Where is the sun?
By the time you read this article, I hope this point has become moot. But as I work on my laptop and intermittently gaze out the window, it’s still a very relevant, if entirely rhetorical, question. I am officially fed up with the weather, and unfortunately, there’s not a thing I can do about it.
Last year around this time, I went to the Dominican Republic for vacation. This year, I spent much of my “spring break” going to fellowship interviews. I did get to spend some time with my family and my fiancé, which was great. Still, I wish we could have bonded against a backdrop of sunny skies and gentle breezes, not drab Michigan skies and gale-force Chicago winds. And now that I’m back in Boston, things aren’t much better.
I realize that I have no more right to complain than anyone else. We’re all coming off a six-to-seven-month stretch of generally gray, inhospitable weather. I know I’m not the only New England resident who asks herself on a yearly basis, “Why haven’t I moved to southern California yet?”
Seasonal variations in mood, energy, appetite, and weight are a well-documented phenomenon. Such “winter blues” affect around half of the population. In their most extreme form, these symptoms constitute seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which afflicts nearly 10 percent of people in northern climates. Mainstays of treatment for SAD include medication and psychotherapy, as used for major depression, as well as phototherapy, a highly effective method that modulates mood by regulating melatonin secretion.
I know I’m not the only New England resident who asks herself on a yearly basis, “Why haven’t I moved to southern California yet?”
I didn’t realize how much light affects my sense of well-being until my brother came to visit in February. “Do you really need to turn on every light in your apartment?” he asked when we came back from dinner one night. Within a minute of walking in the door, I had turned on all the floor lamps, the kitchen light, and both hallway lights, as I typically do. “It just feels so much warmer this way,” I replied. With only one floor lamp on, my living room seems unwelcoming. But with all three lamps on, it’s a cozy abode where I can spend hours reading, working, watching TV, and generally enjoying life. I guess it’s my own version of mini-phototherapy, minus the copay.
As much as we try to mimic the natural world with electricity, there’s no lamp that can truly reproduce sunlight. Many of the electric lights we encounter on a day-to-day basis, including most of those in the hospital, are sickeningly fluorescent. The only non-fluorescent light present in every patient room is the exam lamp, or “French-fry light,” which is bright enough to startle an unsuspecting patient—and keep his or her breakfast warm at the same time. The nurses and support staff do try to imitate normal day–night cycles by dimming hallway lights and turning off room lights in the evening. However, their efforts are inevitably foiled by interns who need to examine patients at 3 a.m.
Some of the rooms at MGH have spectacular views, but most of the time, patients’ beds aren’t oriented to take advantage of this. The river views from the medical intensive care unit are more therapeutic for the doctors than the patients. I’ve spent many mornings wishing I could beam myself from the ICU to the banks of the Charles. This yearning becomes particularly strong on bright winter days, when I know I won’t see sunlight after I leave work.
Now that I’ve finished venting, I’m ready to think positively. At least the days are getting longer now, and I’m able to go outside without wearing a parka and two pairs of gloves. After all, summer’s just over two months away. Because if it isn’t, I may be forced to search for fellowships in the Caribbean.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of Harvard Medical School, its affiliated institutions, or Harvard University.