November 22:  Listening to People’s Stories Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

What a long, strange week.  I almost forgot to write a post, just wanted to relax and do nothing.

Looking back, overall it was good. And it was people who held me up, as always.  I had some pretty moving and meaningful conversations with patients, and I really helped some people, I think.  But it was a new acquaintance who really made my day today.

I finally had time to bring my car to the body shop this afternoon.  After an unfortunate encounter with a fire hydrant while backing out of a very poorly planned driveway, my front bumper has been partially detached for about 7 weeks.  Every single person at this shop was remarkably nice—from the lady on the phone, to the young man who so politely offered to move my car when I parked it in totally the wrong place.  The waiting area was clean, neat, and well lit, with comfy, non-holey chairs.  After a short wait, a petite and pleasant woman, maybe 40, introduced herself.  She would provide the estimate on my repairs.  We headed outside.  She pointed to the ledge at the doorway on which I had tripped walking in, so I would not do it again.

After I brought her to the car she said I could go back inside and wait, but I asked to hang out with her, because I like to see what other people do.  I know less than nothing about cars, and I loved that here was a youngish, friendly woman who clearly knew her way around them.  I admired her right away.  She was thorough and conscientious, looking inside and out.  She was also extremely knowledgeable and patient, showing me everything, talking me through the parts and functions, and answering my ignorant questions, down to how the VIN includes the paint mix of the make, model and year.  She stayed with me through the whole process, including walking me out to show me the key drop box, because they can’t fix my car for another two weeks.

Before we said goodbye I could not help myself.  I told her how happy it makes me to see a woman doing a job that I have only seen men do.  She seemed genuinely proud and thankful for the compliment, and I’m glad I said something.  I didn’t mean to make her stand outside in the cold any longer, but she started reflecting and telling me her story.  Turns out this was her first day on her own at this job—I thought she had done it for years already.  Nope.  She had done inventory for a railroad company, and programmed machines that cut industrial dies.  She had worked in shops and factories of various kinds, it sounded like, always surrounded by and holding her own among men.

I asked her if it feels different (and hopefully better?) being a woman in these male-dominated fields now, after all these years.  She thought for a moment (looking completely comfortable, while I had started shivering already).  It almost seemed like she had never considered the question before?  She concluded that her peers and coworkers have never been the problem.  It’s the customers.

She kept talking, as if the subsequent story had been waiting days for a sympathetic ear.  In her last days of training, a man brought in a car with severe rear body damage, clearly from a collision.  He gave her a history, she made her appraisal, and he was suspicious and dismissive toward her the whole time.  To assuage him, she brought her trainer to review the case, whose assessment and recommendations were the same as hers.  This time the customer told a different story—admitted to lying to her, basically—and accepted the trainer’s evaluation.  No apology, no remorse, no respect.  She was still affected by it today, and upset with herself that she had let him get under her skin.  Whatever, she said in the end, she’s here to do a job, and there will always be people who underestimate her because of her sex.  Thankfully her trainer was an ally, which made me proud of the good men in our midst.

This woman’s life experience, though clearly different from mine, felt relatable and real to me.  In those few minutes, in the waning daylight of a brisk fall evening in Chicago, surrounded by broken cars, I felt solidarity with and pride for her.  It made me better for reminding me once again of our shared humanity:  Hers, mine, my patients’, those crazy drivers on Wednesday, even her lying customer.

We’re all here doing our best with what we’ got.  I firmly believe this, but sometimes I forget.  Hearing folks’ stories always brings me back.  So I’m thankful for them.

 

November 7:  Feedback Makes Me Better

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NaBloPoMo 2019

This post is about power.

Two friends provided important feedback on last night’s post, and I am, gratefully, much better for it.

* * * * *

“You are a woman of color?”

My college friend commented on Facebook.  “Are you being serious?”  I asked him.  Yes, he replied.  He went on to point out that he sees the term being used more broadly, and that he thinks it’s been co-opted.  He made me think, which always makes me better.

In the original post, I described myself as a “petite, young, woman of color doctor,” standing up to an older white man. My friend wrote, “I think disadvantage is baked into the term, why else use it?”  Looking back, I admit I was exaggerating.  I had power on my mind, and I was trying to think of all the ways I should not have power in the situation, and yet I absolutely did, and I recognized it.  But labeling myself a person of color, I realize now, was at least somewhat inappropriate.  I have changed the text to “petite, young, Chinese woman doctor.”  I sincerely apologize if I insulted or offended anyone.

In medicine, East Asians are not considered a disadvantaged minority in the conventional sense (although while we are over-represented compared to the general population, we hold proportionally few leadership roles).  In general, however, I would argue that any non-white person in the US may still experience myriad disadvantages, in any field or situation, even if subtle.  At any point in an encounter, even with ‘MD’ and years of training and expertise behind my name, a white man can always hurl some racist, sexist remark to make me feel small.  He could just as easily attack a fellow white man on the basis of weight, sexual orientation, stature, or some other peculiar distinction, but somehow it feels like my white male colleagues just don’t have to think about this possibility as much as I do.  I feel self-conscious about my gender and race every day at work.  That is why this past spring, when I attended a negotiation skills presentation at the American College of Physicians (ACP) national meeting, I felt particularly gratified that the presenters were two East Asian women and one white man.

* * * * *

“You may want to include physicians as victims in your blog.”

A colleague responded to my post by sharing her story of being verbally attacked by a patient.  She was alone, no witnesses, and he treated staff politely, unlike in my story.  She was ‘dumbstruck and said nothing.’  She wrote, “I think as physicians, we are targets for verbal abuse because we have a privileged profession and would look foolish or weak in defending ourselves.”  In other words, since doctors hold such high societal status (power), people think we should just accept being taken down a notch or two?  That if we express an expectation of respect we are lording our status over others and thus even more justifiably open to insult and ridicule?  I see now how this can make a physician feel like a victim of societal stereotypes and expectations.

That said, I think it doesn’t matter what we do for a living; every person has an absolute right to expect respect from anyone else.  Years ago, another older white male patient made a series of passive aggressive remarks in the space of several minutes at the end of a visit.  I felt they were unfair and uncalled for, as I had spent the entire visit doing my best to connect with and care for him.  After a moment of consideration, knowing it was a risk, I was respectfully direct with him.  I repeated his words and told him that they felt like digs.  He admitted that they were and apologized, and congratulated my courage to call him out.  He never came back to see me.  I feel good about how I handled it; was it a power struggle?  I would have been open to cultivating a mutually respectful and honest relationship, had he returned.

Feedback definitely makes me better.  I will never grow if I only attend to my own point of view.  I don’t have to abandon my own perspective when facing an opposing one, and I am not obligated to incorporate anyone else’s point of view.  But if I expect anyone to take my writing and message seriously, I am required to listen to and try to understand any feedback that is offered in good faith.

Thank you, my friends, for keeping me honest and grounded.

#AtoZChallenge: Every Day A Revolution

Brad Paisley is one of my favorite celebrities. I like him as a person because he likes to have fun and he doesn’t take himself too seriously.  I like his songs because they tell fun stories and also address social issues like racism, sexism, and domestic violence.  I also admire how he uses language and double entendres.  His song “Welcome to the Future” describes how the world has changed over the decades.  From having to go to an arcade to play Pac-Man to having it on his phone; from fighting the Japanese in World War II to collaborating with companies in Tokyo.  He also references the civil rights movement.  One of the lines sings, “He-e-e-y, every day’s a revolution.”

Every day the earth makes one turn on its axis; things keep moving as they always have. It can feel pretty mundane, or utterly reassuring.  On the other hand, every day there may be another kind of revolution, defined by Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary as “activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation.”  I love this dual meaning of the word, as well as the word itself—it rolls off the tongue, strong and steady.  Revolution requires an axis, a center.  A globe rotates steadily, stable in particular dimensions.  On the other hand, social (or personal) revolution requires destabilization, transition, and transformation.

Newton’s law of inertia states that an object at rest tends to stay at rest, unless acted upon by an unbalanced, external force. Inertia relates to the status quo, the way things are and have always been.  An external force does not appear out of nowhere; it must have a source.  When it meets the stationary object, potential energy is converted to kinetic energy—it generates movement.  Once set in motion, the object tends to stay in motion, and voila, progress.  Similarly, chemical reactions require a threshold activation energy to proceed.  Molecular force mounts almost imperceptibly until that threshold is reached, and then the reaction ensues spontaneously, sometimes spectacularly.

Progress can be at once incremental and radical. Considering women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay marriage, for example, history shows us long arcs of people laboring tirelessly for causes over generations, leading finally to pivotal and critical policy changes.  In the first two cases, expansive movements of inclusion have allowed all of us to benefit from the talent, participation, and contributions of formerly excluded and oppressed groups.  Like the turning of an incandescent light bulb, gently, patiently, and consistently in one direction, the steady work of activists eventually leads to sudden and intense illumination.  Darkness becomes light, cold spaces are warmed.

This is the kind of Revolution I seek.