During weekly Chairman’s Rounds a medical student would interview a patient in front of the other students and under the supervision of either the department chairman or another senior psychiatry faculty member. Up till that point third year medical school was pretty passive…do lots of scut work, know lab results when making work rounds, go to lectures at noon, take the ubiquitous multiple choice tests. This was different, this was scary
Somebody had to be first, but I have no idea how the “honor” fell to me. I sat in the front of the lecture hall, my classmates scattered about the hall in groups of 3-4 in their short white coats whispering in nervous anticipation. If you’re going to swim with sharks, don’t bleed, even while you wrestle an alligator.
The patient, a tired, thin middle aged woman, was escorted by two bulky attendants. She’d spent the night in solitary restraints. And she was as mad as hell…
I rose to my feet “Hello, I am”
“THOSE SONS BITCHES TIED ME TO THE F****** BED!!!” as she lunged toward me.
As the attendants gently restrained her and my adrenaline (which we had only the year before we learned was properly called epinephrine) caused my blood to run cold, and right then it happened: a rotational shift in perspective. What to do…what to say? I stood outside my own first person narrative, naked, a trillion nerve cells on end.
“That must have been humiliating”
Suddenly but temporarily subdued “Yes but they locked me in that room.”
“I can’t imagine”
But I could, and I did. In a way unburdened by false sentimentality I stepped through my self, becoming momentarily selfless and as I became so I stood beside her in a space where I understood her anger and pain from the perspective of non-judgmental awareness etched with a laser into the moment.
The contact was brief. States of insight like this can be illusory and fleeting, too intense for either to maintain for long. I don’t clearly remember what happened after that. I don’t think I got too far into eliciting signs and symptoms, to be compared on a checklist in the DSM-III. I doubt I understood the psychosocial stressors that lead her to that place. I doubt I gained any insight into her inherited and biological makeup. I do remember the professor stepped in and took over thanking the patient before sending her off with the attendants.
Over 30 years later I can still re-live that feeing of bare selfless awareness.