“Good Morning, Doctor” & the Power of Words in Medicine

Sarah Gardner '15
uvmmedicine blogger Sarah Gardner ’15

“Good morning!” I say to one of the nurses I walk by in the hallway at St Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. “Good morning, Doctor,” she responds, as she passes me. I continue down the hall, feeling like something isn’t right. What is it? I’m wearing pants…I remembered to put on deodorant…I’m not sleeping through call…Did she just call me doctor? I scan the hall. Nobody else there. She was definitely talking to me. She thinks I’m a doctor!

I’m a little stunned as I walk into the ICU to check up on my patients. My colleague is sitting there writing a note, and I tell him my story. As I rehash it, I find I have a stupid giddy grin on my face. Being called doctor for the first time was exhilarating. But as I realize what words are coming out of my mouth, first I feel like an idiot that I am dwelling on this small event. Then, I start to feel a bit guilty for how excited I was about the title. Then, I feel a rising sense of panic, as I realize the responsibility one small word brings.

That was several months ago. By now, several of my patients have said similar things to me, like “You tell me, you’re the doctor” or, “Dr. Gardner, it’s nice to meet you.” No! No, no no! You all have this wrong. I’m just a medical student. I don’t know anything! Like if you fall down right now having a cardiac arrest, I will be the first person to scream “HELPPPP!!!” On the one hand I am thrilled to be considered a doctor, and on the other hand it is absolutely terrifying. I wonder why such a simple greeting and use of title makes me feel so strange, uncomfortable and excited all at once.

The word doctor connotes power and knowledge. It is one of the few words in the English language that almost everyone associates with certain qualities. I’m guilty by my pride in being called a doctor, as I think I am excited about it partly because I feel as though I have attained some superior status akin to a God. I’m important! Gold star! It scares me that I feel this way, and I can see how easy it is to get lost in that power. And this is coming from someone going into pediatrics.

I remember when I first wore my white coat and how eager I was to have other people see me in it. I loved putting on my scrubs, and wearing them unnecessary places, like the grocery store, then hanging my pager somewhere obnoxiously visible so that everyone could see how important I was (even though I only ever got paged three times in my entire clerkship year). I consider myself lucky that I have noticed these qualities in myself and have been able to reflect on them. The UVM College of Medicine is one of the few schools that really forces us to reflect on some of the more uncomfortable feelings we experience. Although sometimes this is annoying, and some people call PCR “feelings class,” I have honestly noticed my ability to perceive behaviors and emotions in myself, whether positive or negative, has greatly increased since I’ve been here. This means that if I am uncomfortable with the fact that the title of Your Lordship Dr. Gardner excites me, I can do something about it.

So what am I going to do about it? Pride is one thing. We have all worked incredibly hard to attempt to earn a medical degree, drained our bank accounts, and forgot how to socialize in mixed company. I will allow myself to be proud of what I am becoming, the kind of doctor that I will be, and the patient trust I am earning. Being power-hungry and forgetting about the privilege of my position is not part of that. I don’t ever want to consider myself superior to anybody else, nor do I want others to perceive that I feel that way. Although there is a knowledge gap between me and my patients, for example, there does not need to be a giant power differential. I do not need to put all of my patients in gowns, make them wait for an hour to be seen, and then use big words and make them feel stupid for eating that Big Mac. Sometimes everyone needs a Big Mac. So I will smile when someone says, “Good morning, doctor,” but I won’t forget how lucky I am to hear those words. Just over one more year until Dr. Gardner I will be. Bring it on.

What are your thoughts about this topic?