Well here we are again, another one of my readers has taken the time to send in a story to share with you all.
Catherine is from New York, but now lives and studies in Los Angeles and is currently working her way through nursing school. She has decided to share a very personal story where she talks about a difficult period of time for her, where she had to call on the services of her local EMS and hospital.
The experience she had from both sides couldn’t have been more different, but this time EMS comes out on top.
She specifically stated I could use her name and location, because she wants the firefighter Paramedics who looked after her to get some recognition and to know the depth of her gratitude for the ‘little things’ that made all the difference to her.
I’m writing to you because I hope the story will serve as an example to people in every area of medicine of how much a difference an attentive caregiver truly makes, and how devastating it can be for a patient when they are given the bare minimum of care required by law. I’m talking purely about effort here, things like learning someone’s name, introducing yourself, not talking about the patient like she isn’t in the room, not dismissing a patient because her complaints are “common for someone of her age,” and so forth. Those little things do add up, and leave a huge impression on the patients you treat.
I moved from New York to Los Angeles when I was seventeen, to attend a top university. The culture shock was paralyzing, and to add insult to injury, I was raped shortly after arriving at school. I had no support system – I hadn’t made friends yet, and I have no family. Every teenage girl is moody, but my mood swings were getting extreme, to the point where I was afraid of myself. When I was happy, I had so much energy I couldn’t sleep and a professor accused me of taking uppers because there was “no other conceivable excuse” for my behavior. Unpredictably, I would snap, and go from a fantastic mood to locking myself in my room to cry quietly for days on end, unable to get out of bed. I developed a serious eating disorder, to the point where I could not keep food down even when I tried.
After a year of this I was dragged to the psychiatrist with the threat that if I didn’t, I would lose my scholarship. The school’s mental health system is stretched so thin that I was given a 20-minute appointment with a doctor who handed me a prescription for two months worth of high-dose Prozac and told me to come back in six weeks.
After four, two weeks before my psych visit, I had lost it. I would go three days without sleeping, and sleep for the whole fourth day. I stopped going to class, because when I was feeling anxious even the thought of school terrified me, and when I was numb I couldn’t be bothered to go. The only thing I did do was go drinking, because it would calm me down, and help me sleep. My doctor never warned me about mixing alcohol with my medication. I was drinking in the middle of the day, every day, and everything after about 2pm was a mystery to me. I called the psychiatrist who had prescribed me the Prozac in tears, begging him to take me off the meds, or at least something to help me sleep, and he told me it was just a start-up side effect, and he couldn’t change the medication without a visit, and he couldn’t see me until our next visit. The next three times I called, the calls went to voicemail and were never returned.
I could not understand what was happening to me. Not in the, “Boo hoo, my life sucks” sense, but the “Holy shit, the last thing I remember is three weeks ago. What’s going on?” sense. I was truly terrified and in no state to be making mature decisions about how to improve my life – I just wanted everything to stop. I had heard that taking Tylenol wouldn’t kill you, just ruin your liver, but I had no other guidelines for committing suicide. I tried my best – I looked up lethal doses for every mediciation I could legally get my hands on (no sense adding insult to injury by getting arrested while trying to score prescriptions or hard drugs and then having to tell the cops why, right?) and decided on swallowing 200 aspirin and a box of sleeping pills.
I woke up some time after downing the pills, shaking uncontrollably, with an intense ringing in my ears and vision so blurred I couldn’t read the time on my phone. Through a series of events I did not understand at the time, I ended up in the back of an ambulance. A blurry blue figure was talking to me, and no matter how hard I tried to concentrate, I had to ask him to repeat everything three times: the first time I couldn’t hear him over the ringing in my ears, and the second time I couldn’t comprehend even the basic questions like “What’s your name?”
I don’t remember much about the ambulance ride to the hospital, just that the firefighter attending adjusted my pillow without being asked, noticed I was cold and pulled up an extra blanket, and apologized when he tried to start an IV just as the driver hit a bump and blood went squirting everywhere. I remember crying the entire time because that was the nicest anyone had been towards me in ages. By the time we arrived in the ER I was so out of it I had no idea where I was, but I do remember the firefighter leaning down to tell me that he had to go, but he wanted me to know I was going to be okay.
I remember the nurses not looking me in the eye, just walking into the room, poking and stabbing me, and walking out. I remember the police officers (I had been placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold and had an armed guard at my side the entire time I was in the ER) telling me that since I had a scholarship to such a good university, my life couldn’t be that bad. I remember a doctor coming and telling me that I was stupid – his exact word – because instead of killing myself I was going to have to go on dialysis. I remember the nurses laughing at me when I vomited charcoal through my nose. I remember one nurse in particular purposefully saying things to me under her breath, when they all knew I couldn’t hear a damn thing unless they yelled. I remember having to beg and plead and wait for a psych consult just so they would take off the restraints to let me go to the bathroom.
When I got out, the first thing I did was go to the local fire station and find out the names of the paramedics who transported me. I know what people in medicine usually think of psych cases like me: we’re whiny and immature, overly dramatic, we’re wasting their time because when they could be at a car crash or a cardiac arrest, they have to deal with someone who willingly hurt themselves – and, in most cases, we don’t even do it right. I was dreading the meeting, because I was so embarassed of what I had done, but I had to go. Everyone who took care of me that day, and the whole week that I was in ICU following it, had done their job. Medically, I had the best possible care and the best possible outcome. Only the paramedics had shown me even a shred of human compassion.
I showed up unannounced at the fire station on the day I was told my paramedics would be working, but when I got there I recognized no one and none of them recognized me. Before I could say a word, one of them said, “Hey there, you just missed lunch! Why don’t you come in?” That’s a serious level of hospitality.
The firefighters at that station have become my support system, my family, and my mentors; without them I might well be in the same situation I was in before I met them. If it weren’t for the basic humanity they showed me when I was at my worst and most undeserving, I never would have had the chance to get to know them.
My thanks go out to Catherine for sharing her story. Im sure that with the experiences she has had, both good and bad, she will make a fantastic empathetic nurse!
If you too would like to share a story, just send me an email at email@example.com.