“I should explain to you, Socrates, that our friend Cratylus has been arguing about names; he says they are natural and not conventional; […] that there is a truth or correctness in them.”
I once heard that the sound of one’s name is the most beautiful thing in the universe, which is probably an overstatement. But one’s name is one of the first words one hears from birth, as parents coo into a baby’s ear. Consequently, a person becomes attuned to it, craves it. You will even physically turn towards that sound at a too-loud party when someone murmurs your name from across the room — a phenomenon dubbed “the cocktail party effect.” When meeting a stranger, what do you do? You ask their name. And when a doctor assesses mental status, often the first question is about one’s name. Why? A name is at one’s core. In some religions and cultures, a name is even considered sacred, and to know it is to know the essence of who someone is. By the time we forget one’s own name, society may proceed to call that once-human a “vegetable.” Sadly, society at large doesn’t much care for Brussels sprouts.
So when the resident called, “Med Student, bring me the bucket,” we felt a vegetative withering. The bucket was a pink, plastic emesis basin repurposed for hauling myriad surgical supplies including gauze, tape, scalpels, saline, and so on. Like sherpas, we hauled it up and down the floors and during the Everest of morning rounds. My friend “Anjie” handed the bucket over to the doctor, who’s hand was simply outstretched, waiting.
In another instance, eyes scan over your white coat for a badge, searching for a name. This happens hours after you already introduced yourself, or just after a few minutes. Or there will be a conversation with your supervisor-mentor-(buddy?) in which your name is conveniently omitted and replaced with “hey” or a generic “you” along with a Pan-Am smile. After a series of conversations like this, despite having hauled the bucket and writing SOAP notes the whole past week, things start to feel more than awkward.
So Anjie’s name, my name, is “Med Student.” Like a dark comedy, I sometimes even introduce myself that way now, but secretly I know it is not an act of reclamation and empowerment, rather the endpoint of my own obliviation.
Forgetting or ignoring a name is perhaps one of the most common forms of medical student mistreatment. Like other forms of passive mistreatment, such as neglect, it is more insidious, though no less harmful than physical abuse, verbal assaults, and relegations to bucket duty. As one colleague who identified as gender non-binary disclosed to me, when their pronouns and chosen name were ignored, the feeling of disrespect was nearly debilitating. In another situation, a hospital I was rotating at refused to issue me an ID badge with my chosen name (which happens to be my legal middle name) because it was not protocol. Situations like those can ultimately hamper learning, patient care, and inflict real hurt.
“It takes too much time! They’ll be gone in a week or two anyway! There are too many of them to keep track of! I have other things to worry about!” These are the excuses one might hear, though the same could be said of patients. Fortunately, for patients, we are generally able to remember not just their name, but every detail down to last month’s CBC. That detail is important, or easy enough to remember, it seems. But even for patients, “Ms. Rose” might become “the diabetic,” and thus transform the person into pathology. This is a moment that we have all witnessed. Sadly, Rose, by another name, is not Rose.
We know and can do better, not just doctors, but anyone who works with people. It starts with an introduction and asking who you are, including one’s chosen name and pronouns. A medical student by his, her, their, zir name is suddenly a person with real value. With a name, I will feel empowered to answer my other calling: medical student.
The author is an anonymous medical student.
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