OK, I’ll admit it. I’m a doctor
“I work at a hospital.”
Those words had left my mouth a hundred times before, and yet on this late summer day, I paused to actually think about them. Why I was saying them, what I really meant, and what I should have said instead.
I was making conversation with someone I had just met. The inevitable question, “So, what do you do?” was asked, and I said the thing so many of us say: “Oh, I work at a hospital.”
It’s true, I do work at a hospital. But that’s not what I really do. What I do is take care of sick and sometimes dying children, as a pediatric hospital medicine physician. I work long nights, busy weekends, and even busier weekdays taking care of other people’s children: making them well, helping them hope, thinking and rethinking their care so that we get the best outcome.
And here’s the secret: I love it. I love what I do. Most days, no matter how crazy, I stop to think: I’m so, so lucky to do this job. And I’m proud. I’m proud of the more-than-a-decade of years that I spent learning to be someone whom parents entrust with the care of their ill children. I’m proud of all the nights I spent studying when friends were out having fun. I’m proud of the tests that I quietly aced, not saying anything when my medical school boyfriend bragged about his scores (not quite as good as mine, sometimes). I’m proud of the years during residency that I sacrificed my personal well-being so I could make sure that every patient I saw got the very, very best of me. So why didn’t I say any of that? Why didn’t I say the one, tiny little sentence that I shouldn’t even think twice about?
There are a thousand moments in life that condition women to minimize their accomplishments. I’m a pediatrician: I see it every day. Around middle school, girls start downplaying their intelligence, withdrawing from sports and activities they enjoy, and exhibiting lower self-esteem compared to their male peers. We know from experience and research that men tend to credit their own skills and smarts for their success; women credit external factors.
“So many people helped me along the way,” we’ll say, or “I got really lucky.” This isn’t all bad; in addition to being proud of my IQ, I wholeheartedly embrace the fact that I have gratitude for my amazing tribe of family and friends that contribute so much to my successes as a human. And I do feel lucky. The reality is that I was born to parents who were smart, caring, and had an equality to their partnership that was very rare at the time. Growing up, it literally never occurred to me that I couldn’t be or do anything I wanted to. They set the foundation for me to become who I am today — but I did the work to get there.
We’ve come so far in medicine from generations before us. Half of medical students are women. I’m paid the same amount as my male colleagues. And yet, it’s still different, and sometimes a lot harder, to be a woman in medicine. There isn’t a week that goes by that someone doesn’t ask me if I’m their nurse or patient assistant or volunteer: even if I’m wearing a long white coat embroidered with “Dr. Meade” and have just introduced myself as their physician for the day.
Hospital administrators have asked me to photocopy something for them, as I sit at the computer rounding on my patients. It makes me furious, and sad. But on this late summer day, as the words, “I work at a hospital” left my mouth, it suddenly and maddeningly dawned on me: I’m doing the same thing to myself that I cringe when other people do to me, or to any of us. I’m downplaying my accomplishments because I’m a woman. And I don’t want to do it anymore.
So, I’ll admit it: I’m a doctor. And I’m really damn good at it.
Elizabeth Meade is a pediatrician.
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