Imagine waking up in a hospital with no memory of how you got there. You feel fine, but you are informed that an epidemic is devouring the outside world and that you are very sick and must be interned indefinitely.
During your stay, you begin to notice some strange things. For instance, you are told repeatedly that there is no other hospital that can treat your condition, even though you know of other highly qualified hospitals in the area.
You also notice that some of the staff seem ill-suited for their positions. They frequently prescribe expensive medications and procedures which leave you feeling much more sick than you were before. Still, you reassure yourself that doctors know best and you need to follow their instructions and pay for their treatment in order to recover from your illness.
One day, another patient begins arguing with the staff. He claims the doctors are guilty of malpractice. As the conversation grows more heated, the staff tries to convince him that his illness is clouding his judgment.
Once other patients begin gathering, the staff declares the man’s condition is so severe and so contagious he must be forcibly removed from the grounds. “This is strange,” you think. “If this is the only hospital that can treat his illness, why would they make him leave?”
Like its own germ, the fear of catching the man’s sickness spreads through the facility. The patients know if they are infected, they will be removed, and without the hospital’s exclusive treatment, will surely die from the plague outside. Some patients suspect those around them are infected and promptly inform the doctors, who, almost without exception, respond by immediately expelling the accused.
This of course only heightens the already palpable tension. As questions, expulsions, and protests increase, you become more and more concerned that your symptoms are worsening. Overwhelmed by the fear of being released, you start looking for ways to improve your health before the doctor’s next visit.
One day, you visit the hospital library. As you look for recommendations for self-recovery, you are startled to find that the medical books’ suggestions completely contradict what the doctors have been telling you.
Confused, you take your concerns to a nurse you have come to trust. Their reaction shocks you. Rather than sympathy, the nurse reacts with terror. They are convinced you are infected with the dreaded plague. They forbid you from reading any more medical books for fear that the mental strain will only worsen your condition.
You panic. You wish you had never gone to the library. You begin to feel more sick than ever. From then on, you commit to following the doctor’s orders exactly.
But no matter how faithfully you take your medications, your condition worsens. You wonder if the books were right after all. The anxious curiosity gnaws at you incessantly. In a moment of desperation, you return to the library.
After a short perusal, you notice a book hidden under a stack of papers in a far corner. Brushing the dust off the cover, you realize it contains the hospital’s history. You hesitantly open it and begin to read.
What you read knocks you to your knees in a sense of piercing dread. The hospital in which you have been interned was founded by a notable fraud. Guilty of plagiarism, forgery, and malpractice, the man had been completely discredited by the medical community.
This information is almost too much for you to process. You want to stop reading, but you can’t. You have to know.
As you read of legal disputes and unethical conduct, one thing grows increasingly clear — you are not in a hospital at all. The sudden awareness of your situation seems to rip through the very tissues of your heart.
The doctors who are treating you are not real doctors. They don’t have degrees. They don’t have licenses. The nurses attending you, though sincere, have no real medical training. The expensive medications you have been taking are not only ineffective, but also dangerous.
Anxiety washes over you. You fall to the floor, quaking with emotion. Hot tears flow down your cheeks as your lungs’ desperate search for air is interrupted by involuntary sobs.
Incessant questions attack your mind like a swarm of wasps. How can I stay here? What will happen if I leave? Will my sickness get worse? Will I die like the others who were released? Where else can I find treatment? Am I really sick at all? If I am not sick, why do I feel so terrible? What if the doctors are right and my illness has distorted my perception of reality? What if the book lied? But the hospital staff wrote the book. Why would they tell lies about themselves? Who can help me sort this out? Who can I trust to tell me the truth?
Somehow, you manage to drag yourself back to your room. The person in the next bed looks at you suspiciously but says nothing.
For days, your mind is in constant torment. Every time you take the medication, you wonder if it is slowly killing you. You think about the man you saw removed from the building. What happened to him? Every time you see a doctor, you want to ask for their credentials.
But you stay silent.
Finally, you decide to conduct an experiment. You don’t take the medications. With grim satisfaction, you observe your condition actually improving.
Eventually, the person in the next bed notices that you have not taken the medications. They confront you. When you try explaining, they react like the nurse after your first visit to the library.
An argument ensues and the nurses are called in. They believe your situation is critical. You are told you must take the medications or risk spreading your disease and being removed from the premises.
Your insistence that you are improving is ignored, so you bring up the information from the history book. The nurses have never heard such things. They accuse you of telling lies. They say your problem is the offense you’ve taken from your neighbor. Though they can’t provide credentials, they assure you the doctors are qualified physicians. “Real doctors work in hospitals. And this is a hospital so they are real doctors!”
As with the first protest you witnessed, a small crowd begins to gather. The nurses’ threats become more dire. The observers are ordered back to their beds, but the crowd is too curious to disperse.
Fearing that they are losing control, the nurses call security, but it’s too late. You’re already heading toward the front door. “You are choosing to die!” the nurses shout after you. But their words seem to bounce off the back of your head.
You reach the exit. You hesitate for a moment. All the questions come flooding back, but deep inside, you know you know the answers. You open the door and are engulfed in sunlight.
As you walk down the street, you see people who look happy. There seems to be no sign of the plague you had feared.
Then, to your great surprise, you see the man who was first expelled from the hospital. He looks more vibrant and healthy than you ever remembered him. Your eyes meet and he smiles.
And for the first time in a long time, you notice you don’t feel sick at all.