards were afraid that the slightest wisp of his breath could infect the adjacent hallway, and the other floors of the hospital, and the city beyond that, and maybe even the whole country beyond that, he was never allowed to leave. The door to his room stayed locked. He couldn’t take a shower. His entire world, night and dayalthough at this point it was getting hard to tell the difference between night and dayconsisted of the contents of Room 15 on Ward 41 of the Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, a room whose décor could only be described as spartan.
White brick walls. A linoleum floor. A hospital bed with an array of buttons and gears on it. A side table where the nurses laid out his heap of pills. And a shiny metallic bathroom that made him think of a giant ashtray.
Daniels, a 27-year-old man who was diagnosed last year with a rare strain of tuberculosis, and who was known in legal documents as “the afflicted,” was living in a void. Although he was an American citizen, he’d spent most of his life in Russia, where he was born, and his wife and son were still there. But he hadn’t heard their voices in months. There was no working phone in the void. No television, no radio, no computer, no newspapers, no view of the surrounding Arizona landscape, no fresh air.
He could lie in bed. He could pace around the room dragging his IV apparatus behind him. He could wait for the nurse to come and give him his meds. He could clean off his skin with wet wipes, and when he was lucky, he could get down on his knees and hold his head above the shiny toilet, and the nurse would bring in some warm water so that he could pour it over his scalp to wash his hair. Then the nurse would leave, and a little bit of air from beyond the void would come whooshing into his room. The room was equipped with reverse-airflow vents and filters that prevented even a particle of his contaminated breath from floating outside the membrane of his chamber. A surveillance camera watched him; a light in the room never went out. He could protest the conditions only to the masked medical attendants who puttered into the void to dose him with toxic antibiotics. After they left, the meds that went storming through his guts gave him a diarrhea so wet and fast that if he didn’t keep his ass perched right on the edge of the shiny metallic ashtray, he’d soil his hospital gown. Sometimes he would sit on the bed for hours, “crying,” he says, “like a pussy.”