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On Being a Lady and a Doctor

Caitlin Bass ~

It’s 8:00 pm, and it’s hour fourteen in my twenty-eight-hour call shift at the large suburban hospital where I’m an intern.

You demand to speak with a doctor now, right now. You cannot wait. Your mother is sick, and you want to know exactly what is going on.

It doesn’t matter that we already spoke at length by phone earlier this afternoon. It doesn’t matter that it’s 8:00 pm. It doesn’t matter that I don’t have any updates to give you.

You’re here, and you want to speak with a doctor, your mother’s doctor, now, right now.

Luckily for you, that’s me.

I’m here.

I’m in the hospital.

I’m between codes and crises and admissions and can come now, right now, to discuss your mother’s case in person.

And I don’t just know your mother’s case; I’m her doctor. She’s been on our teaching service for days. She’s my patient. I know her story like the back of my hand.

When I get there to speak to you, it’s not just you. It’s you and your wife and your mother’s boyfriend and your uncle and your mother’s caretaker.

There are so many of you that half of you are in the hallway, because you don’t all fit into your mother’s tiny hospital room.

It’s heartwarming to see how loved and cared for your mother is. All of you are here because you’re worried about her. That’s why you need to see a doctor now, right now. Because every one of you has a question or a concern or a tidbit you think that I should know.

I shepherd all of you into the family room so that we can talk more easily. This way, at least we all fit in the same room.

I introduce myself to each of you in turn.

“Good evening, I’m Dr. Bass.”

“I’ve been taking care of your mom/sister/girlfriend/mother-in-law, etc.”

“Yes, I’m the one you spoke to on the phone.”

We talk for quite a while. I answer each of your questions until I’m sure that you get it. You all thank me before I leave.

“Thank you, Miss Bass.”

“Yes, thanks for taking the time to come and talk to us, Miss Bass.”

“We appreciate your thoroughness, Miss Bass.”

Miss? Miss? Are you kidding me? You’ve got to be kidding me.

You demanded to speak to a doctor, your mother’s doctor, now, right now, and I came and answered your questions politely and with patience–and yet I’m still not the doctor?

That “Miss” just sucks the air right out of me. I don’t know what to do with that. Suddenly I feel small.

I probably could have corrected you and said, “No, it’s Doctor,” but that didn’t occur to me in the moment. I mean, how many times do I have to introduce myself as “Doctor” before it sticks?

At least once more, I guess. Because this isn’t a one-off. This happens all the time.

I’ll introduce myself, and the patient or family member will say, “And your first name is?”

And boy, do I want to say “Doctor”–but I don’t. Wouldn’t want to be antagonistic; can’t threaten that doctor-patient relationship.

Then there are the times when I’ve just met a new patient in the hospital and introduced myself, and I’m asking about his condition, and he’ll say, “Oh, yes–I need to mention that to the doctor when he gets here.”

Then I do say, “Me, that’s me! I’m your doctor.”

Once I had a patient tell me that she was going home that day, and I certainly didn’t have any plans to discharge her.

I asked her why she thought that.

“Oh, Bill said I could go,” she replied, with calm certainty.

Bill is the unit’s receptionist, but the patient had decided that he was in charge, because he’s a man.

I always wonder who these people think I am, as they calmly and forthcomingly answer my extraordinarily probing personal questions.

Being mistaken for the nurse doesn’t bother me. At least if they think I’m the nurse, they’ve realized that I’m part of their care team, which is better than being some random “Miss.”

My mother is a nurse. My sister is a nurse. My grandmother was a nurse. Nursing is a noble profession. Nurses are some tough, loving, caring, amazing people–but I’m not your nurse.

I’m your doctor.

About the author:

Caitlin Bass is in the second year of an internal-medicine residency at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, FL. She loves writing, and she loves medicine. She writes about life and laughter and medicine on her blog Islandgypsydoctor.blogspot.com. “I write because in an ever more ‘connected’ world, I can’t help but feel disconnected, and writing helps me to remedy that feeling. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a so-called Lady Doctor since my first day on the hospital wards, and I wanted to share my experience and hear the experiences of other ‘Lady Doctors.’ “

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey



18 thoughts on “On Being a Lady and a Doctor”

  1. Yes, sadly, after being an attending physician who teaches both medical students and residents I too have dealt with this many times. In practice for 15 years. Unfortunately, it has not changed and not sure it will. I politely correct each person each time. And the quality of my care speaks for itself. Many patients, once they realize this, are very grateful. I remember quite well many years ago being an intern and very pregnant in the ICU. One of my male colleagues, he would come onto the unit and was given the chart immediately for each patient he was seeing. I would have to wander around trying to find what I needed. No respect or caring involved there. I learned back then that it was going to be difficult to cement my place in the medical world, not only with patients but with other male physicians. But respect is earned by your knowledge and good patient care. For me that is the greates reward of my profession.

  2. Retired after 37 years of nursing, 25 of those years in the ER. Wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a male RN called doctor. 🙁

  3. And if ALL doctors would address patients as MS, MRS, MR or (if they read the chart at all for education level) DR…. that would help too.

  4. I’ve worked as a school tutor in a large daycare and my own home based daycare. In all of these settings, as the lady in charge my title was “miss” Bowie. At first I corrected people, “I’m Mrs. Bowie”. Only to have the title “miss”creep back in. After a few years it dawned on me that the title “miss” indicated I was the caregiver in charge of their loved ones health, safety and well-being. Even though it curled my toes to be called miss,I learned to cope with it and even recognize it as a sign of respect. Try to understand their cultural habits and accept them as they are in what for them is a stressful situation. For many folks the ten miss indicates the recognise you as the voice of supreme authority.

  5. Thank you!! I dealt with this often as a resident, and still do as an attending. I also get frustrated by other physicians who I’ve noticed often assume a patient’s family doctor or surgeon is male, when the patient mentions “Dr. X”. I have always appreciated that my office assistant and nurses call me Dr. C in front of patients — we as a culture need to educate our patients too. I also make it a point of calling my residents by “Dr.” when we are in front of patients.

  6. Thanks for your honesty about how this makes you feel. I’m pretty sure that if they called a male MD “Dear” or Sam , they’d be reminded of his first name repeatedly, or reminded his first name is “Doctor.” The patient’s family needs to know the rules.
    As for the receptionist who let the crowd in to the patient’s room…IMO.,her job should include saying Doctor Bass as often as necessary.

  7. Sheila Turken, M.D.

    My reaction to your piece was both rueful and amused. As an internist for over 30 years, I certainly identify, as there have been countless instances of my being called “Miss”, by my first name, or even only by my last name through the years. As you noted, since correcting a patient could cause antagonism, I have tried my best to keep silent and let it go like water off a duck’s back. I agree with Dr Terkel below that how some patients/ family members/etc address women doctors is not likely to change. Still, I appreciate your blowing off steam about it!

    1. MaryChris Bailey MD

      Our family lived in a community with a lot of MD’s. I was always irritated on parent teacher’s night when MD fathers were called Dr. but I was always Mrs. I have an easier time forgiving patients and their families. They are stressed and confused but when the teachers refused to use my title seemingly because I was female I was incensed.

  8. As a PhD Clinical Psychologist back when it was a predominantly male field I can relate to your story. When asked your first name you might say, ‘my colleagues call me ‘Dr Bass’. That may not sink in either, but I have also occasionally asked male doctors their first name, meaning no disrespect.

  9. In the 80’s My daughters pediatrician was a woman. My doctor was a woman too. But I’ll always remember one ER Visit when My 9 year old mentioned that there was something funny about the doctor. When I asked what was funny she said, “ he was a man.”
    She is a mother of 2 now and would never call you “ miss”

    1. My son, too, was amazed when he encountered his first male doctor at the age of about seven. Times are changing perhaps, but some attitudes perhaps not.
      Not the same but not so different: many years ago, I was a bartender when it was not so common for women. I was called “bartendress.” “barmaid,” or – asked where the bartender was so they could get a drink.

  10. Worry about becoming a great doctor and a kind, thoughtful person as how others address you is unlikely to change much EVER!

    Vivian Terkel, M.D.

  11. I am a retired nurse, having worked forty years in the same hospital. I couldn’t tell you how many times in those years I heard a patient say to someone on the phone,”Here comes my maid”

  12. I was HeadNurse on a General Surgery Unit. As luck would have it, the Chief Resident was a woman, the Resident in charge was a woman and the Intern was a woman. The Med student was male. You know it, on our first day of rounds almost every patient addressed the medical student as the one in charge. I corrected each patient, Dr Smith is the Chief etc etc., after two days, the patients understood the hierarchy, and addressed the physicians appropriately. It was an experience I never forgot. Each member of our team was so proud to be the first all female team in surgery at this hospital. We made the news in the hospital’s newsletter. That was 40 years ago.

  13. Jessica Bloom-Foster

    I wish I could say this will get better, but I’m 14 years out of residency, I’m 45, and no matter if I introduce myself as “Doctor Bloom-Foster”, wear a white coat, or tell them I’m the attending, the faculty, or the one supervising the residents, I will still hear them tell the person on the phone “The nurse is here to talk to me I have to go”. I finally (in the last few years) have mostly stopped hearing that I’m too young to be a doctor (which I always tried to take as a compliment anyway). Thanks for sharing the story—I appreciate how you clearly you take all the responsibility of your role to heart—whether the patient or family get it or not.

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