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?!?!

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.

Long liver the long weekend!

Watching the announcement of the new pope on TV with an irreverent Catholic (Anna) makes for hilarity. Some commentary:

“Fifty thousand people standing out in the rain for what?!? Is that normal?!”

Me: He’s rather old…
A: No ‘rather’ – he’s old, period.

“Finally, we can sleep well in our beds tonight!”

One thing’s true – we will sleep well, though not necessarily because of the news in Vatican City. Tonight, I’m finishing some other loose study ends, not setting any alarm, and looking forward to a long weekend in my pajamas. We have the next two days off for a national holiday. I am so grateful for this extra time to catch up (read: start) on the GI system. I don’t know if I have the guts to stomach all the lecture material  =/ We started with the oral cavity a few weeks ago and have covered all the way down to the intestines by now, so I’m quite behind. The gall!

Our Medical Professions lecture was given by a psychiatrist today! I had been looking forward to hearing what he had to say, and though he was quite soft-spoken and didn’t offer any startling insights, it was still a nice reminder of what I one day hope to do (I think). It would’ve been nice if he could have spoken about his day-to-day duties more, but I’ve noticed that psychiatrists are usually extremely reticent or evasive when it comes to discussing the details of their work (and boy have I spent lots of time trying to figure that out!). Confidentiality is a particularly sensitive issue in psychiatry (why that is reflects the taboos of mental health still so deeply rooted in society), to the point that it makes it hard to know exactly what it is that a psychiatrist does. I think clarifying that would improve the image of mental health professionals and their role in medicine.

In the middle of his presentation was a figure from an article about a polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR) … citing none other than one of my former Duke professors!! This was particularly startling because I did not enjoy his “Inside the Disordered Brain” course at all despite its promising name, but apparently he is a pretty big deal?! Go figure. My best memory from that class is making up wacky mnemonics with Kate.


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