Amy Gajaria is a third year resident in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto
Last week was the first snowfall of the season in Toronto. Usually, the first sight of fluffy white flakes collecting on city streets would have me dreaming of strapping on my cross-country skis. This, year, however, the first snow left me huddled inside, frightened of slipping on ice.
Towards the end of September I badly damaged my ankle when attending a charity event. In a few moments I went from an active 30-something to someone unable to stand independently. After the paramedics got me to the nearest hospital, the first thing that popped out of my mouth was not “pain medication STAT” (that was the second thing), but instead “I’m a doctor. I hate being a patient.”
I later told myself that this was because I wanted to speed up communication and avoid unnecessary explanations. After all, wouldn’t it be faster for the large team gathering around me to be able to communicate in our shared medical shorthand? Wasn’t I just trying to save everyone the bother of translating medical jargon to regular English? Reflecting on it later, I think that I really wanted the doctors and nurses to know that I was one of them. I wasn’t just another patient.
The next few weeks were incredibly challenging. Like many young professionals, I’m used to being constantly busy. The prospect of sitting on my couch for weeks felt impossible. Intellectually I know that lack of activity and pain can lead to depression, but it wasn’t until I found myself lying on my couch that I actually started to understand. Before my accident, if I noticed that I was feeling sad or anxious, I’d head outside to do something active. Failing that, I’d call up eight friends and talk to them, sometimes all at once. Suddenly, I’d lost all my coping mechanisms. Despite having a wonderful network of friends and family there were times when I would be stuck in my apartment feeling desperately alone.
At the time of my injury I was doing my geriatric psychiatry rotation. I’d been working with older adults who developed mood disorders, usually after losses or major changes in their physical health. Prior to my accident I would do my best to empathize with my patients, but, as a generally healthy young person, it was easy for me to discount the way pain can impact mental health and to not understand the impact of a sudden loss of health.
I began using WheelTrans to commute between home and work. I often shared a taxi with seniors trying to travel between home and medical appointments. Though I had heard many times from patients about their struggles with WheelTrans, it wasn’t until I tried to schedule trips with them that I started to understand how anxiety-provoking it can be to rely on an inflexible transit system. I also realized how challenging it was to complete daily tasks; I began to leave my apartment only for essentials and stopped doing things that were for pleasure. My disability is temporary, and I’m in a financial situation that allows me occasionally to take cabs, but my brief experience has given me a window into how difficult it must be for most seniors to be able to do the things I ask of them to improve their mental health.
As I started to let go of my need to be seen as a “doctor” rather than as a member of the WheelTrans-using-community, I became privy to a whole different set of conversations. Co-riders would frankly share their frustrations with their physicians. We would share together our frustrations and struggles and, in being a co-sufferer, I was able to hear stories of illness in a different way than I had ever heard as someone’s doctor.
I am starting now to be more mobile. At the start of this journey, it felt impossible that anything positive would ever come out of my experience. However I am grateful for the experience to live an illness experience in concert with others rather than situating myself as apart. My experience is terribly limited given my financial privilege and the temporary nature of my disability, but I hope that this experience leads me to try and be more of a partner to my patients in the future. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to be a patient after all.