white male doctor and female patient

Shortness of breath. I felt it for the first time while running on June 21st, 2011. I had just been rejected from my first choice medical school a few days prior—post-interview, the worst. I took it as a personal affront. They didn’t like me, my personality. I wondered how I had come off—fake, phony, artificially enthusiastic maybe. Maybe they didn’t think I was up to their caliber. But either way, I felt crushed, useless, as if there was a rock stuck in my throat. And now, my whole life would have to change.

I stumbled home and told Brian that I couldn’t breathe and to call 911.

Why?” he asked. “You seem fine, you’re talking okay, and you just went for a run. I think you just should rest on the couch.”

I scowled at him and accepted a glass of water. The feeling didn’t subside, and I once again broached the idea of the emergency room. He suggested waiting a little longer. I picked at my sushi without really eating anything and thought obsessively about my breathing. When Brian wasn’t looking, I broke into my stash of airplane Xanax and took a half. The feeling subsided a little.

The next day, I went to work. One of my favorite patients was actively dying. I cried—I never cry. Warm tears ran down my cheeks as I watched the nurses change the gown she had just defecated all over. My breath caught in my throat as I saw her daughter hold her corpse of a mother and collapse helplessly into the bed beside her. I couldn’t believe it. I spent my days watching patients battle end-stage lung cancer and ultimately die, but today this felt insurmountable. I shielded my red eyes from the attending as I pretended to grab a lab kit from the closet. The shortness of breath returned.

Two weeks went by, and it still hadn’t gone away. The feeling was more transient, but I still felt like I couldn’t get to the top of my inhalation and breathing deeply felt like a chore. My chest had started to hurt. I thought of all the possible reasons why—lung cancer (I’d seen it in a 22-year-old just a few weeks prior), pulmonary embolism (hey, I was taking birth control pills), pulmonary hypertension (what is that again?), myocardial infarction (my mom has a heart murmur, so maybe?)—all seemed equally plausible. I wasn’t coughing so it didn’t feel like bronchitis or pneumonia. I had never been asthmatic and heard no wheezing. I was too embarrassed to solicit the advice of one of my attendings, and by now Brian was getting fed up with me trolling WebMD every night before bed.

Later that week, I had a particularly difficult time breathing when walking home from work, and I tearfully called up my doctor (again, what was with all of this crying?!) and told him my symptoms. He agreed to see me immediately. I arrived at his office and he examined me, offering to work me up for my own peace of mind but noting that he didn’t anticipate anything was wrong. An electrocardiogram, pulmonary function test, and chest x-ray later, he sat me down in his office

 

Panic?

You appear to be in a state of panic,” he said, handing me a prescription for Ativan. “You might want to figure out why and relax or something. There’s nothing wrong with your heart or lungs. You’ve got, like, Thin White Female syndrome.”

Huh?” I retorted, “I don’t think that’s a thing.”

He gave me his best Of Course, You Don’t look.

You’re having an extended panic attack, but you’re physically healthy. Take some Ativan and try to calm down, and call me if the breathing gets worse.”

Okay.” He was an idiot, but I was somewhat comforted by my test results. I left the office and threw the Ativan prescription in the nearest garbage can.

My last day of work was fast approaching. Brian and I had been planning a trip to Italy for a few weeks before I started medical school. On the second day of the trip, Brian proposed. Definitely no shortness of breath that night.

But to my dismay, it returned a week later, as we were hiking up the scenic trails in Cinque Terre, overlooking the pristine waters of the Ligurian Sea. This can’t be anxiety, I thought.

What could I possibly be anxious about? I’m engaged to an amazing guy. I’m vacationing in Italy and literally staring at calming blue water. All my hard work finally paid off and despite some painful rejections, I’m going to a wonderful medical school. Life is good. This is not anxiety.

But, I shuddered, if it’s not anxiety, then what’s wrong with me? Crap, and if something is wrong with me, I’m in Italy. Questions bounced around my mind. Could whatever it is wait another week until we got back to New York? What kind of medical care do they have in Italy? Could I afford it if I needed it? Do the doctors speak English? What if I go to the emergency department and nothing is wrong? I would ruin our perfect trip. What if Brian gets mad at me and we have a huge fight? I move down to DC in a mere few days, and what if we don’t work it out before then? Will he not want to marry me anymore?

I survived the remainder of the trip and moving day arrived. I packed up and left everything in New York—my family, my friends, Brian, our dog. I struggled to breathe as I drove through Maryland on I-95 and chastised myself for not being mature enough to handle this.

At orientation, everyone seemed so happy and eager to get to know each other. I put on a smile and a brave face but went home at night and hyperventilated. Damn, I thought. I’m either anxious or dying. And with the daunting task of medical school ahead of me, I knew I either needed to find a way to calm down or drop out and enjoy whatever short time I had left on earth.

 

More drugs

The next logical step in figuring this out was a consult at student health. At my appointment, I complained of my breathing issues but also admitted to my initial panic attack in June. The doctor couldn’t have been nicer or gentler, but once again dismissed me as “anxious female” and handed me a prescription, this time Klonopin. I stopped him as he was leaving the exam room.

So, let’s say this is anxiety.”

He forced a smile. I ignored this and continued.

I’ve never had anxiety before, and I don’t know where this came from or how to deal with it. There must be some way, though, other than drugs. Maybe it will just go away as I settle into school and get adjusted.”

He sighed. “It depends on how much the symptoms bother you. If you’re having trouble breathing on a daily basis, you can try some exercises or we can refer you to the counseling center. But if it’s interfering with your studies, I would suggest trying the drugs in conjunction with that.”

I nodded. I hadn’t even thought about this interfering with “the studies” that had barely begun. I took the prescription and thanked him, telling him I’d let him know what I decided. He mumbled a “call if you want” before closing the door.

I considered all of my options as I walked home to my tiny, empty house. I thought of what I had left behind in New York—my loud, in-your-face-all-the-time Jewish mother whom I loved tremendously, my dad, sister, friends, my new fiancé, and the dog I treated as if she were my child. I realized I had approached this transition into medical school in the entirely wrong way. I had spent so much time convincing myself that I was independent, strong, destined to be a physician, and mature enough to be in a separate city all by myself. I never let myself admit that this transition would be hard—something I would have to wrestle with before it became comfortable.

Anxiety, it seems, is an animal no less complex than the mind itself. We must know, as physicians, that while our knowledge is powerful, it is far less so without an understanding of what it means to be a patient. During this time, everyone labeled me as the classic, anxious female. The whirlwind of thoughts and emotions that made no sense in my head and had caused me endless hours of misery were, just like that, bracketed into a supposedly simple category and given a name. And although my episode was situational and acute, I won’t forget the awful feeling that medical science had provided a completely inadequate definition for what I was going through.

 

Am I going to be a bad doctor?

I remember sitting up the night after the second exam of the year with a friend I had met during orientation. Neither of us felt like trekking out to the post-exam party, so we decided to do the super cool thing and drink wine by ourselves while watching reality TV. A few drinks in, I told her about this whole experience. I confided that I didn’t really know what this anxiety episode meant for my career as a physician. There were so many things coming up—more transitions, life-altering exams, competitive classmates—I had never before doubted that I could handle it. But now, who knows? Was I subject to a panic attack at any moment? Would this make me a bad doctor?

Au contraire, my friend,” she said. “This is going to make you a much, much better doctor.”

I asked her to elaborate.

Well, I’m just guessing,” she said, “but I’m pretty sure you’re never going to diagnose anyone as a ‘Thin White Female’.


TDWI Writer’s Group member, Margaret Cary, developed and teaches the Narrative Medicine/Personal Essay course at Georgetown University School of Medicine. Her students’ essays reflect their thoughts on being in medical school and becoming physicians.

This essay was first posted on 05/03/12. It was reviewed and republished on 10/03/2017.

Samantha Kass
Samantha Kass Newman is a 3rd-year internal medicine resident at NYU School of Medicine. Next year, she will serve as chief resident at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. In her (minimal) free time, she enjoys spending time with her husband Brian, their dog, and their baby boy.

23 COMMENTS

  1. Samantha, even if you don’t get through med school, you’ve got a great career as a humorist. And, if you do – and I’m SURE you will, please don’t totally replace your pen with your scalpel as you are an extremely talented writer. And in the combination of your writing skill, combined with your sense of humor and medical wisdom, I see a wonderful career ahead – helping boht the patients who’ll be in front of you, in your office, as well as those just reading your words.

    BTW, I have the honor of working with hundreds of healthcare CEOs, and one of the presentations that they’ve found most valuable was made to our San Francisco Round Table recently by two professors from UCSF (a RPh, PhD, from the School of Pharmacy, and the other an MD from the School of Medicine). Their presentation was called “De-stress in a Heartbeat” – and proved to all of us the importance of having “tools” to de-stress. I think you’ll find this “source” information of great interest – and applicable the next time you feel short of breath, and don’t want to “solve” your problem with a pill: http://www.heartmath.com/about/research-information.html. Wishing you great success, m

    You

    • Mimi – thank you for your comments and for this resource! I will definitely check it out.

      Best,
      Samantha

  2. Hi!
    I really enjoyed getting to know you! Your frank and forth right writing style is also compelling, relevant and personal! It was nice to read an entry like yours! You indeed will make a wonderful physician, an ability to empathize, take a step back and really see the patient in his/her entirety! It’s not easy being a medical student, physician or patient. You are on your way to greatness and thank you for a forthright description of your experience. It would be nice if more could have a voice like yours! You’re a gift!
    Best,
    Julie

  3. I agree 100% with Julie. Your candor, along with your humorous writing style kept me completely engaged to the very end, but icing on the cake was seeing your approach to life and medicine. (I love that you didn’t fall immediately to drugs as an option to solve what you were dealing with.) This will serve your patients in ways that will leave you both healthier. Yes, you are a gift. Thank you for sharing your story!

  4. Wonderful essay – written with honesty, wit, and insight. I suspect that Samantha will always look at her patients with empathy, kindness, and the sincere belief that medicine is both an art and a science.

  5. As a someone who spent half my life struggling with substance abuse — much of it a futile attempt to self-medicate an anxiety disorder — it worries the heck out of me that your first doctor consult resulted in a thoughtless prescription for a highly addictive psychotropic drug. That way lies madness. Literally, not metaphorically.

    • Hi Ethlie – thank you for sharing your personal experience as it relates to this essay. I agree that way lies madness!!

      Best,
      Samantha

  6. Samantha is very perceptive and observant. She is learning quickly. Anxiety and stress is a big probem for those who practice a very difficult profession. Physician depression,substance abuse and suicide rates are very high compared with those in other lines of work. Developing the skills to deal with those stresses is important for the health of doctors and to keep them from burning out way too early in their careers. Our job is not just to put a name on something. The really effective physician engages others at a very human level in an attempt to help them improve their physical and emotional health. Thank goodness Samantha is learning early on that there is more to medicine than making a diagnosis and throwing a prescription at a patient.

    • Hi Bill – thank you very much for your insightful comments! I hope that this essay will encourage others in the profession to develop the very skills you speak of, and raise awareness about these issues.

      -Samantha

  7. Samantha, you have wonderfully shared your joys and fears with us as you traverse some very important thresholds in your life. May you continue to explore your inner self, achieve peace, balance and understanding of what it is that makes you uniquely you. These experiences will give you greater insight into your future patients and you will see them as people, unique individuals such as yourself, who don’t necessarily need to be put into small boxes and treated with little white pills after a five minute assessment. Wishing you success and a brilliant future.

  8. So when I first read the title of this piece it reminded me of the movie from the 1990s — Single White Female. While there are few comparisons between your narrative and the movie it does provoke the reader into thinking — what does it mean to be a thin, white female. great piece. hope to read more soon.

    • Dr. Saunders – thank you for all your support and encouragement! I am enjoying working with you this semester!

      -Sam

  9. What a talent- and she will also be a great physician. I am so pleased that this “white female” is a HOYA and working with our Narrative Medicine group. I am so proud of your work Samantha!

    Ray Mitchell, MD
    Dean for Medical Education
    Georgetown University

    • Dear Dr. Mitchell,

      Thank you so much for your comments and kind words. I too am very proud to be a HOYA!

      Samantha

  10. Hi Samantha. You might enjoy reading the many beautifully written personal articles on anxiety/panic attacks from this NYT site: The Opinionater. The many blogs following the essays were even more illuminating with more personal stories and some recommendations from which I selected these books: Peace from Within by Dr. Claire.Weeks (repeated recommendations from bloggers), The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich, writings of Bertrand Russel, and last but not least, Cognitive Behavorial Therapy.

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/anxiety/

    All of these sources will remind you that you are not alone. Good luck and best wishes! Morna

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