At school my teachers and friends called me Mary. At home my sisters called me Grace. I knew I was in trouble when my mother yelled, “Mary Grace, halika dito!” (Come here in Filipino). When I graduated medical school, I was given a new name, Doctor. I say that only half joking because sometimes I act like it is my name rather than a title or a degree I earned.
I recently came across the article published in the blog, Dear Pat in which a young female physician poses the question, “Don’t I deserve to be called doctor, too?” The respondent gives the resident some thoughtful advice on how to address the issue of not being called by the title she has earned. This really struck a chord with me.
Since completing General Surgery residency, I have frequently found my patients asking me, “Is it ok if I call you Mary?” after I have introduced myself to them. It is usually a patient with more gray-hair than me. Which, until recently, has been more often than not. Early on I adopted the attitude that part of the healing equation is patient comfort. If a patient feels more at ease calling their surgeon by her first name, then I always prefer that.
Recently, like the young resident posing the question in Dear Pat, I found myself asking the question, “What about everyone else calling me by my first name in the hospital?” Well, I thought I was ok with that as well.
Last year, I decided to make a major life change. One month ago, this required me to pack all my personal belongings and two lab puppies into a yellow,16-foot Penske truck and drive I-70 west for 1000 miles. A week later I started the Cosmetic surgery fellowship that I hope will help me make the career changes I desire.
Not unexpectedly, I find myself feeling the discomfort of being the new person. This is not an unfamiliar feeling as we moved frequently when I was a child. Professionally, I have spent the last 9 years working as a locum tenens surgeon. Being new is not new to me.
During the first week of my fellowship my program director introduced me to the operating room staff at the surgery center where we would be doing the majority of our cases. As we proceeded to operate, I heard the scrub tech call me by my first name. Surprising myself, I was irritated. Feeling annoyed, I paid more attention to her. I then noticed that she referred to all of the male physicians as Doctor. In contrast the rest of the OR staff called me Doctor. Afterwards, I was disturbed by the fact that I was bothered by the scrub tech calling me by my first name. In an attempt to be introspective, I questioned whether it really mattered what the staff calls me. At other institutions, I was addressed by my first name without any cognitive dissonance. So why was this a big deal to me now?
Coming across the above blog post could not have been more appropriate.
The respondent in the Dear Pat Blog advised the young resident, ‘On the one hand, staff may simply feel friendlier to you, hence more comfortable using your first name, which is somewhat flattering. On the other hand, staff are generally addressed by their first names and doctors by “Dr. Last Name,” which might indicate the gender disparity to which you alluded.’
I agree with the respondent’s insight. Yes, calling someone by their first name is a sign of familiarity and comfort. And yes, there is gender disparity. But I found that her advice helped me to process my own situation.
I realized that I was irritated by this scrub tech’s comfort with me because it was in stark contrast to my own discomfort of being new. It also shed light on how the use of my title, Doctor, provides a psychological barrier and with it a feeling of confidence. It is almost as if hearing myself called “Doctor” reminds me that, yes, I am a doctor and not the imposter that being in a state of unfamiliarity can sometimes elicit within me. I must admit that making this professional transition has required a tremendous leap of faith and with it, feeling exposed.
A month before starting my fellowship, I worked my last weekend of call at a hospital where, for the past 9 years, I was called Mary as often as Doctor. When I am feeling secure, I do not need to be reminded of my title. And I do not care so much what I am called. I already know who I am. I know what my role is. I am confident in my skills and knowledge. This experience has reminded me that during moments when I feel triggered by how I am being addressed it is really a reflection of my own internal dialogue. Rather than correct the person addressing me, I would be better served by reminding myself that I am feeling a little insecure right now and regardless of what name I am called, I am the doctor.
I might add to the advice given to the young female resident. You do deserve to be called doctor. You worked hard to earn a medical degree. The framed diploma and mountain of student loan debt are reminders of your diligence and dedication. Please, don’t let how others choose to address you diminish that. Remember why you chose medicine. Was it simply to be called Doctor or was it something greater?