A medical student walks out of a class. The silence that follows is what hurts most.

As a medical student, I was finally starting my clinical rotations, a time of great anticipation and celebration among medical students and their families. After two years of book learning, I was going to be called “doctor” and wear my short white doctor’s coat. I was thrilled!

As we gathered in the lecture hall, and over the hubbub of my equally excited classmates, I notice the huge screen down in front. Now, this is dermatology rotation, and I don’t like skin lesions very much; they are kind of disgusting, but I chuckle nervously to myself at the thought that I am going to learn medicine from the outside in. That seems appropriate, somehow. That’s cool.

And then I realized how big those icky skin lesions are going to be on that ginormous screen. If I wasn’t so excited to reach this milestone in my training, I would have been a little nauseous at the thought. I drop to my seat and settle in.  The attending professor, in a crisp, very white, and long lab coat indicative of his “real doctor” attending status walks in and begins to call the roll, “Doctor Abbott,” he bellows. “Oh my gosh, I am going to be called doctor for the first time today.”

“Doctor Adams!” the bellowing continues. Somehow it reminds me of the herald of the ball. He is heralding in my future as a doctor!

“Doctor Adkins, Doctor Ballenger,” he continues.

“Wait, wait – my name wasn’t called,” I almost yelled out loud. I am immediately lost in my thoughts, worrying about being in the wrong class, or possibly invisible, or discovered as the imposter medical student I feel like. “Someone must be on to my disqualifications,” my inner “no confidence” voice goes on and on. “Maybe I am not really here,” I think when I hear, “Doctor Hay!” in that bellowing voice.

“What did he just say?” I pop up from my chair, “Excuse me, sir, but my name is Robyn Alley-Hay, not Robyn Hay. I am Dr. Alley-Hay.”

I sit down, feeling the issue is settled, except it isn’t.

“Dr. Hay is what I am calling you!” he retorts. I rise out of my chair. “What?” I shake my head- hoping it will help me understand what I am hearing. “I don’t understand. My name is Robyn Alley-Hay legally, my husband is Dr. Hay, not me. I would like you to change the class document, so the error is corrected.”

And then his words land on me with violence and viciousness: “I don’t believe in hyphenated names, so you are Dr. Hay.”

I could feel my blood starting to boil at the same time I felt a pit in my stomach. I take a deep breath,

“That is not acceptable to me. My name is Dr. Alley-Hay.”

Now, I am feeling the tears start to well up in my eyes. I push them back.

“I am not Dr. Hay, and I refuse to be called a name that is not mine!”

My fellow students are getting nervous and shifting in their seats, yet the silence hurts my ears. They look scared.

“Well, Dr. Hay, I guess you’ll just have to be ‘Dr. Hay’,” he gestures air quotes, “if you want to continue medical school.” It is then that I embrace my inner bitch, my power reserved for such occasions, and blurt, “I will speak with the dean.”

I sense a stirring and low murmuring around me, then silence. Everyone is holding their breath, waiting for what he is going to say. In a softer, but authoritarian tone, he says, “I’m sorry young lady” (like he’s John Wayne, or something), “but you’re just going to have to do that.”

As I gather my things to walk out, I look around, scanning for a sympathetic face. Instead, my classmates are looking at their feet, or textbook—painful silence. I am still holding back tears, and my face is flushing, but I keep it together as I walk out. I am thinking, “Is to anyone going to say anything? Do they all think this is OK?” I give one last glance, and the faces are blank.

“Am I crazy?” I think to myself and feel my heart drop with disappointment and hurt. I stand up straight, square my shoulders, chest out a bit, sling my backpack onto my shoulder and walk out of the class in that painful silence.

The silence is worse.

Robyn Alley-Hay is an obstetrician-gynecologist and can be reached at her self-titled site, Dr. Robyn Alley-Hay.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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