They Should Do This at the Psych Ward!


Today is a sunny Saturday, and my morning consisted of two important medical appointments.  I had scheduled a mammogram and a lithium blood level/fasting glucose test far in advance so that I’d have my husband available to care for our children – and Lucy puppy!  I dreaded going to both appointments for different reasons. The lithium blood level wasn’t that big a deal and it was an old hat procedure.  But I hated the fasting with a passion!  

Last year my psychiatrist suggested checking my glucose level regularly, which was something I’d never done in the past.  When I first started seeing him he ordered a baseline glucose level and my result was pre-diabetic.  Scary stuff.  We did another check and it was much lower, thank God.

I showed up at the lab bright and early.  After I sat down, ready to be stuck by the needle, the phlebotomist said she couldn’t find my doctor’s fax request so she couldn’t test me.  It wasn’t end-of-the-world stuff by any means, but it was totally frustrating all the same. I went in search of a gallon of coffee so I could become human once more.  

Fortunately my beloved, dog-friendly Surf City Coffee shop was just down the road. I had fun buying a sample pack of locally made, organic “Lucky Dog” cookies for Lucy!  I showed the barista my puppy pictures, acting as if I had given birth to her myself!

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After mainlining Surf City’s delicious caffeine, I checked email on my Kindle and then set out for my local hospital’s breast center.  This place held very bad memories for me.  Several years ago I had an abnormal mammogram that resulted in my need to get a lumpectomy.  I had already been in the throes of a deep bipolar depression, and when I was told that there was a chance I had breast cancer and that I needed surgery, I plunged further down into that morass.  At the same time, a friend and neighbor who had been diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer was rapidly declining. Despite the fact she had a double mastectomy and she fought the cancer with an extraordinary strength, her two small children and husband lost her to the evil disease.  I was terrified that I would face the same fate.

I had the lumpectomy done, and I waited over seven days for the results. That was excruciating – I have never been a patient gal.  During the waiting period we went to snowy Lake Tahoe for a few days, as Craig wanted to cheer me up and give our girls a break.  I felt incredibly anxious about my lumpectomy findings. The radiologist himself was going to call me about my results, but he hadn’t promised exactly what day that would be, which drove me nuts.  

When he called me with good news about my lump being benign, I was profoundly relieved.  I was still depressed, but I felt grateful all the same.  I hoped never to repeat that experience again! Boob treatsBoob goodiesSo, when I walked into the breast center this morning, I was welcomed warmly by the staff.  I spotted several tables in the waiting area that were filled with yummy-looking fruit, dessert breads, a coffee/tea/cocoa bar (!!!) and best of all: BOOBY COOKIES! Yes, booby cookies.  A baker had handcrafted graham crackers stuffed with marshmallow filling and they were topped with a candy “nipple”.  I don’t know if she put anything else in them but they were super-good!

There were also goody bags filled with cute pink trinkets like pens, keychains, a stuffed animal, pamphlets on breast health, etc.  A OB/GYN doctor was hanging out in the lobby available to answer any health-related questions that we had.  To top it off, there was free massage offered by a certified massage therapist.  All the staff wore pink outfits and flowers, and they were really cool and friendly.  It was clear they were having fun watching the incoming patients’ surprise at such a festive atmosphere.

I later learned that one of the longtime staffers, a beautiful blonde woman named “Charlie” who I recognized from my past visits, created this biannual event.  She wanted to add cheer and education to the gloomy, often stressful mammogram procedure.

 As I waited for my turn, I made myself a coffee (like I needed more, but hey, it was good!), ate strawberries and pineapple, and I chatted with the doctor.  I couldn’t think of a good question to ask her, so she shared with me about caring for a group of women who were disabled during the previous day.  It was a sobering conversation, but I appreciated her insights.

In retrospect, I realized I could have asked her if she ever had a patient like me: a mother diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder. I’d love to know what her perspectives were about postpartum mental illness in our community.  Damn!  I missed a great opportunity!  BIG DUH! I had noticed her name, however, and I knew I could call her.  I liked her attitude and I had a feeling she would be a valuable contact.

I didn’t have time to get a massage, as Craig needed me back home.  I told Charlie it was the first time in my life I ever turned down a free massage.  She encouraged me to return to their office in October for the next special event. I could have my massage then, even though I wouldn’t need a mammogram in six months.  I was so stoked!

As I drove away it occurred to me how wonderful it would be if there was something like that event taking place at psych wards.  Really.  The ubiquitous community rooms found in psych units could occasionally be turned into a warm, welcoming place on a weekend afternoon.  Extra-special treats could be brought out for patients and their visitors to enjoy, an “Ask-the-Doctor” volunteer could casually hang out for patient/visitor questions, there could be free massage (!), maybe soft classical live music, and this would be the best part: animal therapy.  

As far as the liability issues and high-risk patients go…well, during all the times I hung out in mental hospital community rooms, I barely saw any patient totally freak out and seem harmful.  If the staff are doing their job properly, then if a patient has a psychotic break, the appropriate staff will be take action right away. If a high-risk patient wants to interact with a therapy animal, I’m not sure how that would roll, but the concept is worth exploring regardless. It took just one breast center staffer, Charlie, to dream up such a beautiful event all on her own.  

I guarantee that she helped make every woman’s experience at the center a special one today.  I know that because as I helped myself to the fruit, coffee and cookies, I watched the other patients’ reactions and I heard their enthusiastic feedback. Maybe there are other “Charlies” who work in mental hospital settings who would like to create a special event in their milieu.

Someday after I’ve finished my book, I can imagine exploring to see if it’s possible to create special events in the psychiatric unit setting.  I have a background in special event production after all.

I could check in with my friend who I’ve known for twenty-five years, an extremely experienced charge nurse who worked in the behavioral health unit where I first admitted myself.  He would tell me if such an event in the mental hospital setting would be viable.  For all I know, this concept is already happening in hospitals, but I have no idea.  It doesn’t hurt to do a little research.  We’ll see!

Driving By Anna’s House


I drive by her house at least once every day.

I never fail to turn my head while passing her driveway on the busy road.  I glance at her front door and porch.

I say her name under my breath.

She died four years ago, on my youngest daughter’s birthday.

She was my age.  She had two children the same ages as my own, and we met at our kids’ preschool.

Her husband loved her…his love for her was beautiful, loyal and strong.  He didn’t leave when she started her decline.  When traditional methods failed, he took her to an alternative clinic.  They couldn’t afford that, but he asked others for financial help.  He wanted her to live so badly; she was his life.

She was beautiful, even when she shaved her head during chemotherapy.  After the breast cancer had ravaged her body, she kept volunteering at the preschool despite growing weaker from the disease and the treatment.

She fought cancer tooth and nail – she really did.  If anyone could have “beat it”, it would have been her.

When I had a scare with breast cancer, I had biopsy surgery.  Then I waited for the results.  I felt so terrified.  Anna invited me over to her house to hang out.  I wasn’t good company; my bipolar depression was in full force, but she didn’t care about that.

I didn’t want to complain to her; she needed my complaints like she needed a hole in her head!  Nevertheless, she knew what I was worried about, and she gave me support in the midst of her own fight.  Not many people could do that.  She was extraordinary.

These days, I see her lovely little girl each week at my daughter’s dance class.  While I know appearances can be deceiving, her child smiles, dances joyfully and she looks happy.  She has a devoted father, and she has a circle of friends around her.

Still, the loss of a mother is an incalculable loss.  No child should lose her mom.  Our girls repeatedly ask us if we’ll die – it’s one of their greatest fears.  Now that I’m a mother, I view the death of a parent so differently than I did before I had children.

As long as I live I’ll never forget Anna.  If you met her you’d never forget her resilience, her fighting spirit, or her compassion. There’s the trite phrase “only the good die young”, but it really is true in Anna’s case.  She affected a lot of people in positive ways, not just me.  Our world lost someone special when she left it

I’ll be passing by her house this afternoon around 4:15 p.m. At that time, I’ll be thinking of Anna and wishing her well, wherever her spirit has soared to, and I’ll be thinking of her family too.  I know they can’t ever get over her death, but I hope they will find as much peace as is possible living without her.  I know she would want that for them.