I hit a personal milestone in 2019. I had my third opinion piece accepted for publication in The Buffalo News, our local newspaper that serves a metropolitan area of over a million people. Anything I published in medical blogs previously had been viewed by a thousand people at most, usually closer to a few hundred. This article was a piece on the importance of addressing both female and male physicians by their first names in professional settings. I laid out my case with personal accounts, supported by scientific studies. Without a doubt, it was my proudest moment as a medical writer, as it addressed a very important topic to me as a practicing doctor, mother, daughter, wife and role model for future generations of physicians.
Interestingly, I had written and rewritten this article for almost a year. I pitched it to an editor for a physician centered blog a few months back. I was told “It’s already been covered. Do you have a new spin on the topic?” I was cautioned by colleagues that my early drafts sounded too negative, too much like an angry tirade. They were right and I appreciate the feedback. I worked and re-worked it over the months. After many conversations with colleagues, I finally felt like I honed it perfectly; it was factual and data driven, yet also contained enough first hand vignettes to be compelling. I saw it as persuasive and not adversarial.
I have received scores of well wishes in the forms of email, cards in the “real” mail and verbal messages to my staff. I have heard from patients, former nursing colleagues and friends of the family. I have had a multitude of positive Facebook comments and retweets. I received reflective private messages from my female physician colleagues, some of whom have practiced for decades or hold powerful national positions in healthcare, citing the frustration they feel when their male colleagues are addressed as “Doctor” and they are simply Megan or Cindy or Kim. Positive feedback has mostly been from females, however I have had a fair number of male well wishers. My patients have complimented or referenced the article at their check ups. Most notably, a long time patient called me to personally say how proud she was that I was her doctor, and we both were tearful as she told me “Don’t ever let anyone call you Lauren. You earned that.”
And then came the hate mail from someone who thought I did not earn the right to be called Doctor. I am used to criticism. Not uncommonly, dissatisfied patients take to the internet to write a negative review (and as an aside, we as physicians cannot respond due to privacy laws). But, this is the first time in my life I have ever received straight up, actual hate mail. It took the form of an anonymous email with a fake name, email address and phone number and read as follows:
“What an embarrassment to your firm. Grow a pair Laurie. You don’t demand to be called Dr. until you’ve earned it. Not through school but by the way you interact with your patients. You’re nothing more than a spoiled child.”
I was taken aback but not surprised. I was absolutely aware that this idea of addressing women physicians (or physicians in general) by their first names would offend some people. Change is hard. People have prejudices and ideas about the way things should be.
When I was discussing this email with one of my brothers, he said “Well if you’re going to be a big time writer publishing things in the paper, you’re going to get hate mail.” These comments are not as legendary as “nasty woman” or “nevertheless she persisted” but believe me when I say, they will have the same effect. There is an incredible chef in Buffalo who took a negative Yelp review and had it printed on a tee shirt that he wears when at work. I plan to follow his lead, possibly framing this as motivation to continue advocating for change. Sometimes when advocating, it can feel like you are shouting into an abyss. Maybe this anonymous email, albeit laced with hatred and vitriol, is a marker that as a medical thought leader, I have arrived…or at least I’m on my way.