Friday, December 26, 2008

My descent into hell

Glendale had a community hospital where the nearby wealthy landed should they not have a medical problem urgent or obscure enough to land them in one of the “fancier” university hospitals in the area. It was a small hospital, contained in one building, and having only four floors. While [my med school's hospital] has a MICU, a PICU, a NICU and a SICU, the last three letters standing for intensive care unit, the first letter standing for medicine, prenatal, neonatal, and surgical, the Glendale hospital had only an ICU which occupied only one part of one floor. The other specialties, medicine, neurology, surgery, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology were distributed throughout the four stories.
After arriving in Glendale, myself and the other two students from [] medical school met briefly with the Course Coordinator, a smiling woman named Joanne, who gave us the keys to our student housing, and ushered us into a conference room to meet the course director, a kindly gray haired internist named Dr. Foulton. Dr. Foulton had a halting way of speaking and often, while trying to recall a specific point, or think through a particular problem would close his eyes and hold his hand up as though shielding himself from sunlight. He had a gentle manner, and a gruff, albeit soft, voice. Dr. Foulton, unlike some attending physicians didn’t STRIDE through the hospital, he walked. He led with a quiet confidence that required no outward reminders of his rank or position. He did have the curious habit of introducing students as doctors and this was the first time I was to hear myself introduced as Dr. Forest. It was unnerving, and had a classmate or nurse introduced me as such, I would have qualified with “STUDENT doctor.”
The student housing at Glendale consisted of three houses- two of which were filled with [my med school] students, and one of which was for med students from [a nearby med school]. That house had only one resident, a medical student doing her family practice rotation. In my house, some students were lucky enough to have single rooms. I shared my room with another [my med school] student named Allisa Carter. Allisa was doing her Ob Gyn rotation and spent more time out of the room than in- an arrangement which suited me well. In fact, when I first moved into the room I didn’t see her for the first couple days and knew only that I was co-habiting with someone who had small feet, expensive shoes, and a penchant for tidiness.
I slowly slipped into a routine- I’d get up at 6 to be at the hospital at half past for pre-rounds where I’d stop by my patients for a brief assessment. Rounds were at 7 sharp, a relatively informal affair lead by Dr. Foulton. We generally stood in the hallway- anyone who had a new patient to present would give Dr. Foulton the run down, and then we, as a group, would visit certain patients. Usually we’d visit new patients, or those with interesting physical findings. One of my patients had aortic stenosis, for instance, and we went to her room where we lined up, one by one, to listen to a heart murmur that radiated from the right side of her upper chest to both sides of her neck. The aortic valve separates the heart from the rest of the circulation, and when the valve is stenotic, meaning it doesn’t open quite enough, the blood flow makes a distinctive noise as it tries to force itself past the too-small orifice. Instead of lub dub lub dub, I recall hearing Bwoosh, Bwoosh, Bwoosh. At the end, Dr. Foulton took the woman’s hand in one of his larger ones, and gently thanked her. When I returned later that day, the woman didn’t wish to see any more medical students.

It was at Glendale that I first noticed things were really wrong. Normally chipper and awake in the mornings, I found myself with eyes closing during rounds. Coffee did little to lift my early morning spirits and I found that this tiredness followed me through the day. While I normally have an excess of energy requiring me to volunteer for duties on other floors, merely for the opportunity to gallop up or down the stairs, at Glendale my feet simply didn’t want to walk, just as my face simply didn’t want to smile. A friendly greeting was as difficult as trying to mold frozen butter. I could muster a smile, but it was more of a grimace. My eyes did not squinch shut and the rest of my face remained frozen. Every morning, I awoke and went to the hospital, but with each step I could barely muster the energy to continue with another. And another. And another. I wanted to melt into the floor and disappear.
My roommate from school called me, but I didn’t return her call. It didn’t seem worth it. Picking up the phone. Talking. Dr. Foulton asked me questions on rounds and I was unable to respond, unable to think. Thoughts slipped from my grasp like melting ice cubes. My psychiatrist quizzed me about my medications. Did any of the medications look different? Had I switched from genetic to brand name or vice versa? Was I taking the medications? She increased my Wellbutrin and Ritalin doses and I emerged from underwater, if only enough to look around and reaffirm what I knew was true. I needed to die. My doctor had prescribed me Ambien, and each night I took enough pills to render me unconscious- I didn’t want to worry about getting to sleep, I didn’t want to remember getting to sleep. Sleep waited for me at the end of each day like the period at the end of a sentence. With 40 mg ambient, sleep was sure. It would happen. And I awaited the end of each day so that I could resume my unconscious state.
I had a favorite computer in a corner where I would sit with my head down, long hair loose around my face, crying as I pretended I was mesmerized wit the computer screen, the keyboard. “You’re the most devoted medical student I’ve ever seen,” said a resident, noting I was always in the hospital. “What else is there?" I wanted to ask. The evenings found me released from the hospital but I was unable to fill my time. I studied, nothing stuck. I watched television, still not comprehending. The medication change helped a little bit, but it was powerless against the immense tide of my depression.
I asked the dean if I could have some time off. That way, I figured, I’d be able to address whatever it was that was dragging me to the bottom of the ocean. And I’d be able to study for my ob-gyn shelf. I just needed a little time and then everything would be OK. I also needed a haircut, but it cost money, and more than that, it cost energy. Because getting to the hair dresser or first finding a hair dresser, then getting to one, would take energy. And for what? My hair hung like a dress that’d been in the back of the closet for 3 years too long.

“Are you safe?” asked Dean Stewart during one conversation. I’d sneaked to one of the hospital bathrooms for this conversation, and told her that yes; I was safe, explaining that there were a number of other students in my house. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t safe, that even as I spoke to her I was thinking that the bathroom, on the second floor, wasn’t nearly high enough. Were I to jump, I would likely survive. Each day I imagined slicing into my skin with a scalpel, watching a thin line of blood appear as the upper epidermal layer separated, and then seeing the yellow, lumpy fascia as the knife cut deeper. At this point, the edges of the cut would pull apart. My cuts often assumed the shape of a fish- narrow at each end with a wider belly at the center. They never healed as they should have. Instead of sewing the opposite sides together, I let them stay to heal as they would. The scar tissue would fill in and I’d be left with a dark rose reminder. My upper left thigh was filled with such reminders. A doctor once asked what the significance of this part of my body was- and there was none. I’m right handed and when I sit, my right hand is next to my right thigh. I cut on my left thigh once when I ran out of room. I cut on my stomach a few times for the satisfaction of slicing skin that had never been sliced, and I cut on my wrist on three angry occasions.
I wanted to cut but I had no privacy- I shared a bedroom with Allisa, an arrangement that left me unable to cut, unable to dose myself into a 24 our sleep, and unable to binge, hiding the contents in our shared closet. So, every day, I went to work imagining that a car would hit me as I crossed the road. I imagined slipping on the hospital floor and disappearing into a puddle that would evaporate.

One day, Dr. Foulton asked me to speak with him after rounds. I followed him into the conference room and he asked me how I was. I told him I’d had a rough time during Ob-Gyn, but that I’d be fine. “We do not rule through fear and intimidation here,” he said gently. I couldn’t answer; if I opened my mouth I’d start crying. I sat silently, finger in my emotional dyke. He told me that he did have his doubts, that I seemed like a bright young lady. He suggested I seek counseling. He said there was a minimum standard, and that I was not meeting it. I finally offered that I have a mood disorder and said that I was trying to get time off.
“This is the real world,” he said, explaining that if I was having difficulties coping, that taking time off would solve nothing- I would have a brief reprieve and return to the same problems. I wanted him to understand that I wasn’t normally like this, that taking time off would enable me to solve what was wrong so that I could return as an improved individual. He seemed to believe that I needed to handle things and not run away from whatever problems I was experiencing. “I’m not running away! I’m sick! I have an illness! I’ll take time off, recover, and then return,” I wanted to say. But I was silent, finger back in the dyke.