How discovering trauma changed this doctor’s life

For as long as I could remember, I had always wanted to be a doctor. I used to destroy my younger sister’s dolls, giving them incurable, permanent-marker-based diseases, surgically treating various ailments with craft scissors.

The other earliest memory I have is of being told I had a few months to live at the age of five. I remember sitting in the surgeon’s office, staring at the lucite paperweight on his desk filled with pennies suspended in mid-air, wondering if that was what heaven looked like? I figured I would find out soon enough. Leaving the surgeon’s office, I sat in the backseat of a taxi with my mother and baby sister, nothing but the sound of heaving sobs and a screaming toddler filling the air.

Fortunately, since I am writing this, it was a misdiagnosis, and the tumor they removed from my right leg was benign. And I went on with my life, trying to forget about the huge scar that marred my skin, making wearing shorts or a bathing suit a constant invitation to a flurry of “Oh my gosh, what happened to you?” Sometimes I would say I was attacked by a bear.

But I wasn’t able to leave the past behind because when I was nine years old, the tumor grew back. And this time, I was certain it would be fatal. So, I did what any terrified child whose parents were getting divorced would do — I told absolutely no one.

Five years went by, and I kept my secret. I was a sullen teenager now, so my silence and dark moods were expected. But one day, I confessed, sobbing, to my mother that the tumor was back and had been for many years, and this time, I really was going to die. Another surgery, another scar, and another recovery — the tumor was still benign. And so, I returned to being a “normal” teenager.

Except that I was always in constant pain. My neck hurt, my shoulders were so tense I could hardly carry a backpack, people kept telling me to “sit up straight.” One day, a year after the leg surgery, I came out of the shower and looked at myself in the mirror and nearly fainted; instead of the normal profile of a teenage girl, I saw a grotesque, deformed silhouette, one side of my spine totally uneven from the other, ribs protruding, shoulders curved inward. My heart started pounding out of my chest, and I ran screaming to my mother that something was very wrong.

I’ll never forget sitting in the orthopedic surgeon’s office, seeing my alien-looking X-rays up on the lightbox, and hearing: “She will still be able to lead a normal life, there will be many things she won’t be able to do, but yes, she will still be able to become a doctor…”

I was diagnosed with severe idiopathic scoliosis with a curvature so massive that only surgery and a complete spinal fusion would treat it. And even then, it would not be a cure. I missed most of the 10th grade, spending it in and out of hospitals, wearing orthopedic braces, unable to participate in any sports or activities for a year.

My medical traumas only fueled my desire to become a physician — I would help save people, I would treat disease, not suffer from it; I would be the hero. I would finally be in control.

And so my dream came true but quickly turned into a nightmare once we began our clinical rotations. I hadn’t realized that just entering a hospital would be catastrophic for me. My heart would pound, I would become sweaty, lightheaded, the room would start spinning, and I would hear a high-pitched noise. I was diagnosed with “panic attacks” and treated with some cognitive behavioral therapy exercises to “get over it.”

I managed to graduate from medical school with top honors, despite fainting in several ORs. In residency, things didn’t improve. While I got used to being in the hospital, things started to go awry. I had nightmares every single night — and not just regular ones, but graphic, apocalyptic nightmares. Sometimes I was a corpse being dissected. Sometimes I was escaping nuclear holocaust. Sometimes I was being shot at by an enemy army.

I had trouble concentrating at work. I drank too much on the weekends. I was plagued by a nagging feeling that I had a terminal illness. Sometimes it was leukemia, or HIV, a brain tumor, or some rare neurological condition. I was constantly checking myself for more tumors.

It wasn’t until my fellowship and the sudden death of my best friend’s husband that I began to realize I had to leave medicine. I was pouring all of my energy into concealing my anxiety and had nothing left to give. It was the wake-up call I needed, and after much agony, I walked away from a career that had started in childhood and taken until my mid-30s to realize.

When I bravely exited from a life in medicine, my anxiety and hypochondria improved somewhat. Still, I was panicked about every twinge or ailment, convinced there was something terribly wrong with me, we just hadn’t found it yet. But I confessed these fears to no one — not my therapists, physicians, or even my husband.

After the birth of my daughter (convinced I would die in childbirth), my anxiety began to intensify again. I was unable to experience the joys of motherhood because I just envisioned her being taken away through a tragic accident or deadly diagnosis. I would look at her sleeping and burst into tears.

There was no one straw that finally broke me, but one day, my marriage in trouble from my constant anxiety, I could no longer pretend there was nothing wrong with me.

I happened to get an appointment with an African American PA who was an expert in racial trauma. She took one look at me, heard my story, which included being the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and practically shouted at me: “YOU HAVE TRAUMA UPON TRAUMA UPON TRAUMA – YOU HAVE PTSD.”

No, I don’t. Of course, I don’t have PTSD, are you joking? I’ve never been to war? I’ve never been abused? Have I? What trauma have I suffered? I had no idea that by pursuing a career in medicine that reactivated that trauma day in, day out, I was like a shell-shocked soldier repeatedly returning to combat. My “panic attacks” were, in fact, flashbacks.

In some ways, my diagnosis was the beginning of the rest of my life. I’m now a health coach, helping women struggling with chronic stress and anxiety. And I love what I do. I am able to use all of my healing skills and my personal journey to give back and help others along their path.

I’m still afraid of roller coasters, rock climbing, horror movies, and airplanes — but one step at a time.

Zarya Rubin is a physician and integrative health coach.

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