I haven’t been in hospital – as a patient – for many years. So, when I had my first child, the experience of being on the ‘other side’ was quite new to me. The staff were, of course, aware of my background, but I tried very hard to behave like a patient, not a doctor. I was compliant, and non-demanding, and tried not to use my medical knowledge to pre-empt any treatment or discussions.
When I was interviewed by the nurse on discharge, she went through a list of standard questions and she told me that they would refer me to the local child health clinic, as I was ‘high risk’. High risk for what? I had just moved to a new city and we didn’t have any friends or family for support, but I disagreed with her. I was irritated, but kept quiet.
It is strange being the patient when you are usually the doctor. While I like to think that I had turned to the nurse and explained that I am actually a resourceful, intelligent woman who is well aware of risks and supports, I actually said nothing. Nothing at all. In fact, I felt teary. She then told me about postnatal depression; she got some of the facts wrong. My husband reminded them that I was a psychiatrist and taught others about PND. But I kept quiet again, feeling strangely disempowered.
Is this how all patients feel when their health professional talks to them? I wondered why I had acted so out of character. I was vulnerable: I had just given birth, I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I didn’t want to be rude, or to embarass staff who were uncomfortable about having a doctor as a patient. I knew my role was to be the patient and that the hierarchy had changed.
As I packed my bags to leave the hospital, a day earlier than they expected, I folded up the information leaflets that they had given me on mental health and put them in the bottom of my bag. “I’m not high risk,” I told myself. “I know more than them.” It was only later that I realised that I am not unique: I had an insight into how many of my own patients must feel when they are in the exact position that I was.
I will remember that.