Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Patient in 711

By Elizabeth Wesley
(pseud. Adeline McElfresh), ©1972
Cover illustration by Enric Torres Prat

Pretty Laurie Ames was used to handling dangerous medical crises as a highly skilled nurse—but suddenly a different kind of peril haunted her young life. Behind the heavily guarded doors of hospital room 711 a great scientist lay injured. Foreign agents wanted him out of the way for good, and Laurie knew they might try to reach him through her. Desperately she wondered whom she could trust. Handsome Colonel Hank Romain, whose actions had become so secretive? Dashing playboy Carl Jennings, with his witty repartee and tempting proposal? Or Andy Rogers, the mysterious young patient who had lied about his past? Nurse Laurie Ames was caught in a treacherous web of violence and intrigue—and her only hope for safety lay in a daring gamble of love.


“That Phil Lansing is good with a capital G, in addition to looking like a Greek god. If I’m ever hauled into County General, I can tell you I want him working on me!”

“If it were a movie, one of us would fall in love with whoever all the fuss is about and save his life.”

Laurie Ames is a 24-year-old RN working at a local hospital and dating Col. Hank Romain, who works at an Air Force compound where a top-secret NASA program investigating space travel to Jupiter is underway. She’s been invited out to interview for the industrial nursing position, but she’s dubious; “She doubted that she could be happy passing out aspirin to scientists and assorted other geniuses whose heads ached from the problems and assorted frustrations of projected space exploration and interplanetary travel.” She’s touring the facility with newspaperman Jack Howard, who’s writing an article about the less-secret aspects of the program. But while the pair is there, an accident occurs and two men are injured. Sean Riordan “just about was The Jupiter Project. If anything truly serious had happened to him, it could have meant failure, or at least months’ or years’ delay.” Now he’s been bashed on the head by who-knows-who and is in a coma, as it happens on Laurie’s floor at the hospital.

On her shift the next day, she finds both accident victims. The genius Riordan is ensconced in the eponymous Room 711, but he’s being attended to by private nurses and doctors and, with several guards outside his door, no one ever gets a glimpse of him. There’s also a car accident victim, Andrew Rogers, who wrecked his car a few miles outside the base. He had an appointment with Col. Romain but never made it, poor thing. Between all these new patients and a shortage of nurses, that means Laurie is on duty an awful lot, so she’s running herself ragged. “Why couldn’t I have become a clerk-typist or a lady lion tamer or an exotic dancer?” Laurie mourns, listing about all the careers open to women in 1972 except teacher and stewardess. But it’s a good thing she’s around, because she notices strange doings, like phone calls from strangers who are trying to find Sean Riordan, shadowy figures on the lawn looking toward his room’s windows, and a sudden preponderance of new staff members. “It was strange that, all of a sudden, County General could find nurses, orderlies, and medical technologists, when for years they had been extremely scarce.” She goes straight to Hank with these concerns, and he rewards her by becoming cold and blowing off dates with her. “Something had changed between them. Almost from the day of Sean Riordan’s injury, Hank had been different.”

She’s also wondering about Andy Rogers, who has no family or friends that anyone can track down. She also wonders why he hasn’t called anyone, now that he’s awake and lucid. “No one should be so utterly alone,” she worries. “She liked him. She maybe could more than like him. The realization, and her thundering pulses, surprised her.” This despite his secret past: “For all anyone knows about him, he might have been born at age 28 in the ambulance that brought him here and he’s willing to leave it that way,” muses Dr. Lansing to Laurie. He remembers an old med-school chum who hails from the same small town that Andy is supposed to come from, and a story that doc told him about an Air Force man named Rogers who married a local gal and then went MIA in Vietnam. “ ‘What are you saying, Dr. Lansing? That Andy is—is an amnesiac?’ She couldn’t bring herself to say ‘married.’ Oh, God, don’t let him be!” But Dr. Lansing thinks he’s worse than married, that he’s a spy who stole the real Andy Rogers’ driver’s license and is “taking all of us for a ride in a troika.” Yikes!

The shenanigans continue apace: New orderlies are caught whispering in the linen closet, a faked “emergency” in the elevator meant to draw staff away from Room 711 fools our stalwart heroine not a second, Laurie tails a strange man sneaking up the stairs and is attacked by him before she fights him off and escapes. Then, five pages from the end, the final scene kicks off unceremoniously when Laurie notices that the door to Andy’s room, usually open ajar, is now closed. She walks in to find two armed men holding Andy hostage—and Andy is soon revealed to be none other than the real Sean Riordan!!! Laurie once again saves the day by managing to press the call button, and the door explodes open and Hank and five security agents subdue the bad guys. It’s an unusual method of answering a call light, but in this instance it certainly comes in handy. Then all that’s left is for Andy/Sean to kiss Laurie, even if it is against hospital regulations, and the book comes to what is actually a sweet ending.

This is a satisfying and pleasant book, even if it isn’t doesn’t have much in the way of camp or sparkling writing. We spend a lot of time with Laurie as she cares for various patients, and we participate in her life in a way that feels genuine. Her growing affection for Andy is a bit out of the blue, as she spends little time with him over the course of the book, and all the various plots and mysterious happenings play out a bit like an author’s to-do list, but these minor flaws don’t detract much from the enjoyable trip that is The Patient in 711.

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