Lessons From A Shit Time as a Patient in the Emergency Department
By: Em Wong
When the tables turn and doctors become patients, it turns into an exercise of empathy. More so when it’s mental health-related…
I’d run out of Lexapro on Thursday. I'd tried to get in to see a GP for a new script, but my hospital placements and the long weekend made it difficult. I booked an appointment for Tuesday morning, finally. "I'll be ok without meds for four days," I thought. But the night before I saw the doctor, the withdrawal nausea hit.
It’s a 10-minute walk from home to the closest ED. I paced around the waiting room for two hours, my anxiety mounting. I was nauseous, but not enough to vomit. Agitated like I’d lost control of my body. Jittery. It was terrifying. I called my best friends. I told them what I needed and they listened. They distracted me with their boy goss. I love 'em.
I'd been on Lexapro for six months. My anxiety was manageable now. I was responding so well on it. That's a whole other story. But after that long, you think you've got a feel for how the medication affects you. I thought I'd be ok off four days. If anything, the discontinuation symptoms would come on slow, I thought. Not so.
The ED admin became dismissive when I told them how I felt. “I feel like I’m going to pass out,” I whispered to the lady behind the glass. She looked at me, unsympathetic, if not irritated. “Well, we’ve seen you walking around, why don’t you just sit down?”
The ED doctor who finally saw me was cold and distant. He turfed me out in 15 minutes with nausea medication and a sedative. No actual dose of Lexapro, which seemed unreasonable to me. I was at my most vulnerable. I felt unsafe. I’ve been on the other side of this. I know the sorts of attitudes doctors can have towards mental illness. I wondered, "How would you have treated me if my condition hadn’t been mental illness-related? How would you have treated me if I’d told you I was six weeks away from being an actual medical doctor?”
But that shouldn’t have to matter.
I’d talked to my parents before and after my trip to the ED. “Do you want us to book a flight up there?” They asked, with a trace of resentment. I kept telling them, “No I’m fine, there’s nothing practical you can do right now. I’ll get this sorted before you’d get here.”
“This is exactly why I don’t want you to go to Belgium,” my dad sighed. Yeah, right, every time we’re not there with you, you do something stupid and need us to rescue you.
I told my dad how I felt so scared, ignored in the waiting room. He missed the point and exploded. “Why are you worrying about what they think?! It doesn’t matter!” Right. This is yet another example of how you can’t look after yourself. You shouldn’t be out of our sight.
I’ll be 26 soon.
And I know this was a stupid mistake. I immediately learnt my lesson. Antidepressant discontinuation is no joke. I took the right steps and I dealt with it.
I don’t need anyone telling me I was stupid. What I would have liked was someone to empathise and acknowledge how I felt. I wish they’d listened and helped me to feel safe. That’s all I needed, after the diazepam and ondansetron.
Patients don’t often state how vulnerable they feel. But sometimes I'll say out loud, “I'm scared,” and I'll still get dismissed. These experiences have made me determined as a future doctor. When I see people who might feel scared, I let them know - I'm listening. I'll do what I can to help. Even if all I can do is give you my empathy.
Sometimes that small act of kindness makes the biggest difference.
Em is an Aussie in her mid-twenties and a future psychiatrist. She is passionate about integrating the arts into mental health advocacy, education and practice. A karaoke fiend, lover of art galleries and adventurous introvert, she’s taking some time off to volunteer and travel the world for life experience and her own sanity. Most importantly, she LOVES DOGS.