Thanks for the compliment, but I’m not a nurse


Let’s get one thing clear from the start: I love nurses. My grandmother was a nurse’s aide. My aunt is a nurse. My mother is a nurse. Nurses have been by my side for the most frightening and important experiences in my life (in the hospital and out). However, I’m not a nurse. I’m a doctor. And when someone calls me nurse, I hate it.

Here’s why:

1. I hate being called “nurse,” because I feel like it undoes the work of thousands of female physicians before me.

Recently, I was on service with one of the most accomplished female physicians at my institution. Our first patient welcomed us into his room with this: “Can I call you back? The nurses want to talk to me about something.”

One hundred and fifty-four years ago, he would have certainly been correct. However, in 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of female medical school graduates later, women are now poised to outnumber their male colleagues by 2017. Still, I can’t say I feel secure in my place as a female physician. We are still underpaid and underpromoted compared to our male colleagues. To me, it feels like we’ve just splintered the shell of this previously male-dominated field. Being called “nurse” reminds me of the enormous gender gap I have yet to cross. Overpowering gender stereotypes will take more than outnumbering the men in our field.

Back in my patient’s room, I crafted a response in my head.

“Haven’t you heard of Anna Howard Shaw? Jocelyn Elders? Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman? We are your doctors, and we are women! Hear us roar!”

Luckily, before I spoke, my attending simply rolled her eyes and gracefully continued with rounds.

2. I hate being called “nurse,” because nurses have reason to hate it, too. If you’ve ever seen a doctor struggle to administer a medication, boost a patient in a bed, or try to organize the minute-to-minute care of a hospitalized patient, you can probably understand why. Nursing school has provided them with a different set of skills, approaches, and goals for patients. While my medical school classmates and I studied cyclic AMP and the Starling curve, the nursing students studied the process of patient-centeredness. The last thing a busy nurse needs is a resident who assumes she could do a nurse’s job. It would be annoying (maybe insulting) for me to accept the title.

3. I hate being called “nurse,” because it further separates me from my male colleagues. When I discuss this topic with my female co-residents, there is an implicit understanding.

When I discussed this with a male colleague, he replied, “Why would someone call you nurse?”

I laughed, but with a trace of jealousy. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the first assumption about my career be the right one — to not even understand why someone might think otherwise? I caught myself glaring at him and imagining a caduceus-handled silver spoon in his mouth.

“Why shouldn’t you have to defend your job to patients like I do? Would they think I was a better doctor if I had your short, graying hair and wore your tacky bowties?” I heard myself blurt out.

That was a long night.

4. I hate being called “nurse,” because it sets up expectations for my relationship with a patient that I will not be able to fill. I cannot get you the medication that alleviates your pain or quiets your cough. I will be your advocate, but often after your nurse has called to my attention what I should advocate for. Your nurse will dress your wounds, clean you when you are not able, and tell that your family called. I will be the one who wakes you at 5:30 a.m. and orders the medication that gives you diarrhea and tastes like dirt. Don’t call me “nurse,” because I cannot be a nurse to you.

It’s not that doctors’ and nurses’ roles don’t overlap. They certainly do. Nevertheless, we are different providers with different skills. It is in this very difference that there is the greatest potential for learning and growth.

I can’t explain all of this every time someone calls me nurse. So, for now, I’ll stick to my go-to line for this circumstance.

“Thank you for the compliment, but I’m not your nurse. I’m your doctor.”

Megan S. Lemay is an internal medicine resident. 

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