Many years ago, during a period of my life that feels like another lifetime ago, I suffered from seizures. Seizures that became debilitating, often landing me in the hospital for days at a time. I saw doctor after doctor, searching for the cause of my seizures. My hospital visits often left me feeling more and more alienated and confused. I think back to one lengthy hospital visit in particular when, on day three or four of my stay, the head of the neurology department (whom I had yet to meet in my cognizent state) lead students on rounds.
The doctor came into my room dressed in her white lab coat, picked up the chart at the end of the bed, and promptly, coldly, began to give an over view of the girl in the bed. Without introduction, my symptoms and "manifestation" were described to 12 young students who looked at me as if I were a specimen on a slab. Without warning, the lead neurologist pulled down the sheet that covered me and lifted my scant gown to show bruises that covered the side of my leg. She pointed to a monitor to show my low blood pressure, and then ended her talk with complicated medical jargon that left me feeling a stranger in an unknown land.
My friend was in the room with me at the time, and soothed me as the team left the room. I was livid. How could I have been treated so poorly by these strangers who did not even bother to greet me and explain their task? Upon my request, my friend went after the doctor to request that she come back into the room. Exhausted and raw, I laid into this woman in a white coat. I explained to the doctor that, since my arrival, I had been attached to machines, examined, poked and prodded, without one person once asking me who I was and how I was feeling. Had they bothered to do so, they would have known that I was more that just a number on a medical file; I was a scared, exhausted, and alienated young woman whose feelings had just been exacerbated by a cold and uncaring medical team. I let her know that a simple greeting and introduction could have alleviated the anxiety her visit had just caused. The shocked doctor stood as I ranted, and responded to say that she had a busy schedule to keep, and many patients to see. "There isn't time," she argued, "for such formalities."
I was scheduled to have follow-up visits with this neurology team, at one of the top hospitals in the US. Despite being told that the next round of seizures could be fatal, I did not go to that appointment.
The next round of seizures placed me in an ambulance run by the same EMT who took me to the hospital during the previous episode. This time, he collected me from the theatre where I was in rehearsals. The episode came during tech week of a theatre production in which I held a major role. The seizures always stole a portion of my memory, and left me unable to recall details leading up to the mind robbing events. Forgetting lines to a play right before opening night was not a welcome challenge.
The EMT had a sister who also suffered from seizures, and so he took it upon himself to take me to the emergency room of the hospital where his sister's neurologist was in attendance. When I awoke a day later, and was cognizant from the round of cluster seizures, I was greeted by a man who sat and held my hand. Calling me by name, this man immediately introduced himself as the lead neurologist at UPenn Hospital, and began to ask me about the production I was in. He wanted to know about my role, and what theatre meant to me. The doctor then calmly explained where I was, what had occurred, and the tests that he would like to run. He explained what the tests could tell him, and together, we would uncover the source of my seizures. He went on to explain that he specialized in hard to diagnose cases. He had read my files, even had records sent over from the other hospital, and recognized that my case was a real "cracker." But that did not deter him. "These seizures are robbing you of being free to express yourself, and I don't sit well with one of my patients losing their artistic expression," he said.
I worked with that doctor for the following year. Together, we teamed up to find the source and heal the cause of my seizures. My case was not easy, but he did not shy away from something without easy answers. Even when I was placed in the hands of a different caring team whose specialty better matched my needs, he followed through to see how I was doing. His gentle touch and caring way made me feel safe and protected during a time when I felt vulnerable and fearful. Eleven years of seizure free existence later, I credit this man with giving my life back to me.
I hadn't thought about any of this in a really long time, but this TED talks brought it all back. I couldn't agree more with Abraham Verghese's appraisal of the importance of human touch, and the need for the human element to be brought back to medicine. I would argue that it saved my life, and has no doubt saved many others. I hope the medical industry hears what he has to say in time to save many more.
Yours in health and healing,
Erin Michelle Threlfall
Theatre Artist, Activist, and Educator, Erin is the mother of a budding genius in his 7th year of study. Erin and her little man, Edem, have a plan to investigate world theatre and influence education one continent at a time. Ghana, South Korea, Togo and Bali have been checked off the list of places to live; these days they call Brooklyn home.