The Heart Attack in My Brain

This blog post was written by a University of Vermont College of Medicine student who wished to remain anonymous.

“You work here?!”

I nodded, a hint of a smile revealing my bemusement at his incredulity.

“Well… probably not after this.”

The other patients in the psych waiting area of the ER nodded in agreement. In my newly issued brown scrubs, stripped of my belongings, I was no longer a research coordinator at a top hospital, but rather one of them. And sadly, they believed being one of them meant you couldn’t be much else. I didn’t add that I was going to be a doctor, but in hindsight I wish I had.

I wish I had because it’s wrong that they’d been conditioned to feel that way.

I wish I had because, well, it probably would’ve been funny to see their reactions.

And I wish I had because I hate with every fiber of my being that I’m afraid to submit this under my actual name.

The ER doctor who examined me when I arrived told me, “You know, some people come in because they have a heart attack. This is just like that, except in your brain.” It was so simple, yet so unbelievably comforting. I’d faced stigma from past doctors who would read my medication list, reach the psych meds, and immediately change demeanor, growing increasingly skeptical at my every word. The ER doctor’s statement made it clear from the start that I would be treated like any other patient, that my opinions would matter, and that I would receive optimal care.

A few hours after getting a bed, my roommate arrived – she had been dozing off and on in the waiting area, but by this point she was alert enough to continuously unwrap sugary snacks to combat her dope sickness. At first It irritated me to no end, but by our second day she was hoarding two of everything in case I wanted one. She made my first hospitalization far less frightening and lonely than it could have been by constantly cracking jokes, collecting as much “contraband” as she could for our room, and vehemently complaining that the floor was worse than jail. I sort of doubted that since we had a piano, therapy dogs, and pretty decent food, but she was quick to point out that she’d been to jail and I hadn’t. Fair enough. I gave her my number when I was discharged but never heard from her. I wonder often if she’s okay.

The lead doctor on my care team asked me if there was anything in particular stressing me out recently. The impending start of medical school was certainly a factor, and I talked about how I had thought I’d get “this” under control before starting. His reaction startled me – he just started laughing. “No, no, no,” he said. “You’ll never get this under control. It’s not going away. But you’ll deal with it.” He proceeded to tell me how he knew doctors with serious depression, bipolar disorder, and even psychosis. Oddly, hearing that there would be no neat end to my suffering was a relief. His words marked one of the first major steps toward acceptance of my diagnosis.

I could write far more than a blog post about the other details of my stay, but in the end what matters is that I now know a psych hospitalization isn’t some scary, mysterious thing. It’s just an intervention that’s sometimes needed, and one I won’t hesitate to use again if necessary.

Fast forward to today and I feel like I’m in a different life. Strolling down tree-lined streets to an idyllic campus where I get to spend my days learning at a high level is a far cry from sitting in a hospital bed with a broken brain. But I still keep my bracelet from that stay hanging in my room. In some ways, it serves as a warning of what could happen if I don’t stay committed to my care. But it also serves as a reminder – a reminder of my own perseverance, a reminder that no one is infallible, and that we all need help at times. Most importantly, it is a reminder to never underestimate myself or anyone else on the basis of a diagnosis.

2 thoughts on “The Heart Attack in My Brain”

  1. Beautifully written and being shared among psychiatrists like myself via social media. Thank you for helping to fight stigma. I plan to share this with patients I have who are in similar situations. I think it will give them a lot of hope. And yes, like your attending, I, too, have had the honor and privilege of working with many colleagues who “deal” with serious mental illness. You are not alone.

  2. Excellent writing and perspective. I wish I could read a book-length description of the author’s life trajectory and insights. This could profoundly enhance the morale of many people dealing with severe mental dysfunction and the way we treat them.

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