I am wearing my favorite scrubs, the teal ones a friend gave to me while I was volunteering in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. My first-year classmates and I are in front of the anatomy lab, waiting to see our cadaver for the first time. Our group enters, and we stand around the blue-plastic-cloaked body for a few minutes, preparing ourselves and discussing the task at hand. My anatomy partner pulls back the sheet, and I gasp. I am back in the stifling morgue staring at Susannah again.* Bloated, cold, lifeless. Part of me knows she isn’t Susannah — but the skin is the same color; the evidence of poverty written across her cracked nails, the scarred hands, the hard lines on her face — all the same. All that is missing is the little boy by her side. Where is Johnny?
Tragedy in the Dominican Republic
Johnny was three years old and his mother Susannah was in her early 20s when they were murdered. I met them in the Dominican Republic after their death, their bodies both thrown into a single wooden casket in the back room of a small health clinic. Susannah was from Haiti and undocumented, which meant her life and Johnny’s were dispensable.
Five Dominican men reportedly broke into the tiny home Johnny and Susannah shared with three other families, in order to steal what little they had. As Susannah ran for her life, cradling her son in her arms, the men shot her in the leg before putting a second bullet through her head and dumping their bodies in the canal.
I was living in a nearby batey community, and was called to go with one of our community leaders to speak with Susannah’s relatives and bear witness to their grief. The police were telling the community that Johnny and Susannah had drowned. Never mind how the bullet tore through her mouth, leaving her tongue to hang out where there were no longer lips. It was a simple drowning that did that. There would be no investigation. No justice. Susannah and Johnny did not exist on paper in life, and in death it would be no different.
Flashbacks that torment
Back in the cadaver lab, my mind is still racing as my vision returns. Tears stream down my face, and the lab is blurry, but I manage to choke out “Excuse me” and fumble my way out to the hallway. Our clinical attending follows me, and his attempts to comfort me only make me cry harder. I hadn’t cried for Johnny and Susannah in so long.
That night, I confide in a classmate about the flashback. She listens, hugs me tightly and starts to tell me about her own experiences and how much therapy has helped her. She encourages me to see someone.
Sometimes we all need help, she tells me. Although I know she is right, I hesitate for a few days. Won’t this go away on its own, as it has before? However, the flashback has dug up much more than my unprocessed emotions about the brutal injustices that killed Johnny and Susannah. The fear of being attacked is back again each time I walk down a street alone. My distrust of men has returned in the back of my mind. At night, I am lost in disturbing dreams that wake me up in a cold sweat. I need help unpacking the experiences of the past year and know it will be nearly impossible, as a busy first-year student, to dedicate the time to do so without something structured.
A therapy program for medical students
As a future physician, I want to be able to help others who have dealt with trauma, and not have their pain trigger my own. Medical students are incredibly fortunate to have a program through the WellMed initiative that offers therapy to medical students for a $10 copay, rendering the financial barriers nearly obsolete. Within a few weeks of my decision to reach out, I had completed my intake appointment and was paired with an excellent third-year resident psychiatrist, who would become my therapist for the next five months. We explored each issue in turn, and I felt myself getting stronger and more grounded with each session. I found myself telling friends that I was going to therapy, proud to have taken this step and hoping that by sharing my decision I may help destigmatize mental health services within our profession just a little bit more.
Telling their story: Five years later
My decision to seek therapy was the first step on a healing journey that has brought me to where I am today. Although it has been my intention ever since I left the morgue that day, it is only now that I find myself finally able to tell Johnny and Susannah’s story, five years later. The timing is cruelly appropriate; anti-Haitian discrimination and violence have been accelerating again in the Dominican Republic. Some people’s lives are valued less because of their skin color, their nationality or their legal status. As we fight to change our own system to reflect the fact that black lives matter, my friends who live in the communities where Susannah and Johnny once lived are fighting for the same thing.
As a primary care physician, I will come face to face with the health consequences of discrimination and violence every day. I will need to be solid in my own wellness in order to be an effective support to my patients, my colleagues, and my community.
For me, seeking help in the form of mental health counseling was the start of a true commitment to self-care that I have carried with me ever since. It is through this commitment to self that I will be able to continue to serve others and work toward greater equality and justice in our society, in honor of Johnny and Susannah.
* Names and identifiers have been changed.
Chelsea McGuire is a medical student. She blogs at The Doctor’s Tablet.