July 23, 2017
A phone buzzed somewhere in the vicinity of her head. Nora reached over and felt around the nightstand, hoping that she could grab her phone without actually leaving the warm and cozy cocoon that she had managed to burrito herself into over the course of the night. Begrudgingly, she pulled her phone underneath the covers with her and squinted at the screen's bright light. She dimmed the brightness so that it was more palatable to the darkness before returning to whatever it was that had caused her phone to buzz in the first place. She felt a surge of annoyance when she saw that it had been nothing more than an automated text message from her wireless carrier, thanking her for submitting an automatic payment. She let herself close her eyes again and sensed the phone's light dim again a few seconds later.
Suddenly, she sat bolt upright in bed. 8:32AM? Did she sleep through her alarm? Did it just...not go off?! Late for work was never a good luck on anyone, and she glanced at her phone again and frowned. Why had nobody called or texted her to ask where she was? Her presence, or lack thereof, would have been sorely noticeable and the whole mess would reflect poorly on her. Nora let out a frustrated sigh and threw the covers off, shivering at the exposure and sudden cold. She froze.
Something was wrong.
This wasn't her room. This wasn't her bed. And this wasn't her stuff! No blackout curtains, the strange generic furniture, all of this bright light, none of this was right. She examined her surroundings again, this time more alert and awake. This time, she was very obviously in a hotel room, and as far as she could tell, the sleeping body in the other queen-sized bed in the room was that of her roommate's. Why were they in a hotel room? Had a pipe burst at their house? Had they decided to indulge and treat themselves to a staycation? "That can't be right," she mumbled to herself. She was supposed to work this weekend, there was no way that she would have agreed to that, not now.
Not wanting to waste any time, Nora did her best to rush through her usual morning routine without waking Sam. She tiptoed around their belongings and several stacks of newspapers that didn't quite make sense to her. Ignoring them for now, she did her best to get ready for her work day, and in no less than...thirteen minutes. Patting herself on the back for getting ready so quickly, she made sure she had everything she needed and grabbed her backpack, ready to show up at work three hours late and ready to eat some crow with her superiors.
The hotel, she found, was conveniently close to Mass Gen, and she rushed through the crowds of commuters and tourists and made her way to work. She ran through a million and one excuses and scenarios in her head in an attempt to prepare herself for explaining her tardiness to her coworkers, but in the end, she decided to settle on the truth. She had slept through her alarm. Simple as that.
Nora hurried through the halls of the hospital, speed-walking through corridor after corridor and doing her best not to run into anyone. If she could just get to the locker rooms without anyone noticing her, then she could call herself good. Somehow, being caught late and in street clothes felt far worse than being late and walking in wearing scrubs. She noticed a few odd glances here and there as she rushed through the hallways, but she ignored them all the same. A few minutes later, Nora had thrown her backpack into her locker and made swift work of changing out of her streets and into a pair of hospital-issue muted green scrubs. She threw on her white coat and made sure that she had her stethoscope and cell phone on her. All she had to do now was make it down to the emergency department without getting sidetracked.
Unfortunately, that didn't seem to be in the plans. She stepped into the staff elevator and hit the button for the first floor. The doors began to close, only to open again a few seconds later. A bespectacled older woman stepped in and gave her a strange, shocked look. "Dr. Saylor, what are you doing here?" she asked as she stepped onto the elevator.
Of course I have to run into my program director of all people, she thought. "Dr. Wolf, hi. I must have overslept," Nora answered in one breath. "I'll catch up though, it's all good."
She was met with further skepticism. The older doctor frowned as she pushed a button on the elevator panel. "Why don't we talk in my office?" she asked, though it was clear that it wasn't a question but a command.
"Uh. Okay." She spoke quietly. The rest of the elevator ride passed in silence and seemed to last forever. Finally, the elevator slowed to a halt and chimed, the doors opening to let off its passengers. Deferring to Dr. Wolf, Nora let her exit first and then followed her through the halls without saying a word, staying one step behind her and to her left, a practice she had grown accustomed to with most of the attendings she worked with over the years. It wasn't long before they arrived at a heavy wooden door with a nameplate bearing Dr. Wolf's name and title. Nora furrowed her brow; she had only been in this office a number of times to deal with various administrative and procedural affairs, and though this time felt no different than the others, she had the sudden urge to prepare herself for the worst while also hoping for the best. So she had overslept. It had happened before, and it would happen again, and even though they were in the business of saving lives, she and her colleagues made mistakes like anyone else did, and it didn't serve them to dwell on alarm clock mishaps.
The other woman unlocked her office door and waved Nora in. "Have a seat," she smiled tightly. She waited until Nora had stepped into her office before she followed her, closing the door behind her and sitting down behind her desk. "So you overslept today?" she asked.
The tone in her voice was difficult to read. "I did," Nora nodded. "I don't know if I just didn't hear my alarm or if it didn't go off or what, but I rushed over as soon as I realized what had happened. I figured it probably wouldn't be too much of an issue." She tried to make her answer exude confidence. This happened to everyone every now and then, didn't it? Their line of work might have made them feel invincible on most days, but they were only human.
Dr. Wolf pursed her lips and nodded. "It happens, and as long as the resident or fellow catches up, then it works itself out." She paused for a few moments. "Do you remember speaking with me late last week? Thursday, I believe?"
Nora did her best to think of the events of the past week but was startled to see that she couldn't. She could picture bits and pieces of the past week, but there was nothing cohesive about any of the memories she had summoned. Suddenly, she felt terrified. How disconcerting. "Uh. No, actually," she admitted. "I don't. I...don't really remember much of last week at all." It hurt to say the words out loud, but she knew that it was for the better. She couldn't lie about this, not if it meant endangering other people.
The other woman took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "I was afraid of that," she said sadly. "You had a house fire on Wednesday and we placed you on leave so that you could recover and take the time to find new living arrangements." She paused to write something on a notepad on her desk. "You don't remember any of this?"
A house fire? Their house? Dr. Wolf's words echoed in her ears and suddenly it felt like the room was spinning as she tried her best to process this information. "No, I...no. I don't remember anything," she said quietly after a few moments.
She sighed. "I'm going to need to talk to a few other people. We had placed you on leave for the remainder of July," she started. "But I think we should extend that and require that you see a psychologist before you return to work."
Nora listened to every single word that she said, but it took four, five, six times of mental repetition before they finally sank in. She was in no position to fight this. "How long do I have?"
"As much time as you need. It would be ideal to have you back on campus sooner rather than later, even if you haven't been cleared to operate again," she explained. "But I think you're dealing with some PTSD and dissociative memory problems and I'd like for you to have the opportunity to work through that before you come back, for the sake of everyone around you. And yourself, of course," she added hastily.
Well if this wasn't a sobering new reality, then what was? Nora couldn't bring herself to say anything else and nodded instead. Her head was still spinning at everything that had just happened and she had no idea what she was supposed to do next. Dr. Wolf seemed to have a haphazard plan in place and Nora thought she heard her say something about emailing her with next steps and how to go about all of this, but none of the information was sticking or being processed. Without saying another word, she stood up and walked out of the office and back towards the locker room. She had to get out of there. She had to get back to the hotel, tell her roommate, and figure out what on earth was happening to them.
July 31, 2017
She sat in the office, still unsure of what she was doing there. Nora knew why she had to be there, and she didn't disagree with the purpose of these sessions, but she had no idea how she was supposed to explain the inexplicable, the new reality of hers that was affecting her life outside of that one week each month and was having bad, bad real world effects. What had started out as a bizarre inconvenience had turned into a literal house fire, and now, here she was.
The walls were a sterile white, like most walls in the hospital. Nora spent most of her days surrounded by them, and usually, they brought comfort in their familiarity. Right now, they were making her feel awkward, trapped, studied: as if she were under a microscope and every little fidget was being documented by someone. For a moment, she had to wonder if all of this felt so foreign because she was suddenly on the other side of the desk for a change, and suddenly, she envied the person sitting opposite her.
The brunette spoke and broke the uncomfortable silence. "I'm Dr. Grieco, one of the faculty here. I appreciate your flexibility in meeting me at the hospital rather than at my usual private practice office. So what brings you here today?"
They say to start with the truth, don't they? Nora thought. "I'm not really sure."
She began to write something down but didn't skip a beat with her questioning. "But you think that this is something that you could benefit from?"
"Yeah, probably." So much for the truth.
Nora sighed, thinking about how to answer her question without sounding, well, crazy. "I just—I've been feeling crazed and I need an objective voice. Someone to tell me like it is."
She puts her pen down and focuses on you rather than on the notes she scribbles. "You don't have someone to do that right now?"
"Outside of work? It...sometimes. Not really. It doesn't feel as objective as it should."
"What do you have?"
"I have...friends. My parents, but they're kind of..." she trailed off, unsure how to talk about her parents' divorce when she had yet to process any of it given all of the other things that had been thrown at her recently. "We talk. Usually, it's helpful. Sometimes it's not."
"What makes it unhelpful?"
"I don't know. I guess...sometimes I feel unheard. Or like other people are trying to make decisions on my behalf without talking to me first. I mean, that's why I'm really here," Nora rambled, stopping herself when she noticed that Dr. Grieco had raised her brow.
"What do you mean? Could you elaborate on that?" she asked.
"Well..." Nora took a deep breath. "I'm here because my program director says that I have to be before I can operate again. That I need to be cleared for surgery, because she was worried about all of the trauma I've been through recently and how my brain is or isn't processing any of it." Another deep breath. "She talked to you about some of this, right?"
"Of course, but I want to hear it from you. I need to hear it in your own words."
Nora's stomach turned. "Okay. Well. My house exploded a couple of weeks ago. The BFD thinks it was a gas leak. I don't remember any of it and I was told that I needed to talk to someone about it when I showed up to work even though I had been placed on leave. I couldn't remember the fire, I couldn't remember talking to Dr. Wolf about it afterwards and being told to take some time off, and now I'm here."
Dr. Grieco scratched a few more notes onto the pad of paper and pulled out a packet from her desk, reaching across the table to hand it to Nora. "I'm giving you this intake form. It's a long one, but it's everything that I need to know to get started. Bring this next week and we'll talk then. I know that you're itching to get back to work as soon as possible, and we'll work on that too, but I need to know more about you before we address the acute trauma that you've spoken about. In the meantime, I want you to do this exercise. I want you to come up with a list of five words to describe your relationship with your mother, and then another list to describe your relationship with your father."
She picked up the packet with her fingers. It was heavy, long. She gave the envelope a cursory glance. Like I actually have time to do this? She thought to herself. "Okay."
"Remember, describe the relationship, not the person. It's a good exercise."
"Sure." Quietly seething, she kept her responses short and stood up from her chair. "I'll see you next week."