One stunning afternoon I walked into a patient’s room to discuss our plan, informing her that the nurse would come to draw blood.
“You can draw my blood, Miss,” said the male family member sitting in a corner of the room, as far from the patient as possible, his legs crossed, smirking, “We can go into the next room and lock the door.”
His smug grin brought back memories of older men in college bars. A desperate frat boy. A creep. Every woman knows that smirk and our bodies shudder before our brains even comprehend the insult — in this case, the absurdity of being solicited as a sex object in a patient’s hospital room.
I corrected him, and he insincerely apologized. He kept smirking. In what seemed to be an attempt to regain power over the conversation, he began to question our team’s medical management. “Miss, how long does she have to stay here? Miss, why isn’t more being done? Miss, why aren’t you checking her more frequently? Miss — miss — ”
“Doctor.” I interrupted.
And I felt my face flush.
In a moment, I felt my chest inflate with pride and my heart sink in embarrassment. I was ashamed that I impulsively barked at a visitor, and even more so that I was, in that moment, the type of doctor I never wanted to become — the kind who demanded to be called, “Doctor.”
However, as the patient began to ask for counseling on whether she should or shouldn’t get an epidural, I quickly remembered why my instinct was to defend my role as a physician, as a patient-care advocate.
A little background: I am an OB/GYN in an inner-city hospital in New York. I work in a large team of doctors serving a seemingly endless population of high-risk women. Our patients come from developing countries, shelters, abusive households, penitentiaries and rehab centers. I counsel young girls on birth control, talk to women about their safety plan after non-consensual sex, connect abused pregnant women to social workers, and overall, am a great keeper of secrets. I like to think what I do is inherently feminist.
To demand to be called “doctor” in that moment was more than a matter of pride; it was a matter of proclaiming myself as someone who would defend the patient — the indecisive, overwhelmed lady in pain — from all the senseless noise coming from the opposite end of the room. It was a matter of turning the focus of the conversation back to the patient. It was a matter of reminding the visitor that hitting on a woman in a patient’s labor room is about as appropriate as a pussy grab at a women’s march. My scrub cap, a pussy hat after all.
Us women in medicine will continue to face these kinds of challenges. Not distant were the generations of male-only specialties, and still around are the generations of patients who think all females in hospitals are nurses. To demand respect, to be addressed as “doctor,” is not always vanity. We may, in unfortunate circumstances, be required to defend our roles in the doctor-patient relationship, and in medicine in general.
Jenna T. Nakagawa is a resident physician who blogs at her self-titled site, Jenna T. Nakagawa.
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