It’s always been hard for me to picture Dr. Hoffman actually working as a psychiatrist. As an auditor for the IRS, sure. Or as a bill collector, or a drill sergeant, or even as a standup comedienne who specializes in insult humor. When she was my professor, she always had a sneaky way of getting into our heads and making us question the things we thought we knew. A lot of times she would answer our questions with questions of her own. She put me through a lot when she taught me. I thought when I graduated from med school I had seen the last of her, but I was so wrong. Guess who got promoted? Guess who is now in charge of supervising all the future psychiatrists at the university’s inpatient child and adolescent ward? That’s right, little brother: Dr. Hoffman, the one and only.
I can picture her marching through the corridors, a flock of white-coated interns trailing her like little ducklings who know no better than to follow the first leader they see. (That’s called imprinting, by the way.) Now, as if things aren’t bad enough, Dr. Hoffman was the one I had to talk to today. My worst professor is now my only hope.
Her first question: “What was your reason for leaving your residency at Haven House?”
If Dr. Hoffman had seen Haven House, she’d understand. So I tried to paint a picture for her. I told her it’s a miserable place full of cold white walls and miserable kids. It’s clinical and unadorned, like an operating room. No, not unadorned; deliberately stripped of anything resembling character, making it a place that was no place at all. Sure, it has a nice lobby to impress the parents when they come to visit, but the rest of it looks like the kind of mental institution you see in movies. When I worked there, I realized for the first time just how different the standard of care was for kids whose illnesses were mental and not physical. If children with cancer or AIDS had been treated as my patients had, you would hear about it on the news. But to the staff at Haven House, and maybe to the rest of the world, the patients were nothing but problem children.
I even told Dr. Hoffman about the first time I saw the patients getting what the chief resident called “chair therapy.” In a long corridor, kids sat in their chairs, facing the wall. They weren’t allowed to speak to each other or the staff, or even give anyone eye contact. More than anything I wanted to reach out to them, to be there for them, to listen to what they had to say. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. When I worked in the other hospital last year, the one for adults, that was what I had done. But when I tried that at Haven House, I got in trouble. Just as they weren’t allowed to speak to me, I wasn’t allowed to speak to them!
Shawn, when I say these were kids, I don’t mean they were all teenagers like you. One boy looked like he was only ten years old, and he was crying. Anywhere else, any other doctor would go talk to him to make sure he was okay. I think of all the times you were scared going to the dentist or getting a shot at the doctor’s office. They never just left you there crying. But things are different at Haven House. At Haven House, silently facing a wall for hours on end is just part of the “behavior modification program.”
It was frightening to think this was how they did things there, at one of the most expensive mental hospitals for kids in the northern suburbs. I wondered if the parents who sent their children there had any idea. It wasn’t a place where sick kids could get better. It was a place where rich kids were basically held hostage. If that place was supposed to be one of the best, what did that mean for the specialty I had chosen?
Of course somehow, the patients were always miraculously “cured” the day their insurance ran out. It didn’t matter if the kids were better – just that their bills were being paid. The worst was a boy being sent home too soon. He was still depressed – anyone could see that. I was worried about him. His first day out, he deliberately crashed his car into a tree and shattered both his legs. He’ll probably need several operations before he can walk again, if he can ever walk at all. Nobody at Haven House even seemed to care except for me. That was when I knew I had to leave.
©2016 Tiffany Gholar