I have read countless articles about how medical trainees have been berated and belittled, yelled at or pushed. I have never in my years of training felt that way or been treated that way. Yes, I’ve been questioned strongly. Yes, with lines of questioning sometimes called “pimping.” I have felt like I needed to study for 40 more hours and have gone into the bathroom afterward to cry, but I’ve never been berated. I’ve never been pushed. I never even thought of what I would say or do in those situations. I have heard my share of racist and sexist remarks and have found ways of addressing it directly and highlighting to the team why it’s unacceptable. But what would I do if someone directly belittled or disrespected me? Would I cry? Would my knees buckle? Would I yell?
Well, that all ended when a Pediatric Surgery Attending told me, “You’re full of it” in front of my staff while I was working in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. This particular Surgeon has a history of yelling at Resident Physicians that I learned of after the incident. That night, I was caring for a postoperative patient who had just left the operating room. During interdisciplinary sign out I asked for clarification of a medication dose as I was preparing to enter routine orders such as for PCA-administered pain medicine. The Surgeon turned and said, “No, we will enter the orders” meaning the Surgery Residents. I told him that in my experience PICU Residents enter the orders and manage the PICU patients. He said, “No, who trained you, this is my patient?” I looked around and of course, everyone was staring at their feet. I was in my second month of PICU service and had heard countless times how our unit was a “closed unit” and that we managed our own patients, but this gruff, aggressively self-confident, tall male Attending with salt and pepper hair and a fresh tan was staring me down. I said, “You will need to speak with my Attending because this is not what I have been trained to do.” He turned, stomped away, and snuck in a low, yet completely audible, “You’re full of it.”
I stopped in my tracks and said more audibly, “Excuse me, but you just said ‘You’re full of it.’”I paused, collected myself and continued: “I feel very uncomfortable, and that was disrespectful. It is not appropriate to speak to trainees that way. I only want to provide excellent patient care.” He froze. When he turned around he had a look of utter contempt and disbelief; it was like no one had ever told him he cannot speak to people that way. His eyebrows furrowed and he spit out, “Well, I’m sorry,” and turned around. At that moment, my Attending arrived and my Fellow said, “Well, I’m glad you said it because I was about to.” I quickly excused myself as my hands began to shake and the pounding in my ears began to dull everything else out. I exited the unit, and sank onto the bathroom floor and cried. Big crocodile tears as my grandmother would say. I was anxious and nervous, but I was damned proud of sticking up for myself.
My PICU Attending found me later and asked me what had happened. I explained the facts and he shrugged and said, “I’ve heard worse,” and told me something about how that Peds Surgeon had cursed at him during his Residency. I told him that I hadn’t heard worse and had never experienced that type of behavior but that I thought it was unacceptable to speak to any member of the team that way. He shrugged and said he would address it with the Surgeon later. As I entered the Unit, the Nurses individually applauded me for speaking up the way that I had. I asked a trusted Nurse mentor if she thought I handled it well and she said I nailed it, and my Fellow echoed the sentiment. I didn’t get emotional, I said what I needed to say, and kept it focused on the patient. One of the Peds Surgery Chiefs came up to me later and had heard about it and gave me a quiet nod of support. She agreed that Surgery Residents who did not spend the night in the hospital should be consulted but they shouldn’t be the ones putting in orders since the PICU Residents are the ones who stay in house overnight. It’s a patient safety issue.
Many thanks to a different fabulous PICU Attending who a week earlier coached us on working in uncomfortable situations. She told us to use words such as “uncomfortable” and “unsafe” and keep things focused on the patient. Without her words, I probably would have shut down, my knees buckled and I wouldn’t have been able to say things in a way that would have gotten any response from that Peds Surgery Attending. I still believe, “You’re full of it” has no place when we are caring for patients.
I spoke on a panel earlier this year sponsored by the Student National Medical Association. They asked a group of underrepresented minority Attendings and Residents to discuss discrimination in medicine. I shuddered as I listened to the horror stories the Black and Latino Attending Physicians recounted. I think I would have quit if I had to endure the downright hostile environments they practiced in in their early careers. I don’t discount the real experiences highlighted by other trainees around the country and applaud them for their candor in sharing. I hope that we all are continuing to work so that abuse and disrespect are not allowed, and when they do occur can be apologized for and learned from.