Mother Knows Best: My Migraine-Riddled Start to Medical School, and How It Shaped the Way I Approach Medicine

I was a stranger in a foreign land.

I had just touched down in Yakima for the first time as a new osteopathic medical student at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, and it was already go time.

The first two days went by in a blur. Then the first two weeks. Everything was unfamiliar, and it was flying — until week three.

That’s when the headaches started.

At first, they were only every once in a while. Then they became more regular. Their intensity started increasing. In a few months, I found myself living in the grips of a migraine that did not go away. I could still sleep, but every morning I’d wake with that all familiar pain.

But I had to keep going. There was more to learn. Tests were around the corner. Looking back, I probably should have been more alarmed when I began to have blurred vision, but I found that if I closed my eyes for a bit it would go away. So… I persisted.

Soon, the migraine began to feel “normal.” I’d squeeze in a few hours of studying until the threshold between “normal” and pain became large enough to trip over. Ibuprofen seemed to dull the pain enough to allow me to get what I absolutely needed to get done, done. Worried, I made an appointment with my primary care physician. The earliest appointment was two weeks out.

ehimetalor-unuabona-270319-unsplash.jpg

My migraines persisted, and my vision was becoming increasingly blurred. A new symptom — dizziness — started to present itself. Now the concern was real. I would actually get dizzy.

Getting up too fast would sway me off balance. I remember someone calling my name, and the simple act of turning my head made me stumble.

My PCP struggled to pinpoint my problem, and suggested a CT scan. After going to the urgent clinic, my PCP, and getting a CT, I was ready to break down.

Through all of this, my healthcare providers took the time to explain that everything was normal. “Nothing is ‘wrong,’” they assured me.

Frustrated and overwhelmed, I did what so many who know me could have guessed: I called my mom. Looking back, a call that started as nothing more than an opportunity to vent redefined my understanding of healthcare.

I told her all about my day. My grievances carried her through page after page of my migraine-fogged life. After about thirty minutes, she stopped me.

“Rebecca,” she said, “ do your headaches get worse after class?”

Yes.

“How about when you’re on on your computer? Do they get worse then too?”

Yes.

“Is your display brightness turned down to zero?” As a matter of fact…

She sighed. “Well, have you gotten your eyes checked?"

NO.

trent-erwin-338084-unsplash.jpg

Mom had talked me into a plausible diagnosis… potentially the most plausible yet, despite her lack of anything that could be considered a formal medical education. She didn’t need a text to reference, she had a life of experience. She was perceptive, and she listened. And her patient knowledge was vast.

After all, I wasn’t her patient… I was her daughter.

I made an appointment and, two weeks later, I was sitting before an ophthalmologist. My eyes were under strain, the ophthalmologist explained. Bright, fluorescent classroom lights and constant strain from the computer screen — even if the brightness was turned down — had taken their toll. I got a pair of glasses and, presto, my migraine — a pain that had become a constant companion — started to fade.

For a while I didn’t know if I could keep up. I found myself wondering if medical school was too much.

And then a spotlight lit up the very reason I’d decided to become an osteopath. I was reminded of the importance of the osteopathic philosophy.

By listening and understanding a patient, we can successfully integrate details of a patient’s life into the health care process.

People are more than just a collection of organ systems and body parts that may become injured or diseased. By listening and understanding a patient, we can successfully integrate details of a patient's life into the health care process.

I may not have been here without that approach, which came so naturally to my mother. She had come to America as an immigrant. Time and time again she had told me stories of the unfamiliar roads that met her, the heartache that gripped her as she daydreamed of her far away family, and the panic that set in when she tried to hurdle the insecurities of communicating with the new culture that was suddenly her next door neighbor.

With her keen perception, and the support I received from the friends I have made at PWNU (my new friends even read aloud to me on some of the harder days), I got through. And, once again, I was inspired to become a doctor.

Any variation from the health has a cause, and the cause has a location. It is the business of the osteopath to locate and remove it (the cause), doing away with disease and getting health instead.
— A.T. Still, MD, DO
Rebecca Bolla (Square).jpg

Rebecca Bolla

Osteopathic Medical Student - 2nd year (OMS II)
College of Osteopathic Medicine
Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences

Rebecca Bolla