From Patient to Provider
After months of being assessed, I needed to become the assessor.
Returning to work in the office had its obvious struggles. It took months of adjusting for my brain to get back to being capable of juggling multiple tasks at once. I still felt like my brain was reloading from the forced restart it had gone through in December. It was frustrating to go slower than I wanted to, but I kept reminding myself that it was necessary. Gradually, the motor started to run smoother with more cylinders firing each time I turned the key in the ignition. The neurons fired a little faster each time until I was approaching my previous work load.
I often remember that day in rehab trying to read a phone number back to my mom. How my brain froze, panicked and short-circuited. I recognized the numbers, but my brain was struggling to translate them into words. I was terrified in that moment that I would be permanently disabled and unable to return to work. My job is consumed by numbers. Lab values, calculating doses and writing prescriptions. Numbers are all essential for these things. But as the concrete functions returned with time, I thought that returning to work would be easy and just a matter of building my stamina. But I suddenly felt very different sitting on the other side of the desk.
I was hyper aware of stories from patients regarding near death situations. I was suddenly realizing more people had spent time in the ICU, intubated and dying than I had known before. Was there a sudden increase in the prevalence of people ending up in the ICU? NO. It's like when you buy a car, and suddenly see that car everywhere. It's called the Baader-Meinhof phenomena. My brain was now primed to pick up on certain cues instantly that related to what I had experienced. I was likely hearing these stories before I got sick. The difference now was that each story of close encounters with death knocked the air from my lungs. I had to refrain myself from replying "I get it, I almost died recently too" after each of these stories. Because now it was also my dirty little secret that I put most of my energy into hiding from patients.
I had been out of the office for 5 months. I heard from my coworkers that patients constantly asked where I was and that I was missed. And while returning was a good thing, it also meant being bombarded with constant questions.
"Where were you?"
"Were you sick?"
"Why did you leave?"
When I returned to work, my scar was still very prominent and my hair extremely short. I didn't want patients knowing what happened. I didn't want them to pity me. Or worse, question my ability to care for them, seeing me as weak and damaged (which was how I viewed myself). I viewed the scar as a source of doubt and vulnerability. Having been a patient, it was always more comforting when you felt confident and secure that the person caring for you could perform the task they were setting out to accomplish. I assumed that if patients heard the real story of why I left suddenly, they would lose faith in me. "She has brain damage, so how can I expect her to be able to care for me?" This is what I convinced myself into believing that all my patients would think. So I hide my insecurities behind a wig. I found one that resembled my hair previously, close enough that it would like like a style change more than anything. It was my armor that eventually became my crutch. As my hair grew, I still had a lot of difficulty not wearing it to work. I had no problems letting the short hair be on full display anywhere else. Removing that wig at work was a jump I never felt confident in taking.
Until one day, I came rushing into the office from PT in gym clothes before the office opened. I had brought all my clothes and wig prepared to change at work before patients got there. Until a few of my coworkers saw me and exclaimed "Myra, your hair is so long! It's cute, don't put the wig on!." A lump formed in my throat as I wasn't intending this day to be the one where I'd totally expose my vulnerable side. But I stood there and thought about it for a moment. "If not now, then when? Just do it, rip the bandaid off Myra." So I took a running start and jumped off that ledge I was nervously teetering on for months. I fielded questions for about a month regarding the sudden hair change. I played it off like a spur of the moment hair cut (which is not entirely false, I just didn't get to give my vote in the matter like your standard hair cut).
It was difficult to switch roles from provider to a patient. It was, and still is difficult to switch those roles again. And while there are negatives, there are positives. I find it easier to relate to patients, even if we don't have similar stories. I understand what it can feel like to be on both sides of the desk. I understand a person's worries and uncertainty towards the future and how an illness will impact it. I can remember all the incredible ways my team made me feel in low times. But I also remember the things done that made me feel misunderstood and ignored during this journey. I try to use those times as lessons on what not to do. If this is what I needed to go through to make me a better Nurse Practitioner, then I will ensure I do my best to incorporate every lesson with every patient I encounter.
So I'll pack up my hospital gown, ID bands, helmet, wig and put them onto my closet shelf. A museum of items that tell an outrageously impossible story. The patient has been given her discharge papers.