Sunday, March 16, 2014

My Day As A Patient

For months now I have wanted to spend a day as a patient. I work at an adolescent Residential Treatment Center, and I'm trying to find more ways to understand what these kids go through.
I've starting reading the books they read, imagining myself in their shoes, and now, I finally had a chance to live (more or less) like a patient for one day.

I knew that the staff and all the kids would know who I was.  They would treat me differently.  There was no real way around that... but I could still make it as real as possible.

I followed all the rules: No belt, no shoelaces (just a zip-tie), no ring on my finger, no hat, etc…
I arrived at the treatment center about 6 am, used my keys to walk through the 4 locked doors to get to the patient hallway.  Then I went to the nurses station and the staff lockers.  I put my bag inside, then my phone. I hesitated before putting my keys in there.
I knew the staff would let me out at any moment. I could even order them if I wanted.  I’M A DOCTOR!  But that still didn’t change the feeling of helplessness when I put my keys in the locker, closed it, and walked through the auto-locking door onto the patient hallway.

I couldn’t get out on my own.  I had no access.  No keys. No phone.  It suddenly felt very real.  I walked down to my assigned room, and waited for the morning to start.
I first learn how boring the morning is, and how many times you get woken up.  First they shine a flashlight on you every 15 minutes during the night to make sure you are still in bed, alive, and not hurting yourself or trying to commit suicide. Then the phlebotomist wakes up anyone who needs their blood drawn for labs that have been ordered. (likely by me)
Then we get woken up again by the sound of “med-pass” when all the kids who take morning medications have to go to the nurse one by one, take their pills, swallow, open their mouths and move their tongues all around to show that they really swallowed and didn’t “cheek” the pill. 
Then it’s shower time.  I have to push the button every 25 seconds to keep the hot water coming, and there is no bathroom door or shower door – there are curtains only.  The curtains are only held up by Velcro, so you couldn't use them to hang yourself.
I can’t look out the windows – the shades are drawn between the double panes of glass.  The windows are also nigh unto bullet proof.  The beds, tables and cabinets are also bolted to the floor and thoroughly caulked to leave no sharp edges.  Oh – and the hangers for your clothes can only hold about 5 pounds before they “release” so you can’t hang yourself from them either.  (This place is very “safety” minded.)

We line up for breakfast.  "FACE FORWARD" is yelled and I quickly learn to be an arm's distance apart from the person in front of me and behind me.  No talking, no turning around.  Two staff members walk us through 3 locked doors to get to the cafeteria.

I am told I can take fruit, juice, milk, or oatmeal – but I follow the other kids lead and take 4 mini-boxes of cereal like everybody else.
We sit at assigned table.  No “cross-talking” means I only get to talk to kids at my own table.  We eat cereal and chat about life, music, who has which doctor, whose therapist is boring, whose parents are giving up custody, and which girls are hottest.
One kid has already been assigned to sweep the cafeteria and another to clean off the tables.  After 15 minutes the ‘upper level” kids get to have seconds.  If you’re new like me, you’re the last to get seconds, which means you have no time to eat.  You have to quickly line up to dump your tray. When I get to the trash can I am told to hold out my utensils and drop them in so the staff can see I didn’t pocket a plastic fork or spoon (that could be used to cut myself or someone else.)  Then I dump my trash, put my plate and tray through the slot in the wall, and go back to the unit and get ready for school.

Again, face forward, eyes ahead, arm’s length away from the person in front of me.

Time for school!  I go to class.  Up first is a 30 question Spelling/Vocabulary test based on the 5000 words most used on the SAT exam.  I look around.  2 kids are actually doing the quiz.  3 are ignoring the paper entirely.  1 is asking questions non-stop for 5 minutes and driving the teacher insane.  I’m trying to figure out the definition of “Aeronaut.”

Back to the patient hallway for “Sunrise.”  I hear the gong, then have 12 seconds of “mindful breathing” before I learn the skills for the day.  “Radical Acceptance” and “Big Picture” are selected, and then we recite the DBT Pledge.  (It’s actually quite nice, and most of the other patients have it memorized.)

We talk about who has what assignments in the Cafeteria and in the halls.  Then it’s back to school for 2 more classes.

I watch CNN Student News and take a 15 question quiz on it.  Next class is all about Tsunami’s and after a long quiz we watch the first 20- minutes of the movie “The Impossible.”  Pretty scary stuff.  Most the kids paid attention to that one.

Lunch!  Beef stroganoff. and blue Powerade - it was either drink that  that or caffeine free diet sodas.  The foam cups were small so my drink was gone pretty quick.  I started to stand to get a refill and the kids quickly told me to sit back down and raise my hand.  Permission must be asked before getting out of your seat.

So I asked  - DENIED.  No drink refills allowed until "seconds" is called, which would be near the end of the meal.

Confession - I was getting sick of the rules at this point.  Seriously.  They seemed arbitrary and unhelpful.
So I waited till no staff were looking and then refilled my Powerade.  The kids looked at me shocked like this was quite the coup - then they told on me and I got put on "freeze" at which point I was sent back to my bedroom to fill out paperwork about my disobedience.  I had to write out a "behavior chain" listing what happened, what led to my infraction, how I felt, when I I could have changed, the pros and cons of my actions - and what committed action I was going to take in the future.

Then time for gym.  Outside - basketball court, large sand area, and picnic tables.

20 kids sat at the tables immediately and looked like they weren't going to do anything.  I picked up a basketball and asked who wanted to play.  Five boys decided to play and we had a serous game of 3 on 3 basketball for about an hour.

For the entire hour we played and sweated and laughed and struggled, while 20 other kids sat and did nothing.

(No wonder the kids here gain weight - if you take psych meds, eat tons of carbs all day long, and don't exercise - you're going to pack on the pounds fast)

The afternoon was the most useful.  Therapy groups!

DBT skills, mindfullness, being able to tolerate strong emotions.  How to live a life worth living, how to move forward living your values no matter what situation you are in.  It was impressive to watch the therapist teach and demonstrate all the coping skills for an hour.  He was speaking to a room full of teenage girls who cut themselves, constantly threaten suicide, have eating disorders, have been abandoned, were sexually abused, and are addicted to multiple drugs.

He was able to connect with each of them, squelch arguments, build relationships, and chip away at the  harsh exterior a lot of these girls present.

The next therapy group was "Job Skills."  All the girls had already learned about job applications, resumes, how to prepare for an interview, and to day was "mock interview day."

They were supposed to pretend they were being interviewed for a job at Subway.  I worked at Subway of and on for 5 years.  I had been through that interview, and had interviewed others myself.

It was a great class as I was allowed to be the interviewer and help these girls learn how to present themselves, how to answer, what to mention, what to leave out.  I felt like it was a very practical class, and very useful.

Then came the best meeting - SUNSET.  The whole hallway got together and discussed what they did well and what needed improvement that day.  They talked about what skills they used, when they failed, and what they want to do differently tomorrow.  Those who had offended others made a public apology and made a commitment, stating what they would do differently in the future.  

Dinner was much the same as the other meals.

Then room time alone to work on things we hadn't finished during the day.   We were told to write out one more behavior chain about something that had happened that day. What led up to it, how we felt, what our "primary emotion" was and what our "secondary emotion" was as well.

Then it was time to let the kids relax.  Friday night - movie or dance party.  My hallway chose dance party.  So out came the Xbox Kinect and "Just Dance" and for the next 90 minutes we danced and sang and laughed and joked while the techs gave us hot chocolate.  Some kids went and did Yoga in a side room, others went to watch an episode of "Heroes."

Me - I danced and joked and laughed and had a blast.  I saw that this was the time for the kids to use everything they learned in a more natural setting.  Be themselves.  Have fun with friends.  Make mistakes and screw up and just laugh it off and keep dancing.

When 8:30 finally came it was time for bed.  Lights out on the hallway. 
The kids saw me walking toward the nurses station and said "Hey, you getting discharged?"
"Yeah - one day.  Must be a record!" I called back.

The nurses opened the door for me.  I'd like to say I got my stuff and went home, but there were orders to sign and a few kids who needed to be seen by a doctor really quick before I went home for the night.
I was completely exhausted.  I didn't even bother to put my shoelaces back in - I went home wearing zip-ties.

One day.  14 hours as a patient.  I see how residential treatment can help.  I also see how it can drive you up the wall, make you want to scream, and leave you overweight and out of shape when you leave after 90 days.
I can see how it seems pointless at times.  I felt a little bit of the helplessness these kids must feel, and that was even knowing that I wasn't REALLY locked in there.

How would it be to spend 90 days there? How about 180 days like some kids I've seen?  Or worse - be told you're going to Disneyland with a short stop on the way and then find out your parents lied to you and they've admitted you to a locked psychiatric facility?  (It's happened multiple times)

I still don't know what's it's like to be one of them.  But if I've gained even an ounce of empathy for these kids - it was well worth the 14 hours that day.


Anonymous said...

Can you tell us the DBT pledge? Thanks!

Dinah said...

I posted this on Shrink Rap! I am not a robot

Simple Citizen said...

Thanks Dinah

Dinah said...

Would you shoot me an email? shrinkrapblog at gmail doc com

Or if there is another way to message you....

Simple Citizen said...

Dinah - done.
Anonymous - I'll post the DBT pledge tomorrow. (I've been working at other locations so far this week)

Anonymous said...

This is a pretty interesting experiment. I think I'd love to see one of my past doctors experiencing what it's like to be a patient on a locked ward.
I wonder, what would you change about the way things are run?

Allison said...

Great work Matt. Not many doctors I know would go that far to step into their patient's shoes.

deborah sorley said...

I am awestruck reading this post. As an x childcare worker, former Dbt client and predent Dbt Skills Trainer wanna be I honour your Willingness.
A bid Dbt Way to Go for you !!!

Shannon P. said...

Pretty sure this is Willow... Did you know that they very recently got rid of freezes?