Re-Writing Your Painful Story

Returning to the scene of the trauma

As I write this, I am on a plane, flying to Chicago where I start my book tour. The irony of this fact is not lost on me. You see, I lived in Chicago for four years while I did my OB/GYN residency at Northwestern. But I havenít been back in more than a decade. Why? Well, itís not that I donít love Chicago. And itís not that I donít have good friends there. But my four years of residency were the hardest four years of my life. I honestly think I have post traumatic stress disorder because of my residency. Itís been more than ten years since I finished, and the nightmares only stopped last year.

Why the trauma?

Well, when youíre a resident, youíre supposed to give up caring about yourself in exchange for caring about patients. You might have been up for 36 hours straight, but if the patient under your care has a complication and needs to go back to surgery, youíre expected to scrub in, even if itís hours past the time when the next resident was supposed to relieve you.

And when your grandmother dies and you want to go to the funeral, forget it. My teacher said, in all seriousness, as if he deserved a medal, ďI didnít even go to my own fatherís funeral.Ē

And when youíve been in the operating room working on a cancer patient for eight hours straight, and you ask to scrub out for a five minute break so you can pee and change your tampon, youíll get laughed at. Someone will say, ďCancer doesnít take a potty breakĒ and youíll cross your legs and hope the blood doesnít soak through your scrubs.

Then, when youíre puking your guts out and pooing liquid from food poisoning and you ask if you can go home so you can worship at the altar of the porcelain gods in the privacy of your own bathroom, theyíll pump you full of anti-nausea medications, fit you with a Depends, and send you back to work in the operating room. And then, when you pass out in the operating room, theyíll put you on a gurney, run a liter of IV fluids into your veins, and send you back to work.

Buck up, Rankin.

Then when youíre in Labor and Delivery on the night when you had to deliver four dead babies, all interspersed with a dozen other live, healthy babies, and you start crying, your teacher says ďBuck up, Rankin.Ē And when you finally deliver the last of the four dead babies and you crumple into a heap on the floor of the locker room, sobbing, your teacher tells you youíll never amount to anything. How will you ever be able to be in charge of Labor & Delivery if you canít learn how not to feel? And you build your armor and start to close off your heart.

Then when youíre doing surgery and you get one stitch wrong, your teacher gets pissed and throws a scalpel at you. It narrowly misses cutting your hand and exposing you to someone elseís potentially infectious blood, but nobody apologizes and youíre expected to keep your mouth shut because this is your job. You are a resident, and YOU just donít matter.

Swear to God. All true stories, and yes, they all happened to me. This kind of abuse messes with your head. Which is why when I went back to the hospital where I did my training six months after I finished my residency, I walked into the lobby and threw up. It wasnít just the hospital. Even walking on the lakeshore, which I loved, reminded me of how I once walked home from Michigan Avenue to Lincoln Park along the lakeshore at 1:00am because I had just finished a long painful day and the bus wasnít coming. Every fabulous restaurant was something I ate as take-out while someone tried to convince me that I didnít matter. Even Wrigley Field reminded me of how the residents used to get paid to be the crowd-doctor on call.

I haven’t been back since.

And where is my first speaking engagement of the book tour? Yup. You guessed it. Northwestern in Chicago. Iíll be speaking there tomorrow. As you can imagine, Iím a bit hesitant about all this. Part of me locks up completely when I even think about the fact that this plane is about to land at OíHare in a mere two hours. How will I feel? How will they respond when Iím standing up there on that stage? What will happen?

I donít know.

These wounds revolving around Chicago and Northwestern are still fresh. Just a few months ago, one of my teachers at Northwestern tried to sue my publishing company because she doesnít like the fact that I titled my book “Whatís Up Down There” (long story). I was so hurt that she would come after me instead of being proud of my accomplishments that it just reinforced the message that I donít matter. That I am a bug others can squash. That I should just bend over and take whatever they throw at me.

But Iím trying to shift my thinking. I am no longer the same person I was back then. I now know that those doctors donít have the power to hurt me, no matter what they do. And I donít want to carry this trauma with me any longer. So Iím trying to think of this book tour — this leg in particular –† as a healing journey. (I will be ending my book tour in Tampa, where I suffered an equally traumatic medical school experience. The tour is kind of book ended by the sites of my biggest life traumas.)

What if, instead of letting the stories of my past dictate how I feel or what I do, I choose to release those stories that no longer serve me and are no longer true? What if, instead of holding on to resentments for past injustices, I can forgive the doctors who hurt me? What if, instead of thinking of Chicago as a graveyard of past pain, I can reclaim this great city as the place of my rebirth?

So this is what I aim to do.

In a short while, I will step off this plane onto Chicago soil for the first time in more than ten years. I will drive the Kennedy in bumper to bumper rush hour traffic as I weave my way to my best friend Katsyís house, where I once nestled in her nurturing arms after long nights of call at the hospital. Tomorrow morning, I will return to the scene of the trauma and step foot into the hospital where I spent four long years. Then I will go to my beloved lakeshore and perform a little release ceremony to let it all go. I have changed. Things have changed. I donít need all that baggage any longer.

This time, I plan to be ALL ME, ALL THE TIME, regardless of what anyone says or does. I will embrace my inner diva as I stand in front of an auditorium of people and I will open my heart to everyone in that audience, even if it includes the ones who hurt me. I will spread the empowering message of Whatís Up Down There? to anyone who chooses to listen, I will launch this book at the S Factor launch party, I will go to Harpo Studios, where I will be on Oprah radio to share my message, and I will rewrite the story of Lissa Rankin in Chicago.

What stories of your own might you re-write?

Why Saying No is Saying Yes To Yourself
Welcoming Your Emotional Genius
Radical Self-Care: 30 Day Challenge


Lauren Stanger
Lauren S5 years ago

I really appreciate you writing this article. It's been a tough past few years and the positive reinforcement in this really touches me and it's so uplifting. You're a tough cookie and don't let anyone tell you different.

Tom Johnston
Tom Johnston6 years ago

Thank you Lissa for your honesty. It's great that you can rewrite your story of abuse at the hands of people with power over you. But what about the system that caused the abuse? When are you going to work to change the abusive system of medical "education" that teaches doctors to stuff their feelings and act like robotic gods while abusing students and graduates like dysfunctional parents? The abuse continues and produces our "healthcare" system that abuses the people it's supposed to be taking care of.

.6 years ago

Once again Lissa, your words and your life story provides encouragement, hope, and the life changing words that so many of us as women, workers, Mom's, spouses, and the "chief, cook and bottle washers" of this nation room to breathe in and say, yes, we can overcome. You are a blessing to women all over this world, and I am so incredibly grateful to "know" you. Your grace, courage, and stamina to go through the trenches, yet allow yourself to be just who you are, and then share the great, not so great, and down right horrible portions of what life throws at you brings comfort to myself and the many women who have dealt with and continue to deal with some really horrific things that happen to us daily... thank you always for being you, and having the courage to share that with all of us....

Janna Spektor

great story! thank you

Chavonne Harvey
Chavonne H6 years ago

good article

Mark S.
Mark S6 years ago

Thank you for sharing. I don't feel so bad about my own painful stories after having read yours. But I hope you'll continue to tell people of the abusive treatment you received as a resident -- if the things you've described were standard practice in any other industry we would be outraged, so why should we accept it in medicine?

gerlinde p.
gerlinde p6 years ago

thanks for sharing, all the best on your rewriting your story.

Lika S.
Lika P6 years ago

Oh gosh... my sister is an OB/GYN and I had no idea about any of that. Seriously, how are you supposed to be a good OB/GYN if you AREN'T compassionate? The best ones always are.

No wonder why it doesn't hurt to be appreciated at times... I know you're getting paid well, but I just think that residents need a better shake.

Past Member
Past Member 6 years ago

Excellent! You go!

Janice P.
Janice P6 years ago

Dear Lissa, I cannot even begin to think about the topic of re-writing my own painful story because of what I read in your article. Quite frankly, I am not surprised at the inhumane treatment leveled at med students. It shows in spades in the conduct of some physicians.

It is never wise to abuse people, who are going to hold the power of life and death in their hands . Sometimes, they become abusive, heartless practitioners. If the sense of humanity and compassion are "beaten" out of a person (by whatever means), everyone in that person's care is at risk.

My mother had such a doctor, who was, by every indication, psychopathic. He deliberately killed my mother, and he TOLD me that he intended to do so. An independent autopsy confirmed that. He was also EXTREMELY abusive to me - and in front of witnesses. I am certain this kind of inhumane, abusive treatment in medical school only exacerbates the sick behavior of physicians, who are already mentally or emotionally unstable. This desperately needs to change.

We are not supposed to be living in barbaric times. No one, including a doctor, can be worth a damn to any patient, when that doctor is working the kinds of hours and under the kinds of conditions, which you described.

I am, by the way, suing the hospital and the doctor (who was only out of medical school for 6 years before he killed my mother), but that will not bring her back to me. Nothing can undo the trauma and damage he caused.