My Life with Epilepsy and Medical School
My life with epilepsy was about to be turned upside with my acceptance into medical school. It was exciting and scary all at the same time.
Overcoming the seizures and medication side effects to get accepted into medical school validated that seizures and seizure disorders can impact our lives, but don’t necessarily need to dictate them.
There was one caveat to my acceptance.
I would be attending St. George’s University in Grenada, a small country just north of South America.
Now your initial thoughts might be, it would be amazing to spend two years in the Caribbean: crystal clear water, beaches everywhere you step, warm weather and you would be correct. The downside is that I would be completely isolated from my fiancé and family. Grenada is an impoverished country. It does not have the medical access that I was privy to in the United States. This required a great deal of planning between my neurologist and insurance company. Ultimately, I received 4-6 months of medication at a time, as I would only be home a few times during a year.
Despite knowing and understanding these challenges, I booked my flight, packed three of the largest suitcases I have ever seen, and took off into what is generally considered one of the most challenging and longest educational investments that one can make.
The Secrets of Medical School
Medical school is typically 4 years long. The first two years are mostly classes and coursework to prepare you to start doing rotations in a hospital. The third and fourth years of medical school are spent rotating in different departments of the hospital (cardiology, neurology, surgery, etc.), learning about the different specialties with the goal of choosing the one you would like to spend the rest of your life practicing. Fortunately for me, I already knew that I would be choosing psychiatry.
Medical school is generally considered to be an extremely stressful and demanding experience due to being tasked with learning a tremendous amount of material in a short amount of time while simultaneously pulling 20-hour shifts. People usually compare it to trying to drink from a fire hose. There’s an extraordinary amount of pressure to not only do well, but to excel. Even though you make great friends while at school, ultimately you will be directly competing with them if you happen to go into the same specialty.
My life with epilepsy made medical school particularly unhealthy. I continued to experience memory loss, difficulty with recall, and drowsiness from my medications. In order to memorize all of this material, it became unrealistic to maintain a normal sleep pattern. It was not uncommon to stop at the store after class to buy several 5-hour energy drinks, an iced coffee, and some type of quick meal to shove down my throat in preparation for a long night of studying. I don’t recall ever going to sleep earlier than midnight. There were plenty of 4am nights spent cramming material.
I was lighting the candle at both ends. My desire to do well led me to start getting up earlier, further reducing the amount of sleep I was getting. Most classmates would study in a big library/study hall. I did not. I knew that I was increasing my chances of having a seizure due to my lifestyle and was trying to avoid having one in public. As a result, I would just study in the privacy of my apartment in case I did have a seizure. Looking back, it would have been safer to have had people around in case something did happen.
The Stigma of Mental Health
It didn’t take long to notice some trends while in school. People were visibly anxious, depressed, and abusing substances. What was most disturbing is that no one was talking about it. Now the reasoning is probably two-fold: the general stigma around mental health makes those suffering from it feel shame and embarrassment. Society does not look at depression like it does high blood pressure. In a way, mental health and seizure disorders share that common characteristic. The two combined are even worse. The other reason is that mental health is not talked about enough in the context of stressful situations, particularly in schooling. People begin to feel like outsiders, as if they are the only ones experiencing it, making them less likely to seek help.
I returned home from Grenada after two years of training, getting married seven days later. I moved to Brooklyn, New York, to begin my hospital training.
The hours were long, the anxiety was high, and controlling my seizures became difficult. I had a seizure in the hospital during my surgery rotation. I still remember returning the next day hearing nurses saying, “That’s the one that had the seizure.” I was angry because I had tried extremely hard to be measured solely on my work. Instead, I was labeled as the person who had a seizure; my life with epilepsy reared its ugly head again. I was fortunate that I was towards the end of my rotation and quickly shifted to another department. Eventually, I was able to begin my psychiatry rotation. I had known for the previous 3 years that my goal was to be a psychiatrist. Being able to work directly with individuals with mental health issues in the inpatient and outpatient setting was so validating.
The Start of Residency
Soon after, I began the application process for my residency program. I was fortunate to interview and match at Virginia Commonwealth University in psychiatry. Residency has once again brought along its own challenges. I have worked 12 hour overnight shifts for a month at a time, worked 24 hours shifts, and have worked with difficult patients. What I have gained through this experience is an appreciation for those who find the bravery to reach out for help. My department knows that my interest is in working specifically with patients who have epilepsy. Many patients with epilepsy have been referred to me specifically due to my own personal experience. I understand a lot of what they have endured and continue to go through. I offer patients an important balance: therapy and medication management, approaching each individual’s needs as a psychologist and a psychiatrist. This combination is what makes my approach unique.
I plan on using my knowledge and my life with epilepsy to not only help others with seizure disorders, but to also try to build a community of like-minded individuals and healthcare providers through this blog.