Today, I consider the Takeaway: 5 Things I Learned this Summer

1. “I’m not psychotic, it’s the side effects of my medications” takes on new meaning inside a psychiatric ward.
Although the summer months were filled with food, family, friends, and general fun frenzy, my main goal in July was the completion of my nursing practice, a required summer clinical rotation to expose us to patient care.  The speciality and location were up to us, as long as it took place in a teaching hospital, and I was fortunate to find a spot in a psychiatry department in Frankfurt. I hoped to get a better feel for the field of psychiatry, as well as glimpse what the health care system in Germany is like.

I learned the names of medications and how to take a psychiatric history, but what I will remember most are the interactions I had with patients, one of whom said the above quote to me. I didn’t know whether to believe her at that stage of her treatment because she seemed so … normal, and yet, the psychiatrists said otherwise. Discussions with the doctors and nurses gave me new appreciation for the subtlety of diagnosing and treating psychiatric diseases.  Sometimes, the patients were clearly and acutely ill; more often, their mental illness was made manifest by social dysfunction. I’m interested in exploring other branches of medicine, but psychiatry is such a rich field that I can’t wait to be part of in some professional capacity.

(Arkie recently pointed me to this article about the stigma of mental illness)

2. No Internet = no problem
Well, that’s not exactly true, since I did have some limited Internet and it was a bit of a problem. Still, since my apartment in Frankfurt didn’t include wifi (something I hadn’t considered asking about first, lesson 2b), Gail and I made due with a computer internet USB stick that had us frugally counting megabytes. I checked my email “only” twice a day and didn’t video chat with anyone for the entirety of my stay. Having gotten so used to Google hangouts/Skype/FaceTime over the past year, it was nice to realize that they weren’t the sine qua non of my long-distance relationships. By the end of the five weeks, we weren’t itching for the Internet at all!

I think I’ve lapsed, but at least I know it can be done?!

3. Watch your wallet!
I was pick pocketed for the first (hopefully last!) time this summer. Very luckily, I ended up getting everything back because I noticed the theft right after it happened (strange circumstances). In that initial moment of shock and panic, the loss felt like such a violation. Since then, I’ve been more attentive!

4. Fan mail exposes the illusion of separateness
Simon van Booy is one of my absolute favorite contemporary writers, as the -arkies and other friends can tell you. His literary style is ideal for poetry lovers who prefer prose, with incisive metaphors and characters that make me stop in awe of life formulated with such insight.

His novel The Illusion of Separateness was one of my most anticipated reads of the summer, and in preparation, I reread his previous novel (that deserves a whole blog post. Note to self) and a collection of his short stories. I’m a fan, ok?!?!
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In June, I e-mailed SvB about how much I appreciated one of his characters in particular, generally fulfilling all stereotypes of zealous fan mail. Less than a week later, HE WROTE BACK!! It was short, but personalized and kind, and definitely a highlight of my summer.

I’d say that the primary lesson from this was to read SvB’s works. 🙂
Secondly — even more so than countless cold emails or statistics about the rise of social media — I realized how powerfully connected we are these days. Whom to reach out to next…?

5. Sometimes, there’s no going back
I visited Hong Kong for the first time this summer, the place where my mother was raised. She hadn’t been back since she emigrated 40 years ago; her HK was the one before the massive boom in Asia, prior to the Handover of HK to China from Britain for that matter. Even as she cited those changes as reasons for staying away, it was hard for me to understand why she wouldn’t want to return to her former home. Now, I’m not sure we really saw her home anyway, or if that’s even possible anymore. The HK I got to know was a packed modern city with impressive skyscrapers packed like tetris shapes, bustling with people constantly on their electronic devices. It’s hard to imagine that almost none of that was present when she lived there. It was unsettling to put myself in her position: my hometown still looks pretty much like it did when I was growing up; Budapest, like much of Europe, has me accustomed to ubiquitous centuries-old buildings and structures, even if they house modern operations. The past is inherent and recognizable in my environments. However, her apartment building no longer exists; we went to her school and university, but they look totally different now, too.

The places I have left might not see such drastic change in the coming decades (or maybe they will, who knows?!), but if/when I do go back, maybe all I can hope to recognize is a memory.

My mom instantly recognized the hibiscus near the HKU campus, but not those newly erected high-rises in the background.

My mom instantly recognized the hibiscus near the HKU campus, but not those newly erected high-rises in the background.

Today, I fell over the edge.

Happy Monday, y’all! It was a balmy day in Budapest and an end to a stressful stretch of student life.

Despite what I wrote last time about having evenly spaced-out exams, I spent the weekend studying for today’s biophysics midterm (written) and biochemistry exemption (oral). I had known that the biochem exam was approaching, but I only got the exact date at the end of last week … not that there would’ve been much point in extensive preparations, anyways. The exam covers topics of medical biochemistry/molecular bio spanning all three semesters of the course, and I figured I would either know it from previous classes or not. If not, I should probably learn it 🙂  In fact, I was pretty sure that I was heading headfirst into failure, but I’d regret not testing myself. This is a classic Charkie move, though — getting stressed about something I’ve chosen to do that’s in no way required. I’m a big believer in living at the edge of your comfort zone and getting comfortable with discomfort, but I’ll be the first to admit that this has led to more than my fair share of horrendously cringe-worthy moments. Sometimes a stupid or embarrassing thing I said or did in the name of boundary-pushing will pop up and dominate my thoughts until I override it.

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Bella Union café at Duke had this saying on their wall, and it’s one of my favorites. Unfortunately, the edge is a precarious place to stand.

So, this is all to say that my trepidation today stemmed more from looking like a fool than from failing. Even though there are plenty of other students (former pharmacists, for example) who probably know a lot of biochemistry, only two of us showed up at the appointed time and place, and I think the other student was about as well prepared for what was soon to happen as I was (inadequately, to put it mildly). We were both examined in the same room by three professors, first her and then me, who asked a series of general medical biochemistry questions. They did not expect us to remember detailed enzyme names or cascades, just overarching concepts that any physician should be aware of, so it was all perfectly fair. They even kept their facial expressions relatively neutral despite some of the absurd statements we uttered. (Much to my annoyance, however, one of the professors only looked at and addressed the other student the entire time. I’ve been treated so well here in terms of being seen for ME rather than for my wheelchair that I’d forgotten what that felt like.)

My questions included: What is the role of glutamine in the body? Describe the compartmentalization of fatty acid metabolism. What is the mechanism of thrombin in hemostasis? How does insulin regulation work?

My answers included a lot of “uhhhhhhmms”.

Though I hate the feeling of failure, I am looking forward to getting a better grasp of these topics (which are fascinating as well as essential for the educated physician!). Also, it gives me more time to bond with my classmates in our labs. All in all, I wouldn’t take back today’s experience, though I’d gladly leave a little of the embarrassment behind.

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