A physician’s love-hate relationship with her pager

When my colleagues and I reported for new intern orientation 19 years ago, we were given navy scrubs emblazoned with the residency program’s logo, a couple of creased and blindingly clean white coats, and, of course, a standard issue pager. I will admit that there was something thrilling about having my own tools of the trade; these accessories would identify me to the outside world as a doctor. I had put a lot of time and effort into earning that medical degree and, along with it, the right to don a long white coat (finally!) and to clip that compact black device to my waistband.

I didn’t have a personal cell phone until halfway through my residency. We didn’t have hospital-issued Voaltes or Voceras back then. That little pager was the only way for nurses, attendings, or (sometimes) my friends to contact me. When I was on backup or “Mommy call,” I would have to take my pager to the bar and hope it wouldn’t vibrate or emit its hideous tone. If it did, I would have to beg to use someone else’s cell phone or find a landline, heaven forbid. I will even admit that I gave my pager number to a random guy or two at the bar back in the day.

My pager and I have had a love-hate relationship for sure. I’m pretty confident that the garish pager tone is responsible for a mild form of PTSD. Certain alarm clocks have caused a similar instantaneous emotional response of nausea accompanied by quickening of my pulse, followed by exhausted resignation, evolving into anger bordering on irrational rage. It is the same Pavlovian effect each and every time, even 19 years later.

I have been through a number of physical pagers by now. Residency, followed by my first gig as a general pediatrician (I went through two during that span of three years because I accidentally flushed my first one down the toilet at Jimmy Johns – in my husband’s version of the story, it was an intentional flushing), followed by my pediatric hospitalist debut in Phoenix, followed by my current Omaha position. My purse was stolen three months ago, and along with my credit cards, checkbooks, and driver’s license, the thief made off with my pager and Biovigil fob.

No matter the make or model, though, each physical version has had the same soul-jarring audible alert and the same slightly uncomfortable dig into the flesh just to the right of my left iliac spine. After the theft, I decided to give it a go without my trusty pager. For a while now, I have had my pages forwarded to my personal cell phone as text messages. On day shifts, I have often gone without the pager and relied on the cell phone messages without any significant issues. On night shifts, however, I have continued to use my pager’s audible alert to ensure that I am immediately shaken awake from any deep or shallow sleep that I might meander into.

On the first night shift without my pager, I slept through a RAT (rapid assessment team) page on one of my patients. The capable resident team dealt competently with the situation (even though it was on a non-resident patient) but I felt horrible. I immediately put in an order for a new physical pager and have been relieved to have it back on my hip.

I have been chagrined to discover that the hospital plans to do away with physical pagers. “Are you kidding me!?!?” some of you may be asking. “Why would you like to hang onto a tangible torture device?”

This bothers me more than I think it should. There are the logical rebuttals: Using my personal device’s battery power and minutes for work, navigating the dead zones in and out of the hospital, worrying that the wimpy text notifications won’t be able to wake me like the mighty strains of the pager. But it’s more than that. It’s taking away another physical reminder of the blood, sweat, and tears that I put into getting to where I am. As a pediatrician, I don’t wear a white coat. I don’t carry a stethoscope as each patient has his/her own for isolation reasons at my hospital. I am often mistaken for a nurse (which is not in at all a dig to nurses, by the way!). In some ways, the pager is the last fragile link to intern orientation. It is a symbol, albeit an oft-hated one, of my journey as a physician. As I have told some of my partners lately, “You can take away my pager away when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands!”

Lisa Sieczkowski is a pediatrician. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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