Tuesday, October 16, 2007
... And A Pink Carnation*
Before arriving in town to begin life as a practicing surgeon, I got a call from my pre-assigned medical assistant, asking what size and style white coat I'd prefer. Well, I thought, these guys think of everything. This private practice stuff might be cool. But then I wondered, who says I have to -- or even want to -- wear a white coat? Having spent the past ten years or so wearing the white coats of learning, and despite thinking those thigh-length ones that some of the professors wore looked pretty spiffy, I couldn't wait to get out of them. I'd also noted that in the teaching hospitals at which I'd spent all my time, the full-time professors were generally the only ones who wore white coats. The private guys mostly didn't. Not that I was emulating one or the other. But it said there was a choice, and I went nolo-alba.
I've only owned a couple of suits in my life, but I do have a few sport coats, and that's what I wore in practice. Always, back then, with a tie. Gathering dust in my closet are a couple of racks of generally garish and outlandish ties which, for some reason, I chose to wear for several years.
Ahead of my time (recent reports have, disgustingly, showed the amount of bacteria lugged from room to room on doctors' ties), I long ago ditched the ties. Within a couple more years, it was shirt and slacks sans coat, and that's where it stayed for the rest of my time in practice (now, as an assistant, I show up in jeans and whatever.)
Without any data or real basis for it, I'd always felt that white coats were off-putting; a barrier, of sorts. There is, after all, the white coat syndrome. But it really wasn't a plan, or even an overtly thoughful decision. I just didn't feel right in a white coat in my office, and the subsequent divestments were simply a matter of comfort. The only time I got negative feedback was when my mother asked my wife why she couldn't get me to dress better. A generational thing, on several levels.
It changed when I did my surgical hospitalist gig. Then, it was a considered decision. I figured it most practical if I were to spend the day wearing scrubs, and whereas there are usually available some scruboid cover gowns for running out from the OR to the floors, I figured a little decorum was called for. In particular, since I'd be seeing patients only in a hospital setting, people acutely ill having a surgeon thrust upon them cold, I thought some visual cues would be good. So I ordered, for the first time in about twenty-five years, some of those nice patrician thigh-length jobbies. With my name, MD, and Department of Surgery embroidered thereon.
Funny thing. I really liked wearing them. And it wasn't just because of the capacious pockets (I'm a surgeon: the stethoscope does NOT go around the neck. Plus, there's note cards, several rolls of paper tape, couple of gauze pads...) As I frequently lacked the time to establish rapport which the office setting tends to afford, that coat was an anthropomorphic business card. This guy's legit, it said. To a potential patient already in tough shape and low on time to think things over, that's good. Worn with scrubs, it was a way to be comfortable and appear serious. Looking back, I suppose I could have been wrong all those years.
*Only old people and/or dorky ones will get the musical reference.