My Time on the Neurology Floor: 4 Months I Will Never Forget

When I was 22 I moved to Seattle with a Bachelor’s degree fresh off the presses, no real, marketable skills, a lot of determination, and just enough money to get me by. It was a few weeks after 9/11 and the economy (and country) were broken. I immediately started looking for a job (that journey is a story for another time) and decided to contact a temporary agency, which had always worked well for me in the past. They had an opportunity for a part-time, short-term, receptionist position at a local hospital. I took it and began four months of my life I still think about today.
The department I worked in was called, “Neurology and Neurosurgery,” and it was an outpatient clinic attached to a local hospital. Yes, I worked with Neurosurgeons. No, they did not look like McDreamy. Yes, they were amazing. This was pre-Grey’s Anatomy, if you can even remember a time, but it was in Seattle and we had quite a cast of characters so there were some similarities. For all I know Shonda Rhimes was in the waiting room taking notes. In college I studied the brain from a Cognitive Psychology perspective, which is a way to make me sound smart and to say that I was woefully unprepared for what I was about to experience. The cast (whose names have been changed for privacy and because I can’t remember them all) is below.
Marcy, the African-American Receptionist who took me under her wing, made sure I was trained for the job, taught me about life, and never once made me feel small when I started to think I had every disease we were treating in our patients each day. She told me about having a baby at 16 and then, whoops, another baby at 17. She was nearing 40 by the time I met her and had shifted her focus to finding her cause. “Every woman should have a cause,” she told me. Her words run through my head every so often, usually when I’m staring at the wall trying to remember what on earth I’m doing in this life.
Chris, the Neurologist who was born a man and transitioned to a woman a few years before I met her. She had an established practice and many of her patients were older, long term patients, so she continued to practice medicine as a man. However, outside the office she lived her true life as a woman. I had never met a transgender person before and because she wasn’t “out” to her patients I only ever saw her dressed as a man.
Linda, the white, middle-aged, sweet, patient, understanding nurse who recognized I was experiencing severe anxiety and took care of me. She examined me, assured me I was fine, and talked to me about how working in a hospital, particularly in Neurology, was difficult. Every day I was convinced I had one disease or another and thanks to Linda, I was able to talk myself down. I did experience vertigo for the first time in my life while I worked there, likely as a result of my anxiety. It was probably my body’s way of saying, “Ok, here’s an ailment. You’re healthy, get over it.” I’m grateful for Linda because I needed her and she knew it before I did.
Luka, the Bosnian nurse who had fled from Bosnia to the United States as a teenager during the war. He was serious, dark, and brooding with a thick accent and a sense of humor that showed itself when I least expected it. He had a story I had no right to know and I listened intently any time we had the chance to talk. I never learned much about him but the memory of his strong but serious expression has stuck with me over time.
Raj, the Indian EEG Technician who was friendly and always asked a me lot of questions when he came to our floor. One day he invited me out for a night with his friends. Raj, me, about 10 of his Indian friends, and one white guy who they appropriately nicknamed, “Whitey,” went to bar in the Capital Hill neighborhood of Seattle for drinks and conversation. It was the only night I hung out with any of them. I was shier than my normal shy that night and I consider Raj and his friends a missed opportunity to get to know some great people.
Colton, the young patient who had regular office visits for some kind of rehabilitation. He was cute, really cute, and I got a few butterflies every time I saw his name on the appointment list. He never said much but he was a patient to look forward to in a sea of others whose stories from the Neurology floor were most likely were not going to end as well as his.
The Trinity. I don’t remember all of their individual names but we had three women patients in their late 30s and early 40s, all with terminal brain tumors. In my mind they were the Trinity. Young women, young wives and mothers, all with a death sentence. I watched their decline from my spot at the front desk. Some days they looked well, optimistic, and strong. Other days their husbands wheeled them into their appointments, barely making eye contact as I checked them in. One day our internal messenger handed me a death certificate for one of the women in the Trinity. As I stared down at the piece of paper in my hand I started to shake and my eyes filled with tears. By the time my four months in Neurology were up all three had passed away.
I remember the woman with a brain aneurysm whose life had been saved by one of our neurosurgeons. She came for her follow-up appointment and proudly displayed the substantial scar on her head. She was surprised and thrilled to be alive.
I remember the man storming out of his appointment in a fit of rage, muttering, “You’re not going to tell me I have ALS,” under his breath. I will never forget the knowing look Marcy gave me as he walked by. She had seen it before, the pain and denial of receiving life altering news, as so many of our patients did.
The Neurology Floor was a hard floor to work on. There were no babies born or bones set to heal. There were neurological impairments, brain tumors, and neurodegenerative diseases. I worked there four hours a day, for four months, 15 years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday. I will never forget my experience there. It’s hard for me to imagine the true scale of that Neurology and Neurosurgery department. How many patients have passed through since I left? How many patients would I have seen if I had been there full-time or even for more than just a few months? Maybe its impact on me was so great because it was a short but significant experience. I was young, everything about it was new, and I experienced it while I was trying to make sense of the world for the first time as an adult.
To this day I am grateful I had the opportunity to work with this cast of characters. I gained a lifetime of vital memories thanks to these doctors, nurses, staff, and of course the dear, sweet, scared, strong patients. I think of our four months together all the time.


1 Comment

  1. Erinn on October 4, 2017 at 9:17 am

    I find this absolutely fascinating! What an incredible experience.

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