Friday, September 17, 2010

Friendship and Female Physicians II

Over a year ago I wrote a post about the challenges of making friends as a female physician. I cross-posted it on my own blog, and the comment boards on both blogs were pretty interesting. I'm back for a visit here because the topic has generated a lot of reflection for me lately, once again.

One of my best friends in med school was an O.B. nurse. Though she has moved almost all the way across the country and I haven't seen her since I was in school, we're still in touch and expect to be seeing each other at last in a couple of months.

By some coincidence one of my best friends now is also an O.B. nurse. I'll call her Ziva (yes, I watch a lot of NCIS). Ziva is from Israel. She is smart and funny, a lover of books and movies and good music and good food, talented and competent, and above all a great and generous person I would entrust with my children's lives. Ziva and I can talk about just about anything - silly "girl stuff," deep intellectual stuff, spiritual questions, moral/ethical dilemmas, work stress, kids, comic moments from day-to-day life, worries about tough problems, faults and failings, embarrassing secrets, cultural differences, things that inspire us or bring us joy.

For some reason, her colleagues are very uncomfortable with our friendship and underhandedly persecute her for it with snide comments and not-so-veiled criticisms. One time I arrived to provide a spinal for a C-section. Ziva was already in the room counting instruments, and one of the other nurses said, "Oh, are you happy now - your friend's here." Another time she happened to mention that she and I had recently discussed the mechanics of intubation, and in front of all the other nurses one of her other colleagues made some critical remark about her being friends with me. When Ziva called her on it, saying "What's wrong with that? T. is SO nice! She's totally adorable," the other nurse said, "I have no desire to be friends with T. I have my OWN friends." Ziva found this nurse's comments and the tone in which she said them disrespectful and hurtful. Many of the other nurses can barely conceal the clouds of disapproval and resentment that darken their looks when Ziva and I greet each other cheerfully at the nurses' station.

"They feel threatened," my husband said.

"But if I were a single, tall, good-looking MALE doctor it would be FINE for a nurse to be close to me, right? Isn't that totally self-demeaning of these women? Sure, it's ok to befriend a man in a position of authority, but it's somehow wrong if it's a woman?" I was totally frustrated and irritated that the culture in this workplace wouldn't tolerate a genuine close friendship between a female doctor and a nurse.

Ziva and I do not flaunt our relationship in professional situations. I feel I am just as business-like with Ziva while delivering patient care as I am with any other team member, and conversely, just as nice with the other team members as I am with her and with the patients and with any colleague. But there's a lot going on here. Gender issues. Cultural issues. Xenophobia, or, even worse, maybe some anti-Semitism. And perhaps status issues. Maybe they think nurses and doctors can't or shouldn't be friends (unless, of course, it's a dating situation between a male doctor and a female nurse). Or maybe they feel Ziva's smarter and more highly trained and better educated than they are and they just can't stand it.

I am feeling exasperated and a little angry. This type of collective attitude is completely stupid and unnecessary. I don't know that there's much I can do about it. I'm certainly not going to change this blessed friendship for the sake of a few small-minded harpies who aren't comfortable enough in their own skin to show some tolerance, respect, and support.

-T. from Notes of an Anesthesioboist


  1. If you were a man, it wouldn't be a "friendship" it would be a flirtation. They might hate her anyway.

    Maybe pay some extra special attention to some of the other nurses. Go out of your way to be nice, ask their opinion about something (even if you don't like them or they are rude to you). Kill them with kindness. Bring in food for them. Maybe that will help. They probably just see that Ziva is the favorite and hate her because of it.

  2. I do all that, believe it or not, OMDG. That's generally my demeanor to most team members of whatever service I'm interacting with. The difference with Ziva is that we actually interact on a personally meaningful level outside of work, something the other nurses have already intimated they wouldn't care to share (nor would I with most of them - you just click with some people, and not with others, you know?). So if they don't want what Ziva and I have, why hate her for having it? Childish.

  3. I feel you. I'm a lawyer, not a doctor, and until recently, didn't work with any lawyers I could be friends with. Nice guys, but 60 years old and, well, guys. So I was friends with the legal assistants, which carries a similar connotation to doctors being friends with nurses. The difference in my situation is that I was younger than the majority of them, so I guess they didn't think of me as much of a "boss"... so they were pretty good- and motherly- to me.

    Of course, not all of them were older than me... and the one who was randomly assigned as my paralegal three years ago is now my daughter's godmother, and since she's applying at my new firm, we're trying not to make an issue of how close we are. Just because.

  4. Sounds like a tough crowd, T. Sometimes you just can't win. It's a shame.

  5. Okay, I know I'm breaking code here, and I'm not usually very fond of generalizations, but alot of nurses are just like that. I'm an m1, but I was an RN in the OR for four years before that and I know exactly what you're talking about. From my experience, nurses feel some strange need to assert themselves around doctors. With male doctors, flirting will often result in a sort of neutralization of these defensive feelings. When flirting isn't an option, I've seen female nurses with one of two reactions towards doctors: a sense of respect and admiration or an arrogant, carry distaste for them. I have decided the issue is usually that women don't typically have alot of respect for other women. Maybe it's competition, maybe it's jealousy. I don't know. When I started back to school for my premed, my manager completely turned on me and brought me before HR twice to get me fired (of course both were ridiculous and thrown out).
    Then again, you may be onto something with the biases re ethnicity, etc. I was always shocked at how much bigotry and xenophobia I found at work. Sounds like you're doing just fine though, and your friend obviously thinks the relationship is worth it. :)

  6. I've become really good friends with one of the gross room physician's assistants at work. Pretty open about it, too. None of this seems to exist in the lab, thank goodness. I also go to movies with a night histotech on my weekends without kids. In contrast to what you are dealing with, my cool factor actually was upped among all the other techs. I feel lucky to work in a nerdy lab where I don't have to play junior high games because of the friends I choose.

    I do remember stuff like this on my clinical rotations in med school, so I empathize.

  7. Alas, barefoot is right. Alot of nurses ARE like that, and it's the same now as when I was a resident (ulp) 30 years ago. Back then it was pretty hard to find a female doctor to be friends with because there were so very few. It made for a lot of lonely years for folks who didn't make friendships outside of medicine. Now they still don't make friends much and I think it's more a matter of time deficiency. I expect your problem has a lot more to do with gender and doctor-nurse issues than it does with ethnicity.

  8. How frustrating and juvenile. I wonder if these other nurses were able to view their behavior from the outside, if they'd realize how ridiculous they are being.

  9. This is pretty awful. But true friendship is really hard to find, and you should absolutely treasure it no matter the circumstances at work. A friend/colleague and I were talking about how we have so few woman friends anymore. Now that we have young kids, our social lives revolve around our kids. The times we are able to talk to other parents, half our attention is on the kids anyway. I hope you and "Ziva" continue to be firm friends for a very very long time!

  10. In some ways I hate to bring up this issue, but how do the other nurses know you are so close to Ziva? If they accidentally find out about an outside of work activity, so be it. But if they are made aware because of conversations at work, that is bound to cause trouble. Friendship is valuable whenever found - but really should not become an issue in the workplace. If you were a male physician dating Ziva, would you let the other nurses know about it? Remember the kindergarten rules - no passing out birthday party invites at school unless everyone is invited.

  11. Not to sound snarky, but when a male physician's dating a nurse, EVERYONE knows about it.

    And I'm sorry but I disagree about the "party invites at school." Kindergarten rules have their purpose, but THIS ISN'T KINDERGARTEN, despite what the other nurses' behavior may suggest. We're adults. We can be friends with whomever we want and should NOT have to walk on eggshells around people or go out of our way to HIDE our friendships. That's just PUERILE.

    I wrote in the post that we don't flaunt our friendship during clinical interactions; on the same token, behind the scenes in the lounge areas or in the break room, we don't bend over backward HIDING the fact that we can talk to each other about our families, how our day is going, etc. That would be SILLY. We don't broadcast that we hang out together outside of work, nor do we make it a big secret, because it isn't.

    If our cordial conversations at work bother them simply because there's actually MUTUAL RESPECT and bidirectional kindness between us, I think it says a lot more about THEM and their usual behavior than about us. Ziva and I make a pretty consistent effort, I believe, to be uniformly nice to everyone around us, which is more than I can say for Ziva's colleagues.

  12. I can only chime in from the nursing side. From my view, it seems that many nurses are a bit in awe of docs in general, and some seem afraid to be friends with some one so much more important than they (no, not being sarcastic).

    So...they get mean or aloof instead. Others may be harboring a good-sized chip on their shoulders, especially the "I coulda been a doctor, too, except for______" (name an excuse).

    Others have the chip because they know they really AREN'T bright enough or hard working enough to be a doc, and resent everyone "above them" a a generic sort of loathing. ( Especially if the nurse and doc are both female, and heaven help us, wives and mothers, as it takes THAT excuse for not going to med school off the table.)

    At any rate, don't let his get in the way of your friendship. Sounds like your friend can hold her own with the cattier of her fellow nurses!

    Pattie, RN

  13. so any advice on how to easily blend in and make friends with the sahm folks that are the moms of your kid's friends?
    at work, i am friendly to my techs, but do not think it would be wise to do stuff outside of work with them. revealing private things is the nature of true friendship and it could go bad down the road if the workfriendship didn't work out.

  14. Anesthesioboist,
    I almost cried when I read this. Just found your blog recently. I am also an anesthesiologist (and Jewish). Have experience everything you're talking about! Have cried over it all as I have always been popular, cute, unintimidating, love people, etc. Nobody looks to be my friend-not in my neighborhood. The hospital becomes your life. I have a "friend"-nondoctor-who even said "when I first heard you were a doctor, I didn't want to have anything to do with you."! I think I was also tortured beyond belief as a resident for being an attractive woman!
    I would be your friend!

  15. Supermom - Thanks so much! Nice to know it's not just me. I don't have the "attractive woman" issue but I imagine that just adds a whole other (completely unnecessary) layer of difficulty for you.

    Hang in there! It's been my experience that the friendships we CAN make end up being worthwhile precisely because they arise between people who aren't focused on, or erecting, bogus barriers.



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