Please excuse my blog silence the last few months. I was training for my first marathon and it sucked up a lot of my free time usually dedicated to writing. Thank you to my running partners for listening to the blow by blow but I’ll just say that it was an incredible experience, especially the last mile. Mile 26 felt like when they hand you your baby after giving birth: pure exhaustion combined with exhilaration.
Now, on to the matter at hand, the one that really has me diving deep as a Pensive Physician. A few weeks ago, I had an interesting encounter. I was seeing one of my last patients before catching a flight to my fifteen year college reunion. I opened the door and “Mr. Smith” greeted me, “Hello Doctor Lauren.” I assumed his emphatic address stemmed from an opinion piece I published earlier this year; it’s been a popular topic of exam room conversation in recent months.
Mr. Smith then congratulated me. I smiled, asking what for. What followed caught me by surprise. “For becoming a doctor.” Despite seeing me a handful of times over the years with me clearly introducing myself as “Doctor Kuwik,” Mr. Smith had been under the impression that I was a nurse. He now thought I was a newly minted med school graduate.
At the time I laughed it off. My Reply: “Thank you so much but I graduated from medical school 11 years ago. I actually co-own this practice that you are in right now.” I later called my Dad while writing notes between patients, knowing he would get a good chuckle out of it. There was no mal-intent and Mr. Smith realized his mistake. And let me clarify, as the granddaughter of a nurse and the daughter of a nurse practitioner with her doctorate, I have a huge amount of respect for the profession of nursing. It’s just not my profession, nor have I ever suggested it was.
A few weeks later, I forgot all about the exchange. Then it happened again. A patient I had been caring for since I started in practice asked me when I graduated medical school. Until recently he thought I was a physician’s assistant. Again, being a physician assistant is an incredible professional calling. I work with three on a daily basis and have a high regard for their medical knowledge and management skills. But I’m not a physician assistant nor have I ever pretended to be one.
Again, this was said with no malice, but what on earth is happening this month?
This case of mistaken identity is not isolated to medicine. Imagine being a teacher and having a parent assume your male aide is in fact the head teacher. A woman told me that as a female bouncer, oftentimes when there is a conflict, people look to the guys around her, ignoring her clearly labeled SECURITY tee shirt. Or consider the all too common story of the female attending physician rounding in the hospital whose male medical student is assumed to be in charge, all eyes on him for the plan. None of these mixups come from a place of malice. But, they are hurtful to us as women.
My seven year old daughter received a book about the first woman to run the Boston Marathon for her birthday. Every time I read it to her, I feel emotional, like my heart is in my throat, that feeling you get when watching a deployed soldier surprise their kids with a visit. I am simply grateful for all the women who have paved the way with opportunities for me, mindful of the great strides we have made in the last fifty years. I realize that had I been born a few decades earlier, I wouldn’t have been able to apply to medical school, I would have needed my husband to co-sign for a credit card and I could never have even registered for that marathon.
Maybe I need to be more clear about my role? Introducing myself as Doctor is not enough. I noticed my lab coat is getting grungy and it’s time to order a new one. To kill two birds with one stone, I’m just going to go ahead and drop my name so that no one refers to me by my first name or somehow convinces themselves that I am any other profession than the doctor I identify myself as.
Goodbye: “Lauren Kuwik MD”
Hello: “DOCTOR Kuwik”
Maybe add a gray or balding wig and we can put this whole mistaken identity thing behind us.
Yes, I feel emotional whenever I read that marathon book to my daughter, but you know what her reaction is? Pure astonishment. And this gives me hope for the future, motivating me to work for progress towards a world where anything less than equality brings about astonishment. I want to help shape a world where being mistaken for anything other than the physician I introduced myself as is equally unfathomable.