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The Water I Swam In

The dad who drove me home after babysitting seemed surprised when I said I planned to be premed. After a pause he said, “Well, you’ve been oppressed for hundreds of years, so you should have an easier time getting into med school.” My brain froze. All I could think was “I’m only 17. What is he talking about?”

Summers during college I worked as an EMT. Despite my assurances that I was strong enough to do the job, every new male partner seemed dubious. Invariably, as he and I lifted our first patient on a stretcher, I’d pick up my side normally and he’d lift his slowly, thinking he had to accommodate me—and the patient would list to his side. Patients would occasionally berate him: “I almost fell on you!”

My first clinical rotation was surgery, mostly with Dr. M, an older male physician. He was amused by how patients responded to me. As I leaned toward a 70-year-old male who’d had a colon mass removed, he grabbed my hair and shook it, saying, “Hey, Cutie!” The next day, when I pressed on his stomach and asked where it hurt, he declared, “Wherever you touch feels better!” He may have meant to be sweet, but he made it hard for me to report on rounds. After that, Dr. M would ask if I’d healed anyone that day.

While on call in the hospital, I had questions about a few patients. J, the chief surgical resident, said we could go over them after dinner. But then he led me to his call room. I nervously flipped through my patient index cards before leaving on the pretext of checking some labs. It never occurred to me to say I didn’t want to meet in a room with nowhere to sit but a bed.

One of my residents on pediatrics was especially gifted with newborns. But when we sat down to sign out patients, he began running his finger gently up and down my arm, talking about the babies the whole time. I felt uncomfortable, but he hadn’t done anything overt—had he? I went back to Dr. M, hoping for guidance. After hearing me out, Dr. M asked how much longer I’d be working with this resident. Two weeks, I said. Dr. M advised me to just ignore it.

All this was by October of my first year in medical school. And such events still occur. But I’m grateful we now say out loud that they’re not acceptable, not funny, and not to be tolerated with a smile (because we look so much prettier that way).

Andrea Gordon
Melrose, Massachusetts


2 thoughts on “The Water I Swam In”

  1. Pamela Adelstein

    Such disgusting behaviors. So many of us have these stories. Thank you for sharing. I hope that with time and education and holding people accountable, these stories will become a thing of the past. As well as stories that are rooted in racism, homo/transphobia, religion-phobias, etc. I am not optimistic.

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