Has it really been only two weeks since Match Day?
So much life has occurred. A bachelor party. Match Day. Epilogue Week. An awards gala. A whole family gathering. Parents living with children and grandchildren. A short and sweet week off.
This past week off, a glorious break between Epilogue week and the beginning of April rotations, has been relaxing and painful at the same time.
We needed to secure future housing, as our current home is a bit too cramped for a growing family with additional caretakers. Over the past few weeks, Mackenzi and my mother had been spending hours a day on various rental and for sale homes in the greater Lehigh Valley.
The search came to a sudden and very pleasant end on Monday with a lovely 4bed 2.5bath in Upper Macungie Township. We negotiated a lower price for the first two year’s rent, to accommodate some unexpected expenses related to moving in and caring for the property. A good first step in truly adult-ing.
That evening, while preparing a quick celebratory dinner for Mackenzi and my father, my mother sent me a message. She asked me to contact someone, the son of a friend of her’s from Florida. My mother said he is going through a hard time and that his mother is worried.
Initially, I told her that unless he is thinking about killing himself, I didn’t really feel like trying to call this rando and giving him a free therapy session. My mom said she understood and checked in with his mother. A few minutes later, she told me that things aren’t very good and that it may be worth a call.
So I gave him a call. Straight to voicemail. I called again a few minutes later, same thing.
I decided that my celebratory evening would not be hinging on this phone call, so I proceeded to cook up some eggs to go with our bibimbap. As soon as I cracked the eggs, I got a call from an unknown number. I answered and I could hear him on the other side.
He sounded young and had that lilt with his English, which told me that he probably grew up speaking Korean. Our reception wasn’t very good and I had trouble understanding him and he had trouble understanding me.
Since I didn’t know anything other than his name, I asked him a few quick questions. How old is he? Was he born in the states or did he immigrate with his parents? When did he start school? After I peppered him to get a vague idea of his demographics, he asked me if I was a medical person. Told him the truth: sort of, I’m a medical student.
He got skittish and hung up the phone.
So I decided that I wouldn’t call him back, that if he wanted to continue the conversation that he would need to make the effort. And he did call back a few minutes later, as the eggs were starting to solidify and the pan was crackling.
He apologized for getting scared. He also told me that he was just saying goodbye to his best friend.
Was he planning on some international travel?
At this point, I figured I should ask the two most important psych questions.
- Are you thinking about killing yourself?
- Do you have a plan of how to kill yourself?
If he answered no to either one or both, then I could continue on with my dinner prep without feeling too bad. The phone connection was shoddy at best and I couldn’t give him a therapeutic conversation in this setting, so if he wasn’t an active danger to himself then I would simply tell him to seek help in the morning and make sure someone watched over him.
However, if he answered yes to both, then this kid has a decent chance of killing himself.
And he did answer yes to both.
It is surprising how relieved an actively suicidal person is when you ask them those two questions directly. They usually hide their sadness or the depths of their despair with those closest to them, not wanting others to feel bad. A good friend may ask how you are doing, but not ask the big, challenging question of ‘are you going to kill yourself?’ even when the writing is on the wall.
For me, this call was the first time I ever spoke to someone on the edge. I have had lovely and frank conversations with many people on the other side of this moment, when they decide to seek help and gain admission into a psych unit. However, I have never held space for someone on the precipice.
He told me yes, I am thinking about killing myself. He said yes, I have a plan to throw myself down these stairs. Suddenly, the bits and pieces of conversation arranged themselves clearly: this kid was standing at the top of a tall building’s staircase, which explained the poor reception, and his phone call to his best friend was a terminal goodbye. The only thing missing was a good suicide note in his dorm room.
From that point on, I felt a chill run down my spine as my voice relaxed and deepened.
As a practicing psychiatrist, I won’t be the one to run to the aide of a fellow traveler when the flight attendant asks the plane if there are any doctors on board. My triage and emergent medical training simply won’t be up to snuff. I will tell Mackenzi, a family medicine resident/physician, to take care of that.
I will, however, be the one to talk to someone on the edge of killing themselves. Maybe they are standing on the edge like this fellow, or maybe they have a knife in their hand or a pistol in their mouth. My job won’t be to start chest compressions. My job will be to talk them down from committing suicide.
So a calm washed over me. A feeling that I haven’t felt since witnessing my bloody landlord escape into the woods across the street. I had a deep confidence that I wasn’t going to fuck this up, because I couldn’t fuck this up.
However, the eggs needed flipping. So I grabbed the spatula while I repeated his name and affirmed to him that I empathized with his situation. I told him that he should probably seek out help and go to the hospital.
I told him that he’s not safe with himself and that he needs to be with someone, in person, as soon as possible.
He told me he was going to call an uber and then head home, then go to the hospital with his mother. I told him that sounded like a plan. I asked him to text me updates so that I could know he is, for the moment, safe.
We exchanged some words and the call ended.
I let out a deep sigh of relief. Mackenzi, in the other room, hearing only my side of the conversation, told me that I did something good.
Then, I finished plating the eggs and prepared the table for dinner. After the meal, I found out from my mother that he did make it to the hospital.
Finally, time for some celebration.