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23 February 2022

BBC Radio 4’s “Room 5” tells intimate stories of life-changing medical diagnoses

This podcast sounds like it should be depressing – but its honesty brings light to some of the darkest moments we can face.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Helena Merriman knows how to tell a compelling story. Her previous podcast series, Tunnel 29, about German rebels who dug a tunnel under the Berlin Wall, had me utterly captivated. Room 5 is mesmerising in an altogether different way: the stories are smaller, more personal, but still life-changing.

Each episode, Merriman interviews someone whose world was upended by a medical diagnosis. There’s a young woman tormented by hallucinations so severe her doctors think she must have psychosis; a father who discovers there’s something drastically wrong with his penis while at Peppa Pig World with his children; a medical student who can feel other people’s pain when he looks at them. Gently but thoroughly, Merriman turns their experiences into 30-minute narrative dramas, spoken word juxtaposed with an immersive soundscape that transports the listener through waiting rooms and hospital corridors, past tests and treatment, and out the other side.

[See also: The messy sex lives of monkeys]

It sounds like it should be depressing – and certainly some situations had me in tears. But the honesty and the intimacy bring light to some of the darkest moments any of us can face. Rarely do we talk about what happens in those anonymous doctor’s rooms; rarely do we contemplate that our bodies will not work flawlessly forever and we will one day have to seek “answers that don’t exist in medical textbooks”.

The twist, which Merriman reveals in her introduction to the series, is that she understands all too well what her interviewees are going through. It was the reaction to her own shock diagnosis that inspired her to seek out those with similar experiences. The final episode is all about her: narrator becomes subject. “All of us one day will sit in a room and be given a diagnosis,” Merriman says, and by this point I’m so invested in her journey I feel I’m there in the room with her. “Perhaps it hasn’t happened yet, but if – when – it does, I hope these stories will help shepherd you through whatever comes.”

Room 5
BBC Sounds

[See also: A new instalment of This American Life uncovers racism in the US police force]

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This article appears in the 23 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Darkness Falls