A Different Conversation

March 31, 2017

Last week, Allie, my 14-year-old daughter, and I went to the doctor together. Neither of us are sick. We are preparing to travel out of the country together, so we set up an appointment with a travel medicine physician, to be sure our immunizations are up to date and that we have our malaria prophylaxis covered. I handed the doctor the tattered stack of papers I have been carrying around since medical school, proving I have had my tetanus shots and Hepatitis B series, that my varicella titers are ok, and that my TB test remains negative. She shuffled though the papers marked Wright State University School of Medicine and University of Illinois at Chicago, Student Health, and finally Indiana University, Employee Health. I could see her forehead wrinkle a little…she was connecting some dots…”Oh, so are you a nurse?”, she inquired. “Well, no. I am a physician,” I said. She was mortified. She started apologizing profusely. And she scolded her front office staff for not informing her that I was a doctor. (Although I didn’t note anywhere on my new patient forms that I am a doctor…it doesn’t matter. She is the content expert in international travel, not me. My occupation is irrelevant in this case.) She had walked right into that scenario that too many of us get all worked up about. She assumed the woman who works at the hospital plays some other role than doctor.

But in that moment, I was the one who felt so uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be Jen the Doctor. I wanted to be Jen the mom, Jen the patient, Jen the traveler. I didn’t want the title or the modifier or the formality. Allie was also squirming. She didn’t want our doctor talking to us differently now that she knows. I quickly down played the whole thing and pointed out to her that I had no intention of being the doctor in her office…I was there to be her patient. And please don’t scold the staff…I never told them in the first place. And I am not offended at all…I enjoy being incognito sometimes. We laughed and exchanged some “woman doctor” stories, but where the real comfort came was when we turned the conversation to the reason we were traveling in the first place. A mission trip. Allie and I are going to dig a well in Honduras so that a village that doesn’t have access to clean water will soon have potable water. We will dig the well, teach general hygiene and present the gospel. During those few moments when she talked about her mission experiences, and I talked about mine…and the upcoming trip with Allie, that’s when we all felt at ease.

This little moment, sitting in the doctor’s office as the patient one second and then being “caught” as the doctor the next, made me start to think that we might be having the wrong conversation about empowering our colleagues and students and mentees and daughters to be women in medicine or business or politics. Hashtags trend for women to look/dress/talk/walk/think like a surgeon/doctor/boss/CEO. We created our own women’s societies so we can build relationships and learn how to advance as women in our field. We hold meetings and breakfasts and coffees and conferences, ironically, on weekends and evenings, at the exact time when all I really want as a woman (or as a human) is to be in my jeans and sweatshirt and hanging out with my kids, or better yet, taking a much-needed nap.

It does not escape me that many many women have come before me, demanding respect and equality and opportunity. And for their efforts, I am thankful. I can vote. And work. And go to school. I can be a doctor. And I recognize that disparities remain in equal pay for women and in opportunities for advancement and leadership. I don’t deny these truths. But I do wonder if we would center the conversation outwards, to the needs of so many others, if we could have an even bigger impact. I worry that the conversation about being a woman in our field is more distracting than empowering. What if we talked more about our patients, both male and female, and their obstacles to health and healing; what if we talked more about drug addiction, in both men and women; what if we talked more about our lonely and broken friends and neighbors, the couple, not just the woman or the man; what if we talked more about the unborn child, the baby girl or the baby boy; what if we talked more about the hungry or thirsty, no gender noted. Somehow, when we pivot the conversation to the unifying force that is a cause bigger than ourselves, we realize more return on our effort. More long-lasting impact. More respect. More peace.

Disclaimer: My viewpoints are not necessarily reflective of my employer, or any local, regional or national organization that I belong to. As a matter of fact, I pretty much just speak for myself. Please keep that in mind.

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