Growing up, I wanted to be an actress. It amazed me how actors could make a story seem so real and how easily I would fall in love with characters I’d known for only 90 minutes. Most of the kids in my neighborhood would play outside together, but I always wanted to stay home and watch my favorite movie, Shutter Island. Leonardo DiCaprio has an incredible way of allowing an audience to see into the inner workings of a troubled mind — a direct glimpse into one’s psyche that can only be portrayed through mediums of art such as film. It was the first time I had been exposed to the field of psychiatry. In the movie, the psychiatrist’s ability to alter the patient’s reality as a form of treatment for PTSD was powerful. It made me think about the parallel between actors and psychiatrists. They both have this unique ability to see people beyond just superficial traits but more so as a combination of thoughts and memories. They both have built a career on this very phenomenon. From high school on, when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was always torn between theater and medicine. It wasn’t until further on in my education I gained more clarity.
Throughout college, I took theater classes. In preparation for performing monologues, I would look deeply into the characters I was expected to become. I studied their body language, communication style and life story for hours on end. When the time came to act, I would immerse myself into the character seconds before the delivery of my first words. I enjoyed being able to explore the perceptions of a different person. So much so, that I enrolled into a course called ‘Healthcare Theater’. In this class, we acted as unstandardized patients for nursing students during their clinical simulation labs, meaning we were not given a script and had the creative freedom to turn the patients into our own individualized characters. For my simulation with the graduate nursing students, I played a victim of domestic abuse who was also 14-weeks pregnant. My boyfriend had “slapped me around” on several occasions, even “accidentally dragging me by his truck” during an argument. He had slammed the driver’s door, started the truck and put it in gear allegedly without realizing that my dress was caught in the car door. I was coming in to discuss prenatal care and the possibility of future OBGYN appointments. The goal of this simulation was to get the graduate nursing students to ask difficult questions about physical abuse and discuss the possibility of my moving to a domestic violence shelter. While playing this pregnant woman, I felt a rush of vulnerability and worthlessness. I wanted so badly to get out of my situation, but I couldn’t because I felt hopeless. All I wanted was for someone to tell me that I had options and to know that there was someone who would do everything in their power to help me. One student told me exactly what I needed to hear, that she was incredibly sorry I was going through such a difficult time and that she would do everything to try and get me out of this horrible situation. She said the words (and I remember them distinctly), “You are not alone.” I immediately felt a sense of hope and the possibility of a bright future for my baby. Just having someone’s presence and knowing that she cared made me feel much less vulnerable than I had before. Playing this character was a cathartic moment for me. It was from then on, I knew the answer to what I wanted to be when I grew up. It is medicine and theater that made me realize that.
Going into my third-year of medical school, I had no idea what to expect. I was excited to finally get to talk to patients after two gruesome years of having my head stuck in a textbook. Throughout the year, however, I found myself spending less time talking to patients and more time rounding with my attendings. As a medical student, I know that learning medicine is crucial to my experience, but learning communication is just as important. It had me looking forward to my psychiatry rotation (which was the last one in my schedule) where I knew learning medicine and communication would be intertwined. I was placed in an outpatient office specializing in women’s mental health services. Most of the patients we saw were pregnant, postpartum or bereaved parents. Being that motherhood is not a part of my identity just yet, it was hard for me to understand what these women were going through. A couple days into the rotation, I found myself thinking back to the pregnant woman I played during the simulation back in college. I tried to remember how I felt in that character’s shoes. I poured those thoughts and feelings in an attempt to comfort the patients right in front of me. Before every patient encounter, I prepped for them in a similar fashion to when I used to prep for my monologues during theater class. Having that empathy helped me effectively communicate with my patients. I was better able to create treatment plans that I knew my patients could adhere to. It made me realize how much of psychiatry is an art. An art where I can combine my two passions: theater and medicine.
In psychiatry, medical care is specialized. With every decision made, patients are affected one way or another. The beauty of this career is the amount of time spent simply talking to patients. Cardiologists, surgeons, pediatricians, PCPs and other physicians don’t nearly communicate with their patients as much as psychiatrists do. Patients rely on this patient-provider connection beyond all other assessments and data measurements to receive health care. As a budding psychiatrist, I have an immense pride for my future career. I cannot wait to build lasting relationships with my patients in a way that no other physician can, a true art indeed.