This is my April EM News column. I hope you enjoy it!
How do you define yourself? How do you describe yourself? In the past, I have tried to avoid immediately categorizing myself by my profession. I always agreed with The Little Prince:
“Grown-ups love figures…When you tell them you’ve made a new friend they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead they demand ‘How old is he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince.
Taken from https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/2180358-le-petit-prince
And yet, we do this constantly. Physicians especially love to divide ourselves into groups. Each group has its own characteristics. Most of those reading this (but not all) are EM docs (ER docs if you’re older), also known sometimes as ‘pit docs.’ There are internists, or fleas. Surgeons, or cutters. Anesthesiologists, or gas passers. Pediatricians, or pediatrons. Radiologists, or shadow doctors. Orthopedists, or carpenters. (I kid!) This is a natural division as our specialties are our big, nerdy fraternities and sororities. They are the places we learn to make our living, establish habits of thought and behavior, create world-views and life-long friendships.
Unfortunately, it goes much further than specialty. We are divided between rural and urban, and there are significant problems in that chasm, as physicians in urban teaching centers sometimes have little knowledge of the stark limitations of the rural setting when we call for help or transfers. ‘You don’t have a surgeon? You don’t have an ICU?’ Likewise, rural physicians often forget that even ‘the big house,’ eventually reaches capacity and can’t take transfers; and the presence of the large center (or a helicopter) is no excuse for sloppy care on the outside.
We are also demarcated by into ‘community vs academic.’ In my medical wanderings over the past few years, I have found that this is a point of contention with many community physicians. Research, treatment pathways, algorithms, check-lists and new imperatives seem to constantly emanate from academic centers and flow to the community hospital and its citizens. Community physicians, many of whom have lived through countless swings of the medical pendulum and associated policy changes, are often reasonably skeptical of the latest study, the latest rule about pain medications or sepsis protocols. They feel cut-off from what they perceive is a connection between academics and policy-makers, and they feel particularly excluded if, later in life, they have an interest in entering academia, which seems like a closed club.
Physicians are also increasingly divided by gender and sexuality, as we see various physician advocacy groups pop-up. That’s fine, I suppose, so long as it doesn’t split us further apart but serves as a source of encouragement and connection for the members of those groups. (It becomes toxic when it is used as an exclusionary tool. I was told once that my opinion in a debate was less relevant because I was a ‘straight white male.’)
However, our divisions seem to be at their worst when it comes to politics. And it’s a pity, really, because we have such potential to be models for the rest of the world. I have seen physicians argue politics in person and online. I have been part of some of those debates, and it can be very, very ugly. I have recently withdrawn from most political dialog because it wastes time, causes anger and accomplishes nothing.
But I will give this ‘opinion’ and stand by it. I’ve worked with physicians who were Christian like me, Muslim, Hindu and atheist. I have worked beside ardent progressives and hard-core conservatives who make me look like a socialist (and that’s tough to do). I have worked with physicians who were gay and straight, rural and urban, academic and purely clinical. I’ve laughed and cried with them, eaten with them, encouraged and been encouraged by them. And I’d do it all over again. Because when it comes to our job, our real job of treating the sick, easing suffering and saving the dying, all of our differences evaporate into vapor.
So identify yourself by whatever category you wish. But never forget that we can serve as a model for unity, a model for the greatness of all free people, when we do our jobs well, and do them together for the good of others.
Now, what’s your favorite food? What’s your hobby? Tell me about your wife, husband and children. Because those categories interest me more than all the rest.